ALL the ways I’d imagined today going, this particular scenario never crossed my mind. I thought I’d been through the worst of it already, what with the unbearable heat in the claustrophobic cabin, the crap visibility, the two tyres that self-combusted at ridiculous speeds, and then the stony, unforgiving mouth of a police officer appearing at my window flap, but this, well this is something else entirely.
I’m stuck, having just buried a $600,000 WRC car up to its axles in soft sand. And bloody Chris Atkinson isn’t helping.
Australia’s most successful rally driver of the modern era is strapped into the passenger seat and instead of providing some much-needed words of comfort, all he says is “Yeah…we’re in trouble.”
Driving a fully fledged, fire-spitting WRC car is rare. Being given one for two whole days after it’s just finished a WRC round with a blessing to “do whatever you want” is almost unheard of.
Which is why I’d used the weeks leading up to today visualising how I’d spend my 48 hours in Hyundai’s i20 WRC car. Mostly this involved executing long, spectacular drifts, pivoting around tight hairpin turns and delivering pinpoint placement on tricky roads. Not bogging the thing on a private beach without a recovery vehicle in sight.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because while this story is destined to end in crushing disappointment, it begins with something far more thrilling: an explosion.
IT’S the day after the final round of the 2016 World Rally Championship, and as I arrive at the dusty, ferociously hot piece of bush outside of Coffs Harbour, Hayden Paddon’s i20 limps into sight.
Hyundai’s 29-year-old Kiwi factory driver is moving slowly and as he swings beneath the tent that makes up the team’s makeshift workshop, I see bits of bodywork have been blown clean off.
“It just exploded,” says Paddon in his slow NZ vowel tangle, pointing to the front right tyre. I don’t doubt him. The front right corner looks like it’s taken a hit from an IED. “It’s the heat,” Paddon adds. “The rubber can’t handle it.”
I briefly panic that this incident might derail my plans to drive Paddon’s car away from the service park – the damage to the front bar, headlight and right wheelarch is severe – but then an army of Hyundai mechanics descend on the wounded beast.
They sweat in the 43-degree heat and bend and break parts with a ruthlessness that is poles apart from the cool, clinical world of Formula 1. One WRC mechanic even uses a rock to bend the i20’s wire grille back into shape.
It’s when the metallic banging ends that I learn this isn’t the first time a tyre has exploded on Paddon today.
“One let go on the downhill section when I was flat-out in sixth gear,” he says as we watch another crewmember recreate his front wheelarch entirely from race tape.
WRC cars are strictly two seaters, with a spare wheel, a jack, helmet nets and metres of complex roll-cage tubing replacing the regular i20’s back seat. The worn suede steering wheel mightn’t have the computing power of its Formula 1 equivalent, but remains a crucial interface for the driver. Key knobs control the Anti Lag System (which has five levels of intensity), the gearbox ferocity and the Launch Control. Buttons are used to operate the blinkers, wipers and horn. A small Motec unit mounted on top of the exposed steering column projects hordes of information, including speed, oil and water temperature, and rpm, aided by shift lights that glow as you hone in on the 8000rpm redline.
With the 2016 season now over – Paddon claimed fourth in the championship in this very car – today is being used to ferry VIPs, and lowly journos, around an intimidating, jump-ridden super special stage used in Rally Oz.
With that complete, Paddon will skip home to New Zealand and chuck me the keys. Providing nothing else goes wrong, of course.
So what to do with a snarling, slightly unhinged WRC car for 48 hours? Well, with the rally’s special stages closed (I checked, trust me), and two days left on the i20’s international registration (making it fully road legal), my plan is simple. WRC cars are designed to monster rally stages, but what are they like to drive in the real world? The route back to Coffs Harbour is littered with decent driving roads, but what I really want to know is; can a highly strung WRC car handle an urban jungle full of round-a-bouts, blind junctions and stop-start traffic?
I’ll also visit a Macca’s drive-thru, because, well, a man’s gotta eat, right? And don’t worry that I’ve taken this whole ‘fish out of water’ experiment too far. I’ve lined up a private beach (something I’ll later regret) to give the i20 a proper hiding and to revel in three of the most exciting letters in world motorsport: ALS – the international acronym for Anti Lag System.
Before I can do any of this, though, I have to get the i20 started, which, among other things, involves operating its vicious, vindictive clutch.
You’d imagine that being given custody of a $600,000 racing car would bring a certain amount of baggage. If this were Formula 1, there’d be a small army of seriousfaced engineers and a truck’s worth of support gear.
Things are different in the WRC. With Paddon gone, his car sits alone, its battle-scarred nose pointing uphill. I stand next to it, drink in its aggressive, angular bodywork and absurdly high ride height in its Rally Oz gravel set-up, and wait politely for someone to show me how it works.
Eventually I realise this isn’t going to happen – the team is busy packing things onto a flatbed truck – so I glance furtively over my shoulder, open the plastic door and climb in.
If it’s hot outside, then the i20’s cabin resembles the surface of the sun. There’s no air-con, of course, just tiny flaps in the Perspex windows and two crude, roughly cut tubes in the roof to syphon in Coff Harbour’s stifling air at speed.
At least I fit. My lanky frame mirrors Paddon’s almost perfectly so the controls – the machined metal pedals, the worn suede steering wheel and the huge, baton-like hydraulic handbrake – all fall naturally to hand.
And what a cabin it is.
Racing car interiors always convey a brutal sense of purpose. Wires and pipes litter the i20’s footwells, exposed carbon lines the doors, and switches and buttons spike the dash and centre console, the biggest emblazoned with words like ‘SOS’ and ‘FIRE’. It’s a cramped, claustrophobic cage of metal that’s as extraordinarily ugly as it is captivatingly beautiful. It’s also fiendishly complicated. With no ‘key’ to speak of, I flick a few of the more innocent-looking switches, then prod the clutch pedal, which, while tiny, is so stiff and heavy that it requires a surprising amount of force.
Licence to thrill The legalities of driving a snarling, snorting World Rally car on the road are interesting. WRC cars are initially registered in Europe and are deemed road legal throughout the world by utilising the international licencing system. In Australia, the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development controls the registration, which is approved for a certain period of time and carries a strict mandate that the car is only used for driving to and from motorsport events. Drivers are also required to hold a CAMS and/or FIA licence to drive the cars, neither of which I have. Not that the police even asked. We had two discussions with the local authorities during our two-day adventure and in both instances the officers were polite and genuinely curious about the i20. One even agreed to pretend to write me a ticket.
I feel hopelessly lost until the passenger door opens and David plonks himself into the co-driver’s seat.
He’s the i20’s chief mechanic, my chaperone and most importantly, the skeleton key for unlocking the car’s complex character.
He explains the start procedure, which begins, rather oddly, by pressing the KILL ENG and START buttons simultaneously. This results in some ticking and hissing from the hydraulics as crucial systems come up to pressure, and only then am I allowed to hold down the start button a second time.
The starter motor whirrs, the engine catches and four angry cylinders burst into action with a brraaaaap that sends a shockwave through the car. It’s as though the entire i20 has come to life, the engine’s thrashing sending vibrations of communication through the steering wheel and the seat of my pants.
Like the chassis, the 1.6-litre four-cylinder is lifted from the i20 road car, but only the basic block is carried over. Everything else is manufactured by Hyundai motorsport’s engine builder to improve durability, driveability and, of course, performance.
But the fitment of a 33mm air restrictor to meet FIA regulations means power remains at a modest 224kW, although torque is a stout 400Nm.
I test the throttle, which, like the clutch, is stiffer than I expect and the engine responds with a fizz, a bombardment of noises from the exhaust, valves, chains and fuel pumps bouncing around the cabin.
It’s an angry, all-consuming cacophony, like a hive of bees after Winnie the Pooh has visited, accompanied by deep huffs and puffs from the turbo. I pull the enormous, half-moon carbonfibre paddle to engage first gear in the six-speed Xtrac sequential ’box (pull for up, push for down) and we’re away.
Only we aren’t, because inevitably, I stall.
More revs this time, ride the clutch and we surge forward, pointing the nose towards Coffs. It takes less than 500 metres to realise the i20 WRC is unlike anything else I’ve ever driven. It’s certainly poles apart from a normal i20, which is no longer sold in Australia.
In an effort to keep the category relevant, the WRC car’s chassis is plucked from the same production line as the road car, but it’s heavily modified by Hyundai’s engineers (the 2570mm wheelbase is unchanged, but Paddon’s car is marginally shorter overall and almost 100mm wider) to fit the roll cage and the bespoke, and gobsmackingly expensive, suspension componentry.
“Oh yes, one Reiger damper costs more than $16,000,” says David with a wry smile. Combine this with miles of suspension travel and you’d expect the i20 to ride with the plushness of a Rolls-Royce, but strangely, it doesn’t. Instead you float along, the suspension ironing out ruts and bumps with impervious ease, but rather than being isolated from the road, you feel everything. Every change in surface, every jolt as nobbled gravel-spec tyres run over rocks and potholes.
Even at low speeds, the i20 provides a constant stream of communication, but what’s less desirable is the poor visibility. The huge, wingback Sabelt bucket seats mean I can’t see anything behind three and nine o’clock, and the tiny wing mirrors are useless thanks to the layer of red Aussie dust caked on the windows.
All this makes pulling onto the freeway something of an issue. David’s no help either. His co-driver’s seat is much lower than mine to improve the car’s centre of gravity (navigators don’t need to look through the windscreen) and even if he strains he can’t see through the passenger window. Tucked away as he is, the poor bugger looks like a tiny, rather worried garden gnome.
Things only worsen as we get closer to town. With the freeway behind us, we run into heavy traffic on the edges of Coffs Harbour and I begin to realise the folly of our mission.
If the clutch was tricky at the service park, it’s brutal in stop-start traffic. Round-a-bouts pose a unique problem too. WRC drivers sit on the left side of the car, which only compounds the limited visibility, and means plunging into moving traffic is often a “fling it in and hope nothing’s coming” affair.
The lack of air-conditioning is becoming an issue too.
It’s so hot that David and I drive along with our hands squeezed through the Perspex flaps and at traffic lights, we crack open the doors and wave them about in a desperate attempt to encourage air flow.
We’re not the only ones who are uncomfortable.
Despite the noise, the i20 buzzed along the freeway at 110km/h in sixth with ease, but in traffic it feels like a caged animal. It jerks and jigs, bumps and grinds, so what to do? Take a risk and open the taps a little?
The heavy police presence after the weekend’s rally suggests this isn’t a good idea – we’ve been stopped once already – but an empty slip road near the Big Banana provides an opportunity to sink the boot in.
The change is shocking. With the throttle pinned and a fraction of steering lock on, the i20 jumps onto its tippy toes, the front and rear diffs tightening and the
rear axle edging into easily controlled oversteer.
Is it fast? Not especially. Nailing the throttle doesn’t see the nose surge forward with the fury of a Ferrari, or even the latest crop of hot hatches, but it does feel fast. While first gear is quite long, the other ratios are stacked like dominoes so you’re constantly pulling or pushing the huge black shift paddle. It makes driving the i20 a busy experience, and each shift is ferociously violent, the dog box’s cogs slamming home with shocking conviction.
All too soon we’re back in city traffic, until the golden arches appear on the horizon and we pull in to catch our breath. It’s as we chew our burgers that I realise David looks like he’s close to a nervous breakdown – in many ways this car is more his than Paddon’s – so we decide to call it a day and to head straight for the beach in the morning.
If the slip road had provided a taste of the i20’s potential, the next day proves it was nothing to how a WRC car feels with kilometres of fresh, empty sand laid out before it. Hyundai has brought Chris Atkinson down to make sure I don’t get too carried away, and within minutes we’re tracing long, beautiful arcs into the soft surface as I pull on the handbrake to encourage more and more angle. The steering is light, pin sharp and accurate, and the handling is remarkably adjustable, with even tiny steering inputs resulting in sharp changes of direction. It might be a hardcore, fire-spitting thoroughbred, but you drive the i20 with a light touch and delicate fingers.
On the harder stuff it skims along at ferocious speed, the suspension working its magic, and on my third pass, I twirl the dial on the steering wheel marked “ALS”. For a few short minutes, I revel in the engine’s extra fury and urge as unspent fuel is spat into the turbocharger and the buzzing fury of the engine is turned up to 11. But then disaster strikes.
Looking back, I blame Atkinson. With my foot buried, the rear sliding and our trajectory closing rapidly on an especially soft-looking piece of sand, Atkinson begins to shout and wave his hands about. I’d later learn he was telling me to hit the clutch to pivot the rear even
further to miss the sand, but in the heat of the moment I did the worst thing possible. I stopped.
WRC cars aren’t heavy – FIA regs dictate a minimum weight of 1200kg – but on soft sand and with a heavy clutch pedal, they are easy to bog.
Cue my stomach-gripping, face-colouring sense of shame, but things aren’t as dire as they seem. Atkinson piles out, and with a few shoves on the bonnet and some gentle rocking in reverse, we’re free. We hoon back down the beach – sand flying, diffs grinding, exhaust popping – but all too soon my time in the i20 is over.
I’m bundled out of the driver’s seat and as it trundles away to be flown back to Korea, where it will be put on display at Hyundai HQ, I’m left to reflect on that fact that it’s likely to be the most exciting Hyundai I’ll ever drive. Unless of course the team is willing to lend me its 2017 car. By the time you read this, new FIA regulations mean Paddon’s i20 will have been replaced with an even faster, even more powerful and even angrier-looking version. Imagine trying to bog that.
Bigger brother If Hyundai’s WRC car looked out of place on public roads, it’s nothing to how its 2017 replacement is going to seem when Rally Oz rolls back around in November. Sweeping rule changes are being implemented to make WRC significantly faster, more powerful and look even wilder, as the FIA strives to make the sport more exciting and attract more fans. Dramatic aero with larger wings, wider hips and lower front splitters, plus the return of electronically controlled centre diffs, will bring higher cornering speeds and slash stage times, while changes under the bonnet will see power outputs increase by almost a third. Capacity remains the same at 1.6 litres, but a less intrusive air restrictor for the turbo means outputs will read 284kW/450Nm, up 60kW/50Nm. There’ll be new manufacturers too, with former heavyweight Toyota returning after an 18 year absence with its Yaris WRC challenger, pictured right.