These are trying times for the new Hyundai WRC team. Both of its brand-new i20 WRC contenders were eliminated in the first stage of the 2014 season opener, the Monte Carlo rally.
More teething troubles have followed in the second round of the World Rally Championship: Rally Sweden, which is taking place over the next three days. At the time of writing, German Hyundai driver Thierry Neuville has suffered a huge 41min delay, after having to make two sets of running repairs to a damaged wheel carrier only 5 miles into the first stage.
Yet there’s already green shoots: before the damage, Neuville fell an agonising 0.5sec short of the new Hyundai team’s first WRC stage win on Special Stage Five.
This is only Hyundai’s second rally event following a decade-long absence from the sport. During that time, Citroen and Sebastien Loeb have dominated the series, winning nine straight world titles.
More recently, Loeb’s departure has opened the door for VW’s big-budget Polo R WRC operation, and much success for the reigning world champion, Sebastien Ogier.
Hyundai reckons it really can challenge the rallying giants, however, and by coming so close to winning a atge already, the signs are that success isn't far away.
So, how do you build a world rally squad? Citroen and VW developed their teams after years contesting rally-raid enduros; Subaru and Ford outsourced to Prodrive and M-Sport.
Hyundai is taking a rather different approach. Last January its WRC team didn’t exist; now, it has contested the Monte Carlo and will enter all 12 other events on the 2014 calendar. The twist? The nascent team is doing it all in-house. It’s a massive task, one that carries the risk of high-profile public embarrassment.
The Korean manufacturer is not new to WRC, but it has been absent for some time: it last contested the championship in 2003, but partnered with UK-based Motorsport Developments (MSD). The relationship failed for two reasons, according to an insider: ‘The Korean corporate culture is very hierarchical – they like to be in control – but MSD was out of their control. Hyundai R&D should have been involved from the start, but they were just handing out engines for tuning and that was that.’
The second reason was that MSD initially pitched a low budget, expecting to increase it incrementally. Hyundai, however, demanded results first, and the partnership ground to a chicken-and-egg impasse.
With Shell as its naming sponsor, this time Hyundai has employed experienced motorsport engineer Michel Nandan to build a new team in Frankfurt. Nandan, a man whose 25 years in the trade includes stints at Toyota and Peugeot WRC, is well aware of the struggle ahead.
‘I’ve never had to build a team from scratch, so it really is a big challenge, but I know the motorsport business and it’s easy to know what you need, how to equip the building and, of course, I am not doing it alone.’
One of the hardest elements, says Nandan, is personnel recruitment. ‘When you choose people, you must be sure that they will be able to work together, that they have a good team spirit, because our people come from different areas and from different types of motorsport. That’s why a lot of the key people I’ve recruited, I’ve known from before.’
Despite corporate Korea’s hierarchical structure, Nandan claims to have a ‘completely free hand to choose people and organise the team’, but the choice of car has been more restrictive. With rivals fielding B-segment hatches (Ford Fiesta, Citroen DS3, VW Polo) to meet strictly controlled regulations, Hyundai will enter its comparable i20. The i20 is compact, on sale in most WRC territories and has enough space to accommodate a four-wheel-drive transmission and the extended wheel travel that’s essential for gravel rallies.
Tests began only in July 2013, but have continued every other week as the schedule ramps up. ‘The durability side is not bad,’ Nandan revealed in 2013, ‘but we need to work on performance and set-up.’ With Rally Sweden looming in February, the i20 won’t be assessed on snow until December, and there’ll be no warm-up events ahead of the Monte Carlo in January, either.
Spearheading Hyundai’s assault is driver Thierry Neuville, a 25-year-old Belgian who lacked experience during his 2012 debut with Citroen, but whose raw speed and newfound consistency gelled at M-Sport in 2013. It took Neuville to a surprise second place in the championship, behind Volkswagen’s Sebastien Ogier.
It’s perhaps debutants VW and Ogier’s success that casts the longest shadow over Hyundai. Team boss Jost Capito talked down VW’s first-year competitiveness for 2013, but he had considerably more resources at his disposal this time last year than Nandan does right now. Capito didn’t need to recruit a new team, for instance, but instead re-skilled VW’s Dakar outfit; and VW spent a year both developing its Polo WRC on tests while Ogier contested a lower-level championship in the mechanically similar Skoda Fabia. Hyundai will undertake its vital learning in full public view.
What's certain is that Neuville has the potential to be a fierce rival for Ogier, setting up a thrilling head-to-head that could compel a currently indifferent audience to tune back in. That spark, however, is unlikely to ignite until at least 2015.
‘To be ready in time for the first rally is already a success,’ says Nandan. ‘We expect to improve development during 2014, but by 2015 we will be ready to compete, maybe get a good result.’
Whatever happens, the Koreans expect better this time.
Hyundai WRC testing by numbers
3 test cars
3 rally drivers
5th Hyundai’s best WRC finish
11 nationalities at Hyundai Motorsports
12 support vehicles
50 WRC team specialists
4287 test miles
4700 litres of fuel
2003 last year Hyundai competed in WRC
8200sq m Hyundai’s workshop floor
2700m altitude reached in testing
2500m highest altitude in 2014 WRC (Rally Mexico)
20,815 service truck miles