► We take a spin in a 286bhp rally Fabia
► Fresh from winning the 2017 WRC 2 championship
► What does the future hold for Skoda Motorsport?
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you read the words Skoda Fabia? A cheap, practical supermini that’s still fighting to change the average car buyer’s view of the Skoda brand? Or maybe that TV ad in 2006 where a team of bakers crafted a scale model Fabia out of cake?
Well, for those who’ve taken a keen interest in motorsport over the last few years, the humble Skoda resembles something of a championship-winning machine. This year alone, its all-wheel drive rally-prepped alter ego – the Fabia R5 – has taken the WRC 2 (World Rally Championship 2), Asia Pacific, South American, African and European ERC Junior U28 Rally titles, not to mention another 14 national crowns around the world.
Of the 13 rallies during the WRC 2 season, 10 were won by crews in the Fabia R5, with the Skoda factory team taking the WRC 2 Team Championship with three rounds to spare, following title triumphs in both 2015 and 2016.
Impressive, but how similar is the R5 to my Fabia road car?
Look past the heavy modifications and Transformer-esque body and all WRC 2 cars are based on their road-going equivalents. For example, the engine in the R5 is heavily based on a mass-produced unit fitted to the Skoda Superb and Volkswagen Lamando in China.
Unsurprisingly, however, there have been a few tweaks. Modifications for the rally-ready engine included cutting the displacement down from 1.8 to 1.6 litres (in-line with WRC 2 regulations), fettling the fuel and oil system, reprogramming the engine management system and whacking up the turbo pressure.
All of this means power is up to 286bhp – plenty in a car weighing in at 1230kg. Both figures could have been better still, yet WRC 2 regulations stipulate a minimum weight and restrictions on parts used in the engine: the turbo pressure, radiator, and air restrictor are all designed according to strict championship regulations.
Does the Skoda Fabia R5 rally car feel like a regular Fabia once you’re inside?
No, not in the slightest. Take a lifelong Fabia owner and plonk them behind the wheel of the R5, and there’s a strong chance they wouldn’t even recognise what’s before them as a Skoda. Skeletal bucket seats dominate the cabin, as does the prominent handbrake lever waiting patiently for a gravel-laden hairpin.
Taking co-driver Pavel Dresler’s seat in the Czech national championship winning Fabia R5, I’m sitting what feels to be ridiculously low in the cabin, with driver and rally veteran Jan Kopecky sat far higher up on my left. 'Can you see out when you’re navigating?' I ask Pavel as he yanks hard on each of the six-point harness’s straps designed to stop me flopping around like a rag doll. 'No, but you are a little taller than me so you might have a better view today.'
As we launch away from the paddock, it’s obvious why Pavel isn’t that fussed about the view out front. He simply wouldn’t have time to take the scenery in. The 310lb ft of torque comes in what feels like one instant hit – almost like an electric car – and peaks at 4750rpm, at which point Jan yanks the sequential gear selector back and the onslaught starts all over again.
Officially, the Fabia R5 takes 4.2 seconds to hit 62mph, but it feels an awful lot faster from where I’m sitting. I squat down in my seat as we approach a tight left hander and brace my legs for the tidal wave of stopping power. Having dropped to below freezing overnight there were patches of ice and frost around the circuit – one of which was approaching rapidly on the apex of the upcoming bend.
Jan turns in with the confidence of a man who’s spent the best part of 17 years driving Skodas like he’s stolen them, and the R5 duly obliges. Such levels of grip would be impressive on a hot, bone-dry race track in Spain, let alone an icy Czech autodrome that hasn’t even had a chance to rubber in.
Boy I’m unfit, I thought to myself as we hurtle towards the end of our second and final lap. My legs, jammed up against the footwell to keep myself in place, are starting to ache and I’m wondering how much longer my skinny neck can support my head through the g-forces.
Repositioning my feet would have helped with the former, but they were precariously positioned between a collection of buttons in the footwell that I thought it best not to stand on. One of which read ‘horn’ – the co-driver presumably responsible for alerting (deaf) oncoming animals or pedestrians to the R5's presence. Sitting on my arse had never felt so tiring.
What does the future hold for Skoda’s motorsport programme?
Skoda Motorsport and rallying appears to be a match made in heaven given the competitive and commercial success of the R5 – the most successful car in the manufacturer’s history. However, it’s not just the production car market where hybrid and electric powertrains are becoming ever more relevant by the day.
Motor racing featuring alternative fuel entrants has seen its stock rise sharply in recent years, with major manufacturers scrambling to join the all-electric Formula E series that only hosted its first round in 2014. Despite this, FIA rally director Jarmo Mahonen went on record in early 2017 to state that there would be no hybrid or electric technology in the WRC (and WRC 2) for at least five years. So where does that leave the factory teams keen to promote their alternative-fuel agenda?
Predictably, Skoda, like parent brand Volkswagen, is keen to not be left behind when it comes moving beyond the internal combustion engine for its passenger cars – the Czech brand promising a plug-in hybrid Superb in 2019 and a further five pure electric models by 2025.
With this in mind, could Skoda look to ditch WRC 2 in favour of a series supporting alternative fuel racing in the here and now? Skoda CEO Bernhard Maier confirmed he does not foresee WRC 2 switching to hybrid or all electric powertrains in the near future, and also stated that Formula E was a 'very interesting' series for manufacturers. However, with Audi recently joining the Formula E grid and Porsche set to follow, it’s unlikely we’ll see three VW Group brands competing on the grid.
Skoda’s focus on rallying it seems, and the 170 worldwide customers it supplies the Fabia R5 too, are safe for now.
And, incidentally, if you fancy a race-prepped Skoda Fabia R5 for your daily commute, it’s yours for a cool €180,000 (£158,000) excluding local taxes.
Read all our Skoda reviews here