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VIDEO: Hyundai i20 WRC Passenger ride

By Scott Newman, 26 Sep 2014 Features

Supposedly it's the unknown that you should fear, but I think I have a pretty good idea of what's coming and it's making me nervous

VIDEO: Hyundai i20 WRC Passenger ride

Supposedly it's the unknown that you should fear, but I think I have a pretty good idea of what's coming and it's making me nervous.

Having done a little bit of rallying, I know you can go faster on loose surfaces than first appears, but equally, having been a die-hard WRC fan for over a decade, I'm all-too-aware just how loony top-line rally drivers are.

My chauffeur is Aussie Chris Atkinson, who has just completed a difficult Rally Australia with the Hyundai team. Having not competed for six months, 'Atko' struggled all event with setup and finding confidence in the i20 WRC.

Ironically, today's activities, giving selected media and contest winners passenger rides around the final couple of kilometres of the rally's final stage, Wedding Bells, will give Atkinson the seat time he so desperately needed pre-event.

Despite the disappointing weekend, he's in good spirits, though he always seems to be in good spirits. With the requisite safety gear all in place, I clamber in to the right-hand passenger seat and my rear-end sinks to floor level – navigators are mounted as low as possible in the car to help the centre of gravity.

Thankfully, fears about not being able to see out are unfounded, though that's partly because the Hyundai's seat is mounted higher than the team would ideally like, a result of the i20's basic architecture.

Atko engages first gear in the six-speed sequential 'box with a metallic shnkk and we make our way out of the makeshift service area. Lining up on our imaginary stage start, the i20 tenses as Atko selects 'Stage Mode', which basically turns the engine up to full boost and sets the anti-lag system to maximum attack.

Launch control engaged, the revs flare before the handbrake is released and 2000 Euro worth of bespoke Michelin rubber (500 Euro a tyre) bites into the loose surface.

If you've got a reasonably fast road car, the acceleration of a World Rally Car is nothing particularly special. Despite the 1.6-litre four-cylinder being fed 2.0bar of turbo boost, a 34mm inlet restrictor limits output to around 230kW/400Nm. Its 0-100km/h time of around 4.0sec is more due to incredible traction and ridiculously short gearing than overwhelming grunt.

This comparative lack of power means drivers need massive commitment to go fast and Atko clearly has his eye in as he's pushing hard. Short stabs of initial steering input jolt the car into beautiful drifts and we're using every inch of the road.

There's a large tree stump on the inside of a fourth-gear right-hander that looks like it would rip a corner off any normal car – we drive straight over it.

Now we're driving into the clear, blue sky. At about 150km/h. The car lifts clear of the earth and rat-tat-tats off its rev limiter as we soar through the air. The frighteningly expensive Reiger suspension that sits under all four corners of the i20 WRC proves its worth with a landing like we've just sat firmly on a bed.

The next few hundred metres is twisty, blind and fast. Deep down, I know that Atko has everything under control but I'm also praying the road goes exactly where he thinks it does.

The car is screaming and bouncing from one side of the road to the other then stands on its nose as Chris punches the car back to second gear for a tight left hairpin. A precise armful of opposite lock and we're accelerating downhill, the gears coming three, four, five, six with barely a pause.

Then we're flying again, sailing through the air for over 30 metres (think about that for a second...), Atko not lifting the throttle for a second.

The road now sweeps left over a long crest, but we're going faster than ever; we could go faster still, but the car is being restrained by its rev limiter. In sixth gear. Data later shows this is 187km/h, but all I know is it's fast enough for my laughter to have ceased and my fingernails to now be firmly embedded in the seats.

Atko is busy, entering precise, lightning-quick adjustments to counter the i20's constant movement over the heavily rutted road, his mouth hanging slightly open as it always does when he's concentrating intently. I stay silent and hold my breath; if we went off here we'd both be a year older before the accident ended.

As we flash past the service area to begin our second loop, Atko decides to give an impromptu lesson in how to drive a World Rally Car. “You can drive it on understeer, like this” he says, teasing grip out of the front tyres, “or just back it in” – a dab of brake and a stab of steering sends the car into massive oversteer. We both find this hilarious; I'm not sure who is having more fun.

We're slightly sideways over the first jump this time and the landing is hard enough to momentarily knock the wind out of me. No time for recovery, though, as Atko has lifted his work rate and is pushing harder than ever.

In pure driving terms he was around 1sec/kilometre slower than the front-runners this weekend; now he's dialled in, I have no doubt we're travelling through this stage at rally-winning speed. It'll be a massive shame if this is Chris's last time in a World Rally Car.

The ultra-high-speed stuff is quite uncomfortable, mostly because your brain can't help but think “what if?”, but the rest of the ride is far more enjoyable than the terror ride I expected.

This is because everything Atko does – every brake, throttle and steering input – makes perfect sense. You always feel that he's in control, even when the rear of the car slews further sideways than expected exiting a tight-left hander, requiring full opposite-lock: “I was trying to show-off for the photographer” he laughs.

One last drift and the run is over. I try and process the last few minutes. It's obviously been a humbling display of driving, but there are a few more thoughts percolating in my head.

Firstly, why the hell don't more people watch the WRC? It's one of the world's best motoring spectacles, but sadly under-represented in terms of coverage. Is it the cars? The lack of coverage? A lack of knowledge?

Secondly, a number of team bosses have called for the next generation World Rally Cars, due in 2017, to have an increase in power. This is certainly something MOTOR would support, as from first-hand experience the current cars clearly have more grip than grunt, even on slippery surfaces.

Of course, we'd need to have another passenger ride, just to make sure that they'd got it right...