Born Under a Bad Sign: The Skoda Octavia WRC
Succeeding in the cut-throat world of professional motorsport is anything but easy, and this even applies to manufactures with massive budgets, teams of engineers and everything else associated with the sport. The difficulties associated with actually winning at the sharp end of motorsport ensure that for every unquantified success there are half a dozen dismal failures: for every McLaren MP4/4 there’s an Andrea Moda or a Life, and for every Peugeot 205T16 there’s a Citroen BX4TC. I’ve always been drawn to these heroic motorsport misadventures, miscalculations and (sometimes) straight up disasters, to the point where I’d much rather read about their history than that of their far more illustrious and successful competitors. This interest in the ‘also-rans’ of the motorsport world has resulted in this, the first in what I hope will be a series of articles dedicated to the underachievers, the failures and the hopeless.
While not all the cars covered will be catastrophes in the strict sense, they will all be linked by their failure to succeed in any meaningful, quantifiable manner. None of them managed to ‘bring home the bacon’ as far as their makers were concerned, and for me, that’s enough.
Is it a touch unfair to kick off with a car that, by the standards of some of the other entries I have planned, was something of a success? Maybe, but I love these cars and fancied writing about them right away. Looking back it’s quite sad to see just how far the WRC has fallen since the turn of the century, a period which was, though many didn’t appreciate it at the time, something of a golden age for the sport. Proof of this can be found in the sheer number of manufacturer-backed teams taking part by 2001, with stalwarts like Ford, Mitsubishi and Subaru having been joined by the likes of Hyundai, Peugeot, Citroen, Seat and Skoda.
Skoda were no strangers to rallying of course, the Czech firm having totted up numerous class championships over during the preceding century (who could forget Stig Blomvquist’s giant-killing performance in the F2 Felica in the ‘96 RAC?), but the Octavia was its first foray into the WRC’s top-tier. The Octavia WRC was nominally based upon the range-topping VRS road car and thus went into battle with a 20v head, but other than this and the obvious visual parallels the two cars were very different beasts. The rally car boasted an Xtrac four-wheel drive system, a sequential transmission, sophisticated data logging software and all the other gadgets that had become de rigueur for any WRC car come the turn of the century. Skoda even had the good sense to sign up some very talented drivers to head up their assault, with the likes of Armin Schwarz, Bruno Thiry, Roman Kresta, Kenneth Eriksson, Toni Gardemeister and Didier Auriol all having done spells behind the wheel by the time the Octavia was replaced by the Fabia midway through ‘03.
So what went wrong? Part of the problem was budget, an issue compounded by the politics of the VAGroup. The fact that the VW top brass were willing to green light two competing WRC programmes for both Skoda and Seat only serves to highlight how healthy the championship was at the time, but it didn’t take too long for internal issues and political squabbles to make their presence felt. Splitting their resources between two internally linked teams also resulted in equally stretched finances, and this ensured that both the Octavia and Cordoba WRC (the latter more than deserving of its own entry here) went into battle with a fraction of the resources afforded to their rivals.
The size of the Octavia was also an issue, something that Skoda was well aware of from the very beginning of the programme. WRC rules governing vehicle size were strict and should, if they were followed to the letter, have prevented machines as compact as the Peugeot 206 from entering. Peugeot got around the problem by cannily extending both front and rear bumpers just enough to meet the minimum mandated size, but this evidently didn’t occur to the plucky Czechs as they’d almost certainly have plumped for the brand new Fabia if they could’ve. Instead the bulky Octavia found itself lumbering into battle against a raft of smaller, nimbler and lighter hatchbacks, most of them campaigned by far wealthier teams. The extra bulk did result in an increase in strength, but in the modern era of the WRC this admirable trait was no match for lightweight and speed.
So once again, is it fair for me to include the Octavia WRC here? The twin virtues of strength and reliability (coupled with the talents of the men behind the wheel) helped it record a modest collection of 5th and 4th places, plus a 3rd on the 2001 Safari Rally for Schwartz. These results were achieved on tough, car-breaking rallies that tended to favour the tank-like Octavia over its featherweight rivals. That being said, results like these were hardly the reward a rally stalwart like Skoda would’ve expected or deemed satisfactory, hence why my reason for including it here.
Not that any of the above prevents it from being my favourite modern WRC car by a large margin. The Octavia WRC always looked the part, its sheer size gave it one heck of a stage presence, and the sound generated by that 20v engine was certainly distinctive, a bit like a bag of spanners being put through a washing machine. A so-so WRC car then, but one not without its charms.
Words: Jamie Arkle