By PAUL GOVER
This is not your average ŠKODA Fabia.
It started life in the same factory at Mlada Boleslav as every other Fabia in Australia, but took a dramatic detour before it rolled onto a boat for the trip down under.
The end result is a dirt-track supercar that’s Ferrari fast between the trees and the dominant force in this year’s Australian Rally Championship.
The Fabia R5 is missing a back seat and the usual cabin comforts but has the same basic strengths as the $16,990 Fabia starter car in ŠKODA showrooms.
It does what it says, delivers without fuss, and is good value in a sport where tyres are throwaway items at $200 after little more than 100 kilometres, special fuel costs $10 a litre, and a full-house World Rally Car costs more than $750,000 before worrying about spare parts or servicing.
It would still cost just over $300,000 to park a Fabia R5 in your driveway, but it's the best at its business and a proven winner at every level up to the world championship.
Skidding over a closed forest course in Canberra, driving the car that finished second in this year's Netier National Capital Rally just a day earlier, shows me exactly what the ŠKODA R5 can do.
It is a rock-throwing, flame-spitting, turbocharged beastie that compresses space into time, rocketing along at speeds up to 180km/h over tracks that would have a four-wheel driver selecting their low-range gears and dodging car breaking rocks and ruts.
It’s also an extreme adrenalin machine that requires considerable taming and massive concentration. There is no time to relax and the continual threat that a slight mistake could trigger extreme punishment, either from the car’s owner or the waiting roadside scenery.
After less than 15 kilometres I’m soaked in sweat and ready to relax and download the sensory overload that comes from seat time in the ŠKODA R5. The car? It’s barely huffing and definitely not puffing.
I’ve been introduced to the ŠKODA R5 by Adrian Coppin, one of the young stars of Australian rallying and a bloke who knows a thing or two about a deal. He is competing in the national title series in a car owned and fettled by RaceTorque, one of three operated by the Perth company that has direct links to ŠKODA Motorsport in the Czech Republic.
RaceTorque has operated as a ŠKODA satellite team in the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship, dominating the series in recent years and also serving as a training ground for young European drivers headed for the top of the world championship. But when the team’s major backer, MRF Tyres from India, decided to boost their star driver Gaurav Gill into the WRC the RaceTorque cars were freed to do their stuff in Australia.
Former champion Eli Evans didn’t need to be told twice and jumped straight into one of the ŠKODA squadron, winning in both Canberra and Perth despite the best efforts of Coppin and second-generation driver Harry Bates in a Toyota Yaris that was designed and built in Australia.
The Yaris is quick, but the ŠKODA is quicker. And it does what it does without fuss and with incredible strength and reliability.
ŠKODA Motorsport has sold more than 200 of its R5 cars and they have done the majority of the winning in the FIA’s international R5 category, which is the support act to the WRC heroes and also serves as the national championship in countries across most continents.
The successes scored by ŠKODA, and the run-off in showrooms, has convinced a growing number of other carmakers to roll rallying into their global marketing plans, including Hyundai, Citroen, Ford and, soon, Volkswagen and Toyota.
What makes the R5 category so good, and so accessible, is a set of straightforward rules that boost speed without bringing unnecessary cost or complexity.
So the Fabia has the basic body shell of the road car, with a spaghetti-junction roll cage inside, a race-ready 1.6-litre turbo engine that makes 205 kiloWatts and 420 Newton-metres of torque, a special four-wheel drive system with a five-speed sequential gearbox, special Sachs rally dampers and 15x7 inch alloy wheels.
Apart from a cost cap at 200,000 Euros, there are plenty of restrictions on the car’s parts to equalise the competition, but ŠKODA makes things easier for owners such as RaceTorque with a maintenance schedule that includes every part on the car up to the engine, which is designed to run at full rally pace for 2000 kilometres before a strip-down and rebuild.
But all the nuts-and-bolts stuff fades into the background as I drop into the Fabia’s driving seat, buckle the six-point harness and connect to the intercom system, ready to go.
There is no ignition key, but the mechanic in the co-driver’s seat handles the buttons to activate the electrics and then I hit the starter with zero throttle and wait for the action. The engine fires with a deep turbo throb and the staccato idle of a competition powerplant.
I pull the heavily-weighted shift lever back to engage first gear with a thunk, turn the wheel to get a feel for the power-assisted steering, and check the position of the shift lights that will warn when it’s time for the next gear. The throttle is super-sensitive and the giant brake pedal reminds me that the clutch is only for starting and stopping, with my left foot reserved for the brakes.
We pull the startline, I raise the revs and dump the clutch, and we’re away in a flurry of dust and rocks, turning left in second gear over a hump that launches the ŠKODA into a jump and then a series of second-gear corners. The back is sliding, the engine is pulling hard, and I’m into fourth before we head deeply into the trees.
The next few minutes are a blur of gears and acceleration, deeply cushioned suspension, brilliant brakes, and frantic wheel-foot-hand work from the driver. The action never stops and it’s hugely fun and deeply satisfying to get the ŠKODA sliding under brakes, then pivot for the corner before firing up the next straight in a hunt for more gears and go.
Then we stop. The silence is overpowering. All I can hear is my own puffing inside my helmet. But the memories never end as the ŠKODA R5 is packed away for the trip back to Perth, ready for workshop visit before powering to an almost-inevitable victory in this year’s Australian Rally Championship.