Flat out in Hyundai’s R5 rally car
It costs nearly £160,000 and we doubt it comes with a seven-year warranty, but the Hyundai i20 R5 is as much fun as any supercar
Forget Formula 1, with its narcolepsy-inducing races and prima donna drivers. For pure, undiluted motorsport, rallying remains the king. Real roads, brutally fast cars and an almost infinite range of conditions make it a very different challenge to the sterile world of circuit racing.
To get a taste of what’s involved we’ve come to a quarry in Oxfordshire where Hyundai UK and the PCRS Rallysport squad have laid out a demonstration stage. Our chauffeur for the day is Tom Cave in his Hyundai i20 R5. He’s currently leading the British Rally Championship in this very car, which sits one rung down from the full-fat WRC machines.
You’d have to be a pretty avid rally fan to spot the differences at first glance. The R5 cars don’t have quite such extreme aero kits as their WRC counterparts, but this Hyundai i20 still has a suitably menacing air with its boxed wheel arches, giant air intakes and swooping rear wing. The comparatively lofty ride height in mud and gravel spec adds to the chunky appearance, reinforcing the message that this is a very different i20 to those you might find at the local supermarket. Under the skin, the contrasts are more pronounced. The R5 car’s 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine runs a 32mm air restrictor, capping its output at around 285bhp. That’s nearly 100bhp less than the WRC contenders, but don’t let that fool you. This is still a formidable machine, aided by its comparatively svelte kerb weight of 1,230kg, full-time four-wheel drive and a giant dollop of turbocharged torque.
Climbing in through the roll cage is like sinking into a bathtub. I’m about the same height as Tom, but the navigator’s seat is set so low that my eyes barely stretch over the dashboard. After a reassuring tug on the six-point harnesses from the PCRS crew, the door shuts with the hollow rattle of a stripped-out competition car and the i20 fires up to a coarse idle. We reverse out of the service area and head over to the start of the stage.
Tom cracks his knuckles and stares out with the unblinking intensity of a prize fighter as we count down through the start procedure. With 10 seconds to go, he selects first gear and turns the anti-lag system up to its maximum setting. You can hear the engine note change as if the car is straining at the leash. Next, he puts his finger on the launch control button, his right hand goes onto the handbrake and his foot goes full down onto the throttle. As soon as the clock goes green, he releases the clutch and the handbrake, sending the car catapulting off the start line.
It’s a brutal sensation. The surface that we’re on resembles cement dust and yet the i20 lunges forward with the sort of ferocity that you’d expect from a 911 or an M3 on smooth, dry tarmac. Before you know it we’re into second and heading towards the first corner. Tom is ultra-aggressive on the brakes, which serves to transfer the weight onto the front end, but he still uses a dab of the handbrake to get the car rotating towards the apex. What’s eye-opening is just how far before the corner this process actually begins. On a circuit, you’d still be braking in a straight line at the point where the Hyundai is already broadside and aimed directly at one of the alarmingly solid-looking earth banks that dot the makeshift stage.
We thread our way between banks, concrete blocks and even the occasional bulldozer – each corner seemingly taken more sideways than the last and with an even smaller margin for error. Through some of the faster corners, Tom is able to get on the brakes and then pitch the car into a slide on momentum alone. There’s one particular long left-hander, just before the finish, which we enter in typically flamboyant style, kicking up clouds of orange dust that billow into the cockpit. Past the apex, however, the car is almost edging into understeer, with all four wheels clawing equally at the road surface.
We fly past the start line for one more adrenaline-spiked lap of the course and then just as quickly as it began the experience is over. The Hyundai burbles back into its service box and I extract myself, wide-eyed, out through the roll cage. Afterwards, I’m curious to catch up with Tom and find out how much our Ken Block antics were representative of a competitive stage.
“The forest stages tend to be a lot faster and more flowing – up in fourth and fifth gear rather than first and second – so we can use more of the road,” he says. “The layout of this course is similar to some of the spectator stages, though.”
Tom’s driving style is quite aggressive, but that’s what suits these cars. Even the WRC machines with their active centre differentials are generally setup to give a small amount of understeer on corner exit, but the effect is more pronounced on the Hyundai R5 cars with their fixed 50:50 torque split. It means the driving style is quite close to that of a front-wheel drive car – turning in on the brakes and then using the power to drag yourself straight.
“That’s the best way to maintain momentum on a loose surface,” comments Tom. “In dry conditions like we have today, you can be really aggressive with the car, coming in very sideways, knowing that you’ll be pointing in the right direction at the apex to come out in a straight line. If we were on one of the forest stages on Rally GB you wouldn’t be able to get away with that as the grip is lower and a lot less consistent. That’s where a lot of the skill comes in – being able to judge those changing grip conditions from the entry of the corner to the exit.”
This approach certainly seems to be standing Tom in good stead. He’s topped the timesheets for two of the three events so far this season in the British Rally Championship, posting wins on both tarmac and gravel. The ultimate goal, of course, remains a works drive in the World Rally Championship and this recent success edges him one step closer to making that dream a reality.
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