The Hyundai i20 World Rally Car is now respected as a regular outright contender in the World Rally Championship in the hands of Thierry Neuville, Andreas Mikkelsen, Dani Sordo and even Sebastien Loeb. However, the success of recent years was not without its humble beginnings.Tom Smith looks back on the Korean manufacturer’s rally beginnings.
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Hyundai’s decision to enter the world of rallying can be traced back to the early 1990s, with the tough and sturdy (but underpowered) Lantra, followed by the pretty Hyundai Coupe which saw the company debut in the WRC, and the effective Accent WRCar of the early 2000s.
While the factory took a break for nearly 10 years from 2003 to 2012, the current team is proving to be incredibly successful.
There is no doubt that Australia played an integral role in Hyundai’s venture into the world of motorsport, and in fact local legend, Wayne Bell, is recognised as having been a major influence in the early success of the Korean manufacturer.
As part of the launch of the then-new model, Hyundai Australia was looking at running two Lantras in a rally near Alice Springs.
Bell was put in touch with Hyundai Marketing’s Kevin Wall, and the story begins there.
“I built two (standard) Group N Lantra cars,” says Bell. “One was for Barry Ferguson and one for me. Everything was set to go...and the rally was cancelled.
“Hyundai was committed to launching the car in Alice Springs, so we took the cars out there and did demonstration runs.”
After that, Hyundai agreed to run a car in the Australian Rally Championship under the Formula 2 category, and the Lantra won F2 on debut in Bell’s hands.
It wasn’t long before the parent company in Korea sat up and took notice and an approach was made for Bell to run cars in the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship (APRC). The cars were still relatively standard J1 Lantras, however, their incredible success in F2 was attributed to great handling and the ability to be driven on the limit, all day.
An F2 class win in the APRC was complemented by a win in the Hong Kong-Beijing Rally, and Bell and Greg Carr finished the Australian round of the WRC in first and second places in F2 (1600cc).
Sydney's Wayne Bell was Hyundai's rallying pioneer.
The order was given to build a Group A version of the car with a prototype J1, developed before the J2 was released. With strength and reliability (only one DNF in 24 events), the team finished second in the APRC, behind ‘Monster’ Tajima in a factory Suzuki.
Bell continues the story: “Hyundai Korea was a company that could achieve anything if they wanted. Although they knew very little of rallying, they could see the potential to be gained in marketing their product through motorsport.”
The company then decided that a Kit Car based on the Coupe model should be developed, but Bell unsuccessfully lobbied for a 2.0 Accent (200 needed for homologation).
The wheelbase of the J2 and Coupe were identical - being the same as a Lancer Evolution of the day – but potentially too long for a front-wheel drive car. The cylinder head only flow-tested at 240bhp, when the competition was making around 260-280 bhp.
Bell confesses to having a test car already built (including sequential FFD 6-speed gearbox) before the ‘go-ahead’ was given by HMC Korea. Twenty kits were required for inspection by CAMS and the FIA, including throttle bodies and manifolds, extractors, spoilers and induction systems.
The Coupe was competitive in the APRC, proving to be stable under all conditions and well suited to rough or fast-flowing roads, although it only had 240bhp at 8000rpm. Unfortunately, it proved too big, and not powerful enough for the European F2 competition.
Wayne Bell puts the original Hyundai Lantra through its paces at the Rally of Wagga.
While the Aussie-Korean relationship was sound, Bell was taken off guard when Korea decided to run a World Championship program out of the UK.
Motor Sport Developments (MSD) put Swede Kenneth Eriksson into the lead car, with Wayne Bell to be joined by Iain Stewart for five events, while MSD chased Scotsman Alister McRae to join the team.
Unfortunately, reliability was a problem for the high-spec Coupe while the team developed the Accent WRC car. Bell, in particular, had recurring gearbox problems that really constrained the potential of the car.
In September 1999, Hyundai unveiled the Accent WRC, and a debut followed at the 2000 Swedish Rally. Later that year the team achieved its first top 10 result when Alister McRae and Kenneth Eriksson finished seventh and eighth respectively at the Rally Argentina.
McRae takes up the story: “Having competed in a number of WRC events with VW, the opportunity came up for me to run an extra two WRC events alongside with Hyundai in 1998.
“This gave me an insight into the team and obviously we started discussing the possibility of joining in ’99 for a year in F2, whilst developing the Accent WRC for 2000.”
It was David Whitehead, owner of MSD, who had enjoyed a previous working relationship with Alister’s father, the legendary Jimmy McRae. The two worked together in the Vauxhall Opel days and with the company’s experience in rallying, German touring cars and British touring cars, the package was right for Alister.
It wasn't the fastest car, but the Lantra was strong and reliable, and could be driven hard.
“The team definitely had the resources and ability to succeed, but at the time other manufacturers were spending massive budgets, so it was always going to be difficult. Personally, my job was to drive and help develop the cars,” McRae told RallySport Magazine.
The obvious attraction for McRae was the introduction of a the new manufacturer into the World Rally Championship, the all-new WRC car and the chance to compete on a full WRC program, with he and Kenneth Eriksson carrying out all the testing of the new vehicle.
“The Accent’s handling and balance was very good from the start, but as always there was room for improvement,” Alister recalls. “The engine was the weaker part of the car.”
By mid to late 2001, the car was really starting to work very well, and a brilliant fourth outright on Rally GB in 2001 was the team’s high point. By that time the car was definitely getting closer to the front-runners.
For McRae, Rally GB was the last event with the team after three years, and it was a great way to finish the season.
“I had a good relationship with the team and knew that development for the next season would bring the car closer again. But the opportunity to drive for Mitsubishi - the team that had taken Tommi Makinen to four world titles – was something not to miss.”
Wayne Bell driving the Lantra to 18th place and fourth 2WD in the 1996 Rally of New Zealand.
In September 2003, after a season hampered by budget constraints, Hyundai announced their withdrawal from the WRC and advised their plans to return in 2006, which unfortunately did not eventuate.
Then, during the Paris Motor Show in September 2012, Hyundai announced an intention to return to the WRC with a completely new four‑wheel‑drive, turbocharged car and a completely new team base at Hyundai Motorsport in Frankfurt, Germany. It was 21 years to the week after the remarkable first appearance on the world championship scene, back at the 1991 Rally Australia, using the Lantra two‑wheel drive normally‑aspirated cars.
As it transpired, the decision to re-enter the world championship was made at the last possible moment if they were to be able to fit into the FIA’s new time frame system of when they would be able to homologate new rally cars.
This was a tricky situation, made even more complex by the commercial need to introduce a new rally car at a time that matched the schedule of the manufacturer’s production car model on which the rally car could be based. In the end, the decision was taken to undertake a two-phase project.
In this way an initial World Rally Car would be homologated in time for use in the 2014 rally season, then a second model would be introduced, based on a new production model, during the 2015 season.
The Hyundai WRC project was a very hurried exercise. It was not only the time taken to establish a headquarters and related engineering and administration facilities, to appoint and train an effective workforce and to master completely new technologies required for developing present-day rally cars – it was just as vital to select who should be the drivers to represent them.
Being present on the start line at Monte Carlo Rally 2014 was critical to everything, and finally this was achieved.
Their star driver, Thierry Neuville, crashed on the first stage (nothing significant there, Monte Carlo has always proved a special challenge for the Belgian driver!) but guest second driver, Dani Sordo, achieved a second-best stage time before a very minor electrical failure caused his retirement.
Sweden saw both cars suffering suspension damage, but Neuville achieved two second fastest stage times, while guest driver, Juho Hanninen, made times in the top six on nine occasions.
The inclusion of young New Zealander, Haydon Paddon, into the Hyundai World Rally Team, initially on a limited program, was nothing short of genius. The Kiwi, with the support of a whole country behind him, showed genuine early pace in the i20 and brought the team stage wins and a podium in Rally Italia 2015, before being elevated to a full time program and rewarding that trust with his first WRC win in Argentina in 2016.
With the support of the parent company, Paddon and regular co-driver, John Kennard, have also been seen competing in the New Zealand Rally Championship in their own local version of the i20, built to AP4 regulations, with minor variations.
Looking for all intents and purposes like a full WRC car, the AP4 car sports an almost-standard 1.8litre turbocharged Hyundai engine (AP4 rules actually only allow engines of 1.6 litres in capacity), and took a stunning nine minutevictory on debut at the Otago Rally in April.
Hyundai’s name in the United States is also highly recognisable with the VelosterCoupe competing in the Red Bull Global Rally Cross Series under the Rhys Millen Racing banner. Kiwi Emma Gilmour,one of the fastest woman rally drivers in the world, was the number two driver in the team in 2014, achieving excellent results throughout the challenging series.
There is little doubt that Hyundai is a company committed to long-term rally success, with recent announcements of the company’s development of an R5 version of the i20, and potentially at R2 entry to follow.
It is also abundantly clear that the Hyundai World Rally Team is the equal of their WRC opponents in terms of performance, with promises of further success in the hands of drivers of the calibre of Paddon, who is not only shaping up to the European established drivers, but is a marketing delight.
Nevertheless, Hyundai’s rally origins in suburban Australia cannot be ignored, nor forgotten, and the ‘Godfather’ of Hyundai’s rally effort, Wayne Bell, is remembered fondly by the company.
“I was invited to Portugal by Hyundai Motor Sport to see the new WRC factory team,” Bell explains.
Wayne Bell (right) and Hyundai's Mr Choi.
“Mr Choi wanted my opinion on the cars and team. I was given full access to the cars and was impressed with the standard of workmanship and engineering that had gone into the cars, although I thought some of the suspension was too light and suited more for racing that a rough rally.
“The current cars are much stronger and can take a good knock without breaking things, and will win more events and, I suspect, eventually the championship.
“I just wish I was 30 years younger,” Bell says.
RallySport Magazine acknowledges the contribution by Martin Holmes to this article, and the co-operation of both Wayne Bell and Alister McRae.
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