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Hyundai hits the world rally stage

Drive follows Hyundai on its WRC debut at the Monte Carlo rally.

PT2M17S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-318ub 620 349

On the surface Hyundai and the World Rally Championship don’t seem like a natural fit.

The South Korean brand has steadily progressed from a maker of cheap and cheerful cars to a serious player - number four in the Australian market and growing steadily in other global markets.

The World Rally Championship is for serious performance machines - high technology, turbocharged, all-wheel drive rockets loosely based on road cars. In other words, a little way off the cars Hyundai currently make.

Hyundai kicked off its World Rally Championship campaign at the 2014 Monte Carlo rally. Click for more photos

Hyundai at the WRC

Hyundai kicked off its World Rally Championship campaign at the 2014 Monte Carlo rally.

But after spending four days at the Rally Monte Carlo watching Hyundai make its debut as a fully-fledged factory team in year’s WRC its reason for doing it become clear.

And the first reason doesn’t have anything to do with cars.

Standing in the freezing rain in the French Alps it doesn’t take long to realise that rally fans are a bit different to regular motor racing fans.

Aside from being soaked by the snow and rain the fans have been forced to drive into the middle of nowhere (the best driving roads aren’t usually near major metro centres) and wait. And wait. And wait.

The cars will only flash past for a few seconds, but in order to get the best viewing point the fans need to trek into the stages before they are closed off for the rally cars. In some cases that means getting there at dawn or the night before and camping out until the cars come.

These fans care about the cars, the drivers, the navigators and the teams. They are passionate, hardcore enthusiasts.

Importantly for Hyundai (and VolkswagenCitroen and Ford that also compete) they are the type of people that will not only change their car based on a rally result, but they will try to convince their friends to do the same.

You only need to look at the sheer amount of Citroens, Fords, Volkswagens and Subarus that line the roads into the stages to understand that the results on a rally stage can have a direct result on the results in the showroom.

“For Hyundai it is the perfect platform to, how you say, make media around [the brand],” says Hyundai’s lead driver, 25-year-old Belgian, Thierry Neuville. “Because they have no competitive car at all and nobody knows if they can do competitive cars. Now they are coming in motor sport to show we are competitive and people will be interested.”

By “competitive” car, Neuville means sporty, dynamically cars capable of taking on the best the European competition have to offer – think VW Golf RFord Fiesta ST and Renault Clio RS.

Which brings us to the second reason the WRC and Hyundai are such a good fit.

Hyundai is using the rally program to launch its N brand – a range of performance models designed to give its improving image another lift.

Despite the large “N” on the i20 WRC’s bonnet the company admits that the first product to wear the N badge is still at least three years away.

But work is already underway on the development. You only need to look around Hyundai’s impressive two-storey service park at the rally to understand.

Amid the European rally experts there are a group of Korean engineers embedded in the team to learn as much as they can about what it takes to turn a Hyundai into a world-beating performance car.
“Definitely the engineers, more than the drivers, will get a lot of information to the Koreans,” says Neuville. “They have got as well a full race car [in Korea], they can have a look, they can drive it, they can test many things in Korea. They are always in contact with the department of motorsport. They will get a lot of information because they have a lot to learn on competitive road cars.”

There may not be much original i20 left in the WRC cars Neuville drives but there is no doubt that racing still improves the breed.

That is why Hyundai has invested more time and money in establishing its own rally team, rather than employing a specialist racing organisation to build the WRC cars – like Volkswagen, rather than Ford’s partnership with rally specialists M-Sport.

Hyundai has even admitted that it could build its N cars in the same Germany factory as the WRC cars to strengthen the ties between the two programs.

By the time Hyundai is ready to launch its first N model it will be hoping Neuville (and hopefully Hyundai’s Australian driver Chris Atkinson) will have already scored plenty of world rally wins in the N branded i20 WRC machines.

And the lessons learned from competing in the crucible of top-level motorsport will help ensure that the N cars make the right impression with a new group of buyers.