Finding myself in the driver’s seat of cobbled together kit cars, hurriedly prepared competition cars and limited-run production cars is an occasional occupational hazard – a most welcome one, I might add!
Ferraris, Lamborghinis, McLarens, Porsches and Astons can start to feel par for the course. It may surprise you, then, that the most rewarding car that I’ve ever driven is a Volkswagen Polo. Far from a Polo in the standard guise of course. Yes, the body shell and silhouette resembled that of an everyday hatchback, but pretty much everything else was bespoke.
This was a two-time World Rally Championship winning Polo R WRC machine from 2014. The power was addictive, the responses cat-like and the feedback from this sweet, sweet machine intuitive, incisive, and downright incredible. The beauty was the lightness, directness and purity of it all. No crazy electronics – with the exception of an anti-lag system which ensured that the turbo was always on full boost. Everything on this machine was tuned to cover ground – on any surface – as fast as humanly and mechanically possible.
Manufacturers use the World Rally Championship to test not only how fast they can make their everyday machines, but also how durable they can make them. After all, there’s no greater test of mechanical endurance than going flat out on the special stages at the Safari Rally in Kenya or the brutal terrain of Rally Argentina for instance.
VW pulled the plug on its WRC program after being completely dominant from 2013 to 2016. Their exit made way for Hyundai to take the constructors title with the i20 WRC coupe in 2019 and 2020.
To emphasise its performance focus, Hyundai launched its N high-performance division globally in 2016 and has just announced the launch of its N Line sub-brand in India. Now, the N Line is mostly body kits and sporty trim, while the N range is the real deal when it comes to performance bits and actual mechanical upgrades – in addition to wheels, spoilers and hip-hugging seats of course. One can only hope that N Line opens the door for some genuine hot hatches and affordable performance machines in the country. Yes, they will always remain niche, but that’s not to take away from the fact that there’s a lot of potential within this niche in India – one that, we can only hope, Hyundai will tap before too long.
At the launch announcement of N Line, we got a chance to chat with Hyundai’s WRC hot shoe, Belgian Thierry Neuville – who’s a little sceptical about the impending hybrid era in WRC. Undoubtedly, there’s a lot of work still to be done, but there’s nothing quite like WRC for proof of concept. If a hybrid machine can thrive in the rough and tumble arena of world rallying, then it’ll certainly survive the nip down to the shops. That being said, issues of added weight, managing power delivery, brake feel during regeneration, range and durability all need to be addressed. Good thing, then, that the WRC attracts some of the best (and most competitive) engineers on the planet.
Before Thierry signed off, he did make it a point to say that he’s not especially enthused about an EV future in motorsport. He would miss the drama and excitement provided by internal combustion too much.
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