Atkinson still in Hyundai WRC frame
Aussie rally star Chris Atkinson could spearhead Hyundai’s first factory-backed World Rally Championship assault next year
A no-holds-barred assault on the 2014 World Rally Championship will see comeback-company Hyundai develop a replacement for its all-new i20 World Rally Car, which could be piloted by Australian rally star Chris Atkinson but will be stunningly killed off after just one season.
Despite ambitious expectations of podiums for next year’s championship, the new in-house Hyundai team’s more realistic goals are to bed down its rally operation so it can mount an all-out assault with the i20’s replacement in 2015.
“The 2015 car will be based on another model,” Hyundai Motorsport Team Manager Alain Penasse admitted. “It’s good to do a year of practice to have experience for the team and it’s a long process to get ready for 2015.
“We all go to the kindergarten before we go to the high school.”
The team plans a fully funded factory operation, with current Hyundai test driver Atkinson knowing by the end of October whether he has earned the one of the two seats for 2014.
It would complete a fairytale comeback to the championship for both Atkinson, whose last full-time WRC ride ended with the demise of the Subaru team in 2008, and Hyundai, which had an acrimonious and litigious end to its championship effort in 2003.
The Korean car-maker began testing the first of its six turbocharged 1.6-litre all-wheel drive World Rally Cars in May and is confident it will have at least two cars ready for its re-entry into the WRC at the 2014 Monte Carlo Rally.
Unlike its last, failed assault on the WRC in the early 2000s, the new team is 100 per cent owned and run by Hyundai out of enormous new premises in northern Bavaria and has a “comfortable” budget to bring the brand to the forefront of rallying.
“The idea came a long time ago and they have always been thinking about how to prepare their comeback ideally,” said Penasse. “But it really started two years ago.
“It’s clear that it finished in a strange way last time and it had some problems. The management in Korea wanted to do it perfectly and they wanted full involvement this time.
“We decided to enter the WRC without a structure in place. We are building a test program to be in Monte Carlo but we are putting in a structure to build a team at the same time as we develop the car.”
That has put the team under considerable pressure, with only 72 of an eventual 108 personnel spots filled, as they bed in their impressive, rented 8000 square-metre facility 50km from Frankfurt.
“Everybody expects to win but if that’s realistic is another question,” Penasse admitted. “If we bring a strong team and have some nice results that would be ideal. A podium would be a nice result at some point in the year.”
How Hyundai plans to get those podium results is the question on Atkinson’s lips, though Hyundai is being tight-lipped about whether or not its official test driver is in line for a full-time seat.
“We will have two cars, maybe three sometimes. The market is very open for drivers this year,” Penasse said.
“Most driver contracts are open this year and we are talking to everybody. Everybody is a possibility who has a bit of speed and a bit of experience.
“Everybody who has shown something we will take into consideration.”
On the eve of his second stint testing the Hyundai i20 WRC, Atkinson told motoring.com.au he was doing everything he could to secure one of the Hyundai seats.’
“I have a foot in the door as part of the (three-man) test team and I just want to kick that wide open,” the former Subaru driver said.
“They have said they are interested, but what that means is open to interpretation. They have their ideas and they are not telling anybody.
“I’ve done 31 or 32 events since I left the WRC full time, including 10 WRC events. I won a stage in the WRC with the Monster Ford and I had top-three stage times in the Citroen in Mexico, so I’m confident I haven’t lost anything.”
Mr Atkinson tested the i20 WRC in July in Bordeaux on a three-day gravel test, and has a four-day program in the next week in Spain.
“Initially, it was very good but I have not been in the car for two months, so it will be interesting to see the development in that time.
“We all had our ideas about where we could improve it then and it was open and clear dialogue.”
Unlike its failed program a decade ago, Hyundai has fully funded the WRC program with an open-ended time frame.
“Budget? I think we have a comfortable budget to do what we have to do,” Penasse insisted. “Our program is not contingent upon sponsors. Not hinged on it. It would be nice if they fit, but it’s not important…”
“It’s a long-term commitment with no end term to it. Hyundai wants to be in the WRC because the cars in rallying are very close to the standard car and it really is the most open sport for the spectators to get close to the cars.
“Korea likes that the spectators can get close to the cars and the drivers, but you go to a track and they’re already removed from it. They want to do everything to make it as accessible as possible.
“Performance in WRC makes sales better and it attracts younger people. They want to make the brand younger and more dynamic and that’s what rallying does.”
The 1200kg rally car is based around the three-door version of the Indian-built i20 and Hyundai insiders expect it to deliver around 320 horsepower and somewhere around 450Nm of torque.
The all-wheel drive Xtrac powertrain will use a six-speed sequential gearbox and Penasse confirmed the team would choose Michelin tyres, in spite of pressure to run the Korean Hankooks as the WRC moves to an open tyre championship in 2014.
It will use a suspension engineered by Reiger, Brembo brakes and Magneti Marelli electronics in a package 4000mm long and 1820mm wide.
“Based on the results we’ve had, I am sure if we had three or four events in the same car and got the WRC flow going again that we could be consistently fast,” Atkinson insisted.
“In 2008, out of 15 events we only had two DNFs. If anything we were faster in 2007 but eased back in 2008 and got better results.
“In 2007, we were trying to win when we could not realistically win. We always wanted to win, but in 2008 we got more results by swallowing some pride and admitting we couldn’t win every stage.”