Developing a racing car: fun but also hard work for drivers

Developing a racing car: fun but also hard work for drivers

LIFESTYLE MOTORSPORT

ŠKODA Motorsport is completing the development of a new generation of its ŠKODA FABIA Rally2. Test drivers play a key role in this process. How do they see this part of their work?

13. 5. 2022

Developing a new racing car is an extremely challenging task. Especially when you’re building on a car such as successful as the existing ŠKODA FABIA Rally2, which was based on the third generation of the production FABIA. The new rally car is derived from the fourth generation FABIA and is designed to surpass the high bar set by the previous model.

Test drivers obviously play a very important role in achieving this goal. Drivers - Jan Kopecký, Andreas Mikkelsen, Kris Meeke and Emil Lindholm – and their navigators – have been working on the development of the new ŠKODA FABIA Rally2. These experienced drivers are familiar with the Czech carmakers’ existing racing cars, as well as other brands’ models. Experience plays a crucial role in the development of a racing car.

“There are drivers who are very fast but can’t tell you much about the car. We need people like that to really push the car to the limit, but it’s drivers and crews who can provide effective feedback and see eye to eye with the engineers who play the most important role in development,” says Aleš Rada, the racing car’s technical coordinator.

This wealth of experience and ability to communicate allows drivers and engineers to work together to fine-tune the car and test it under different conditions. “In addition, it is important to remember that we are developing the car for a wide range of customers. Our project has over 450 cars worldwide and the aim is to make their drivers feel good in the new car. Better than in the existing one,” explains Rada. “So we sometimes rope in some drivers who don’t normally work with us on development,” he adds.

A tough job

“We are developing a car that will perform well in a very wide range of conditions. This broader scope is important in the initial development, as the car is then fine-tuned for individual surfaces and individual events,” says Norwegian driver Andreas Mikkelsen, who is part of the development team for the new FABIA Rally2.

The drivers’ work in developing the car is very demanding. During a single test day, the drivers often cover more kilometres with the car than in a single day of WRC event. In between runs, they still manage to talk to the engineers about the car’s performance and provide feedback. “Our working day during testing often starts at seven-thirty or eight o’clock in the morning. We’ll have a go at the course and prepare a schedule: we usually start testing about an hour after the start. Taking breaks, we usually drive until maybe six o’clock in the afternoon in order to rack up the necessary distance. And then we have a detailed discussion with the team about the car’s behaviour and all the work we’ve done during the day, and that usually lasts until about eight o’clock,” says the hugely experienced Northern Irish rally driver Kris Meeke.

MeekeKris Meeke

For some drivers, it’s the most demanding programme they’ll ever complete as part of their job. The key is maximum concentration so that they drive consistently and can distinguish which changes in the car’s behaviour are due to a change in set-up or the use of different parts and which are due to changes in the weather and the quality of the track, which, of course, also changes with each drive. 

One more factor complicates the work. “We usually drive blind: we don’t get precise information about the changes the engineers have made to the car,” explains test driver Jan Kopecký. The engineers hide the changes from the drivers so that they are not overly influenced by them when observing the car’s behaviour. “If you know what has changed on the car, you tend to focus too much on it and then you might think you can feel a difference, but in reality it’s not that significant,” explains Andreas Mikkelsen.

Jan-KopeckyJan Kopecký

There are some drivers who welcome some of that information in advance, though. “Some indication of what has changed helps me to focus on the change and not on the changing track conditions,” says Emil Lindholm, the youngest member of the test drivers’ team. What he enjoys most are the long test days on the very uneven gravel tracks. “For me, the second type of test is the most challenging, when we are fine-tuning the specific set-up of the car. Then I have to concentrate on the smallest details. We don’t analyse corners as a whole, but split into several parts, and that requires a lot of concentration,” explains Lindholm why he finds the testing phase, which comes after the initial comprehensive tests of the car, more demanding.

LindholmEmil Lindholm

A new hope

The new generation FABIA Rally2’s actual performance will ultimately be tested in contests around the world, but the test drivers can already reveal their impressions of the new car. And these impressions give hope that the new car will be able to build on the success of its predecessor. „The engine is more powerful and the torque is better than it was,” says Emil Lindholm, praising the power unit.

But the new car has a slightly different effect on each of the drivers. “In general, the cars are built according to the same rules, so the differences can’t be that huge. The challenge is to take what made the existing FABIA Rally2 and Rally2 evo models so successful and improve on it. In doing so, the engineers have been working with new dimensions for the chassis and the car as a whole,” says Kris Meeke, hinting at the change. “It’s a completely different car and it’s difficult to compare it with the previous one. In general, though, the car is fast and handles well. It should be stronger in all aspects and we are working hard to further improve the already good reliability,” adds Andreas Mikkelsen. 

mikkelsenAndreas Mikkelsen

Based on the drivers’ experience so far, it looks like the new FABIA Rally2 will be fast, reliable and good to drive.

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