The landscape outside Seville ishellishly hot and dominated by dust. Yet it’s here amid the dry brush and sharp rocks that Hyundai’s WRC test drivers are toiling stoicly on their i20 rally car without an air-conditioned sanctuary in sight.
Hyundai first dabbled in motorsport as early as 1989, when it competed in the F2 class of the World Rally Championship. But this time round it is gearing up for a proper crack at the series.
We are, in fact, around 100km from the Spanish city of Seville and despite the harsh conditions, the Spaniards are doing it in style – hitting up the hospitality fridge for cold drinks while a gastronomic artiste slices Jamón ibérico (cured ham) fresh from the bone.
There are three factory test drivers employed by the team – Juho Hanninen, Bryan Boffier and Australian rally success Chris Atkinson.
Hyundai Motorsport Group has less than three months to ready its all-new i20 WRC car for the first event on the 2014 WRC calendar at Monte Carlo in January.
The current testing schedule is brutal.
From July this year to the start of next year’s season, the WRC team will test every two weeks (running for three consecutive days) in preparation for next year’s assault.
Somehow the team sets up shop in the middle of nowhere with a fully functional test centre, including an army of laptops and cables as well as a workshop capable of switching out a diff or transmission in five minutes.
For today’s session Atkinson is behind the wheel of Hyundai’s WRC i20 and is keen to explain the where, how and why of the day’s gruelling test schedule.
“We’ve got a good test stage that we’re running on today, which is about 4km each way, so we’re doing 8km runs trying different components,” Atkinson says of the hot lunar surroundings.
Hyundai is hoping its involvement in the WRC will attract more young males to its brand and sees its i20 rally car as representative of what you can buy on the showroom floor, “unlike Formula One, which apart from the badge on the nose, has nothing in common with the road car,” asserts Atkinson.
The company has formed Hyundai Motorsport GmbH with its headquarters at a huge facility in Alzenau, Germany. The WRC concern uses only a third of the space available and according to company officials, there is room for other motorsport programs, including Formula One.
The work done back in Germany looks humble against this Spanish backdrop. Apart from the obvious camouflage that wraps the entire vehicle, it’s easy to tell this full-blown rally machine comes from humble beginnings.
Except for the deep front and rear spoilers and rally-specific tyres, the car looks like a regular production i20 – but on steroids.
“The cars are actually based on a production car shell”, says Chris.
“That’s where they start out and you’ve got to use a lot of the mounting points and things like that, but there are also big differences obviously in terms of suspension, engine performance and the additional safety features such as the roll cage, racing seats and harnesses,” he adds.
The standard i20 production car makes do with a naturally aspirated 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine developing 73.5kW.
Its WRC relative on the other hand gets a bespoke 1.6-litre direct injection turbo, punching out around 240kW and a bucket-load of low-down torque (Hyundai remains tight-lipped on the actual number).
The rally car also swaps a six-speed manual for a six-speed sequential gearbox and four-wheel drive replaces the standard front-drive system.
The pumped-up performance is soon on full display as Atkinson and his co-driver Stephané Prévot come flying down what looks like a dangerously narrow hill with a sizeable drop off… at 170km/h… sideways.
This kind of driving is not for the faint-hearted and whatever they’re paid as test drivers probably isn’t near to matching their skill set and sheer guts.
Time and time again we witness flat-out passes at insane speeds with Atkinson seemingly in full control of the vehicle – getting faster and faster with each stage run.
Along with all the action there’s plenty of painfully slow downtime as data is downloaded and parts are replaced in an attempt to get the car’s setup as close to perfect as possible.
The tyres, too, are extraordinary. Not so wide, but with huge tread blocks capable of unbelievable grip, as well as firing rocks the size of golf balls with firearm-style velocity at spectators keen enough for some close-up action.
It’s a long and gruelling day facing the test team, remaining on location from 8am till 7pm with a non-negotiable mission to ensure Hyundai develops a successful WRC program that eventually spins off a range of high-performance production models.
“More and more manufacturers are getting involved in WRC because it’s such a raw sport and spectators can get close to the action and of course they can clearly identify with the cars,” Atkinson explains.
It’s a savvy move by the Koreans. In the same way that Subaru was able to boost its image with the Subaru World Rally Team from the early 90s, Hyundai hopes to transform brand perception with its first proper crack at the WRC.
Watching the passion and enthusiasm out here in Seville’s dust, you know Hyundai has earned any success that comes its way. Whether this determination translates into an Impreza-size cult following though is anyone’s guess.