Unique tarmac rally throws new challenges at Hyundai Motorsport

Hyundai

The Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team is returning to tarmac this week for the first time since Croatia at the inaugural Central European Rally, with hopes of adding another mark to its podium tally.

The unique, border-crossing rally is the second pure tarmac event of the 2023 FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) and will take place from 26 to 29 October.

As a brand-new event, the Central European Rally presents a number of unknowns. The recce will be the first time the crews will have the opportunity to grace the stages, leaving little time for them to get to grips with the profile and characteristics of the roads. Furthermore, the contrast in surfaces across the three countries is striking; the rougher tarmac and narrow forest passes seen in the Czech Republic could prove the toughest challenge of the weekend for all competitors, including those behind the wheel of the Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid.

The event will see the WRC return to Germany for the first time since the 2019 edition of Rallye Deutschland. As Hyundai Motorsport’s factory is based in Alzenau, Germany, the Central European Rally will feel somewhat like a home event for the manufacturer. The team also claimed its first WRC victory on German soil back in 2014. A repeat of this success will be the goal for all Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team three crews: Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe, Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm and Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula.

The Central European Rally will be the first event in WRC history to cross borders into three countries. The 18-stage itinerary covers a total competitive distance of 310 km alongside the longest liaison distance of the season so far – a huge 1 380,69km. The rally begins in the Czech Republic on Thursday and remains in the country throughout Friday, before heading to both Austria and Germany on Saturday morning. This sees all three nations host stages in less than 48 hours.

Crucial co-driver

Preparing for a rally that has never been run before is as much of a challenge for co-drivers as it is for drivers. Markkula accounts how he prepares to tackle the tarmac of central Europe:

“A new rally requires spending extra care and time on maps and our other documents to ensure the pace notes are perfect. The pace note process itself isn’t too different, mainly because there are always some new sections or completely new stages at events that we have already done before. I think this rally will be somewhat similar to Rallye Deutschland, an event we have experience at in the past. I expect the Czech roads to be narrow, bumpy and fast with the Austrian roads contrasting that – smoother and wider – but just as fast. Tarmac and grip levels will vary country to country, which will be a big challenge.”

Hyundai Motorsport’s team principal Cyril Abiteboul said: “The introduction of a brand-new rally to the calendar, and one as remarkable as this, always presents a challenge to teams and crews. Bringing a WRC event back to Germany is special for us as a homecoming round, and also for the German fans that have not seen top-flight rallying action in their country since 2019. Uniting three countries in one round is something the WRC has never done before, for three countries with such a huge rallying heritage to play host is exceptional. Podium finishes in our two previous tarmac rallies this season means that we are confident we can replicate, if not better, Thierry and Esapekka’s third places at Monte and Croatia.”

Crew Notes: Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe

Neuville said: “It’s the new event on the calendar and it’s always exciting when you get the chance to discover new roads. I always like to drive on tarmac, so I am looking forward to it. It’s going to be a long event between Passau, Prague and also with stages in Austria. It has the furthest liaison distance of the calendar so far, so it will be long distances to travel between stages but I’m sure it’s going to be exciting. Usually we get some footage from the organiser which shows the stages, so we can try to have a look and see what we have to prepare for, especially ahead of the pre-event test – which is going to be crucial on a rally where you could have three different days with three different types of road. We need to be well prepared and that’s the main thing you can do.”

Crew Notes: Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm

Lappi said: “It’s an interesting concept that I like a lot; it’s the first time we have seen this happen in the top-flight of rally. Friday is going to be demanding as I know what the Czech roads are like from past experiences. I do not know Austria so much, but Germany we have experience on thanks to Rallye Deutschland. It’s the time of year where there’s going to be a lot of rain, as well as leaves from the trees, so it will be a challenge managing the different natural elements. I strongly believe that there will be three different sets of characteristics across the weekend, as it’s going to be three different countries. I don’t think we have had these kinds of changes on tarmac before, so it will be a unique event to prepare for.”

Crew Notes: Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula Teemu said: “The Central European Rally will be really demanding. It’s going to be in three different countries so we can expect to have very different types of roads, different tarmac and a lot of changes, so it will be a big challenge for me – especially when it will be my first rally with the Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid at a tarmac round. We had a really good test in Austria and got some good experience in the car, but the Central European Rally is a lot later in the year, making it the most difficult tarmac rally on the calendar. The conditions will be a lot trickier and that’s something new we are facing in the rally. It starts to become autumn time with colder conditions, trees starting to lose leaves, meaning dirt on the tarmac.”

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