Those little Škoda rally cars can be so embarrassing. Not, you understand, for the teams running them or for the drivers and navigators piloting them, but for the crews of much more powerful machines in front of them.
Rally cars bearing the famous winged arrow badge and built in Mladá Boleslav, in what is now the Czech Republic, have a long history of making drivers of supposedly faster cars break into a sweat when they catch sight of them in their rear view mirror. Many a co-driver of theoretically superior machinery has cursed under their breath as they have compared stage times with their Škoda-mounted counterparts.
Even back in 1970s and the 1980s Škoda’s rear-engined models looked quite antiquated. But that did not stop it winning its class year after year on Great Britain’s uber-gruelling RAC Rally, and in the process claiming the scalp of many a more muscular car that should have been a long, long way ahead of them on the time sheets.
Today, the 1977 Škoda 130 RS two-door coupé sitting in a queue of traffic to start a stage of the 2016 Eifel Rally Festival looks quite pretty. But it also looks completely out of place amongst the MkII Ford Escorts, with their bulging wheel arches, and the fearsome Group B four-wheel drive super cars, with their outrageous aerodynamic appendages.
But take a closer look at the Škoda. See, there, the seven gold stars by the driver’s name? That’s one for each time forty-seven year-old Matthias Kahle won his native German Rally Championship between 1997 and 2010. And four of those victories were taken in Škodas, although when it comes to technology, the Octavia and Fabia WRC and Fabia S2000 cars Matthias took his titles with are light years ahead of the 130 RS.
Anyone who has seen Matthias drive the 39-year-old Škoda before will know that he does so at a very rapid and ever-so-sideways pace. So on reflection, I wouldn’t want be sitting behind the wheel of the car in front of the Škoda, lest at some point I catch a glimpse of the little red white and blue car and its comically old-school spot lamps in my rear view mirror.
Mind you, I am not sure I am entirely comfortable with where I am sitting now, testicle-tweaked in tight with a four-point harness in the 130 RS’s co-driver seat beside Matthias. Everything was fine a few minutes ago with the hill we are about to climb and the forest we are set to dive into bathed in sunlight…
But now the skies have begun to darken and the massive turbine blades of the electric-generating windmills that bestride the Eiffel Mountains are whumping around faster and faster. The first fat raindrops hit the windscreen, and soon a full-on downpour is hammering on the roof.
But the water outside the car is not really the problem – the Škoda’s windscreen wipers will take care of that. No, it’s the condensation inside that is going to give us a headache. In the humid summer air, the front screen has fogged over just as surely as if someone had boiled a kettle in front of it.
It’s as if a sudden fog has descended. I peer through the gloom as the car in front blasts off along the stage and then the marshal waves us forward. Undeterred, Matthias revs up the Škoda’s engine, which sits right at the back of the car. It’s only a 1.3-litre four-cylinder 8-valve, and it is not as robust as you might think.
“The crankshaft has only three bearings, not five,” Škoda’s Tradition’s Logistics Manager Stefan Hohenberger explained to me earlier. “It has to be rebuilt after ever 500km. As the car is nearly forty years old we have to build all the parts for it in-house. But the engine does produce 134bhp, and as the car only weighs 880kg, that’s plenty.’
It is certainly enough to shoot us forwards off the line. Matthias begins working his way through the four-speed gearbox, reapplying the accelerator with gusto after each super-swift gear-change. On we hurtle—although exactly where I cannot tell—as the view through the fogged-up windscreen remains limited, to say the least.
Matthias seems to be driving the stage largely by memory. I take reassurance, if not exactly comfort from the modern seats, roll-cage and tight-fitting seatbelts. Most of the rest of the car’s interior has a period charm about it, apart from the rally computer and the full-length, elbow-height Ken Block-style handbrake lever, which has a sticker with the word ‘fun’ inscribed on it.
And I soon find out why. Matthias tweaks the steering wheel, applies the magic handbrake lever and flicks the 130 RS into a full-on sideways drift through a hairpin bend. At least now that we are looking through the non-misted up side window we can see where we are going. I note with relief that the terrain we are hammering through is still nice and open. So if we do slide off the road we’ll be straight into a field, not trees.
I give Matthias a double-thumb salute of approval as he dances the little Škoda through the puddles. “This car is easy to drive,” he shouts through the helmet intercom. “It’s rear-wheel drive of course and we’ve built it so that it goes sideways very easily, which is good for the spectators and good for the driver as there is nothing to do!”
Matthias also prefers to run the car on gravel tyres, even on wet tarmac, which I opine surely cannot be the safest option. “It is the opposite,” explains Matthias. “We could use slick tyres, and sure the car would be faster, but it would not look as exciting or be as sideways. With more grip in the corners it would also put much too much force on all the parts of the car such as the suspension and the brakes. That could be dangerous in such an old car. I would say that gravel tyres now give an equivalent level of grip on tarmac to what slick tyres would have forty years ago, so they are just right.”
There is an undeniable logic to all that of course, but there doesn’t seem to be much sense to be travelling at these speeds in these weather conditions. Now it is raining harder than ever and lighting flashes across the sky as the thunderstorm builds. And yet on we go, plunging merrily down the next hill.
When the car goes sideways again, this time on my side, I notice that we’re pretty close to the trees. “How can you go so fast in this when you can see hardly anything?” I ask. “Oh come on, this is not fast at all,” replies Matthias as we zoom past a parked up MG Metro 6R4, the driver of which it would seem has very wisely pulled over to wait for the torrential rain to stop. If it were me, I’d have stopped a few meters after the start.
At least if Matthias was driving his modern Škoda Fabia R5 rally car he would presumably not have the problem of the screen misting up. But what would he do if it were foggy, when surely he would have a similar view to what we are experiencing now?
“Yes, but then I would just listen to my navigator’s pace notes and drive to those if I couldn’t see,” he tells me. In such a situation exactly how much would he trust the guidance provided by his ‘modern’ co-driver Christian Doerr? “I would trust him 100% on when to brake and when to turn –even if I couldn’t see at all. He will get it right, because it is his life too if it goes wrong!”
And now we are deep into the forest, where I really rather hope it does not go wrong. Matthias is completely relaxed; he’s in his element. His skill is amazing considering he never even saw, never mind drove a rally car until he was 21. “I grew up in East Germany and I had no contact with rallying whatsoever, apart from seeing a short clip on a video once.”
So how come he can drive like this? “The area where I grew up was right in the middle of a massive forest with absolutely nothing around. So I would just go and drive the tracks in a Trabant when I was young. This was the only car you could have in those days. There was no other choice.”
As we come to the end of the stage, Matthias chats about how now he is fortunate enough now to have the choice of a historic Škoda and a modern one to drive. I feel pretty lucky now at having collected another Škoda rally car memory.
I think back to the first one years ago when I had a ride round Nutts Corner race circuit in Northern Ireland with Norwegian Driver John Haugland in his Škoda 130 LR, complete with a Troll doll strapped to the roll cage. There was a Group B Ford R200 testing that day too. And although it left the Škoda for dead on the straights, I give you my word, Haugland stuck right to its rear bumper through the corners.
Then, in 1996, I remember an event where Stig Blomqvist, then aged 50, was driving a Škoda Felicia Kit Car. There was a group photograph taken of Stig and all the young hot shots of the day, who were driving cars such as works Seats, Fords and Renaults. And there was a lot of disrespectful sniggering going on.
“Is that you granddad?” one driver asked another. Someone else made bunny ears behind Stig’s head, but if the great man noticed, he didn’t show it. Better by far to let the driving do the talking.
Come that year’s RAC Rally it snowed, and it snowed hard. Many of the young stars stuffed their cars into snowbanks, skidded off into ditches and wrapped them around trees. Some even complained that the marshals hadn’t warned them about ice ahead.
And where was Stig in all this? Well, for some reason the ice didn’t seem to bother the Swede all that much. At the end of the event he and co-driver Benny Melander stepped out of their front-wheel drive Felicia and onto third place on the podium. They were miles ahead of not only the guys who had taken the piss at the start of the season, but also hordes of four-wheel drive Ford Escort RS Cosworths, Mitsubishi Lancer Evos and Subaru Impreza 555s.
And that’s the problem with those little Škoda rally cars – they can be just so embarrassing.