Who's laughing now?

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Gone are the days when Skoda used to be the butt of jokes – now it’s busy bagging international rally championships, By Rob Widdows

Simply clever. That is how Skoda describes itself today. Simply a secret. Few people appreciate that the company has a long history in motor sport. Simply a joke. That is how Skoda used to be described in the dark days of decades gone by.

But not anymore. The Czech car manufacturer has travelled a long way since being swallowed up by Volkswagen. The German giant has embraced the plucky little company, invested heavily, nurtured a new culture of perfection, and in recent years Skoda has become a major player on the world stage — and the rally stage.

This year it won the Intercontinental Rally Challenge with the Fabia (above) convincingly, cleverly using this platform to further enhance the new image that was so badly needed. And it achieved this with a Czech driver, the talented Juha Hanninen. But to properly understand the present, we need to reel back the years.

It is not widely recognised that Skoda, so long hidden behind the Iron Curtain, started racing over a century ago. In 1895 Vaclav Laurin and Vaclav Klement began to make bicycles and then motorcycles, which they raced with huge success. In 1905 they made their first motor car, and two years later the first racer. The Laurin & Klement marque boosted the Czech reputation for quality engineering, but struggled financially and was taken over by the Skoda engineering group. Into the ’30s Skodas won races and rallies throughout the Eastern Bloc, even venturing to the Monte.

Then came the war. The Skoda factory in Mlada Boleslav was pressed into service building tanks, trucks, guns and ammunition for Germany. After that came Communism. The Russians kept the lid firmly clamped down on creativity, buying in obsolete Renault tooling to build ‘new’ models. Hard to believe now, as we contemplate a Grand Prix in Moscow, but the Soviets shared Jean-Paul Sartre’s misgivings about the human spirit being allowed absolute freedom…

But while the Soviet ethos was uninterested in racing and rallying, enthusiasm survived. Tuned Skodas were successful in Eastern Bloc competition, and even the odd single-seater emerged from the Skoda works.

Today the tanks have gone. Tesco is here. There are Maseratis and BMWs in the streets where once there were only Skodas, Trabants or Ladas. The vision of Laurin and Klement, expressed in the Skoda badge, has come to pass. Look closely and you will see the flying arrow of progress, the single eye of precision and the wings that they foresaw reaching out into markets that were for so long forbidden.

The old factory remains a landmark in the flatlands north of Prague. A brick chimney, such as in Lowry’s Salford skylines, dominates the landscape. There are 20,000 people working here — that’s half the population of Mlada Boleslav. To work for Skoda is seen as an honour now rather than a necessary chore. Since 1991 the company has been part of the Volkswagen Group and in that time much has changed.

The Czechs are tough people, none more so than Laurin and Klement who established the ethos of a company that is now a significant player worldwide. Cast in bronze, the two men stand at the factory gates. They were engineers, racers — and their inspiration remains alive and respected in Mlada Boleslav.

Sitting down for a chat over lunch in the impressive museum that has been built alongside the factory, corporate communications man Jaroslav Cerny looks apprehensive. Perhaps he is expecting to be reminded of all the old jokes. But he needn’t worry. We’ve just completed a tour of the factory, where an engine comes off the line every 50 seconds and 1000 tons of steel is consumed every day.

“At least one person from every family in this town is working here,” he says, smiling at my amazement. “Some of those families have been here for four generations. There is a continuity, a passion for what they do. They are proud to be part of this new chapter in our history. They are working round the clock, seven days a week, in three shifts, and this is because we are now producing cars that people want. And these are not Volkswagens, these are Skodas. These are Czech cars. Our people are proud of the detail that goes into finishing the product, and they can see the success we are having.”

This may sound like the usual spin from a communications person, but that’s not the case. Walking through the vast factory halls, filled with the latest in German robotics and technology, there is a palpable atmosphere of hard graft and attention to detail.

“The joint venture with Volkswagen has been a big influence, of course,” says Cerny. “And I will tell you that many people were not happy to have a German owner. There were too many memories of what happened here during World War II, but on the other side they saw it was good because the other option was Renault, and the French only wanted an assembly plant here. Today, we have our own research and development centre.

“The rally teams are run independently by Skoda Motorsport but road car engineers at Mlada Boleslav worked on the aerodynamics of the new Fabia Super 2000 rally car,” explains Cerny as we walk among flying sparks from huge welding torches. “They were given 10 days to produce aerodynamic solutions for the 2010 bodywork, and they did it, testing the results in Audi’s wind tunnel at Ingolstadt.”

There was widespread disbelief, and not a few wry smiles, when Skoda brought the Octavia to the World Rally Championship in 1999, full of optimism following the takeover. From inside the company this was seen as a return to its competitive roots, but on the outside few were willing to bet on its success.

There had been considerable success before the Octavia and Fabia. Norwegian John Haugland was a regular visitor to the RAC Rally podium with the little Favorit (sold in the UK latterly as the Estelle), dominating his class throughout the ’80s. These tough 1.3-litre cars (in various guises) proved to be unlikely heroes, resilient in demanding conditions and bringing Skoda top-10 finishes — even in the Group B era. Haugland, who remained loyal to Skoda, possessed uncanny skills on icy surfaces, while the Estelle’s robust character and reliability surprised many. The rear-engined car had the traction of a Renault 8 (from which it derived), but the company stayed with rear-wheel drive for too long, soldiering on until the end of ’88.

Remember also that grey, snowy day in Wales in 1996 when Stig Blomqvist brought a Felicia through the blizzards to make the RAC podium. In third place and only 16 seconds behind the winning Toyota of Armin Schwarz, the Felicia won its class by half a minute.

Then came the Octavia. But neither that nor the Fabia ever truly got to grips with the WRC’s top teams.

“In those days we never had enough money to develop the car,” says Cerny. “The top teams had huge budgets but we never had those kind of resources. So we didn’t achieve what we had aimed for. Also, we never had the top drivers, again because of the budgets. Maybe it was a step too far. But it was the only chance we had to put the cars on a world stage.”

Today Skoda has the budget, the technology and the drivers. And, importantly, it is selling customer versions of the Fabia S2000, which has brought it so much success in Europe this year. The force behind this triumph is the highly experienced Michal Hrabanek, who heads Skoda Motorsport and has recruited engineers from Peugeot and Mitsubishi as well as from within Skoda. In the service park on the Czech Barum Rally in Zlin, where the team clinched the 2010 IRC Manufacturers’ Championship, he sat down to talk, with one eye on news coming in from the final stages.

“I don’t know what was missing in the past, but with the S2000 programme we have the best people and a well developed car, better than the Peugeot,” he says. “We were under pressure to deliver results because this is a big part of the company’s marketing programme. It was important for us to beat Peugeot. We are still developing the car but also you need the best drivers and the best team, so it’s taken time to be where we are now. This is truly an international programme, with engineers and mechanics from all over Europe, much more than we had in the WRC. But this is common — people move around within the sport, we did not steal them. We have Czech drivers which is good, but we also have Freddy Loix and Guy Wilks [since signed by Peugeot] to support the factory team. Loix has brought huge experience.”

At this point Jan Kopeck, who had led the rally throughout, was off the road, allowing a Peugeot through. But Loix was right there winning stages, while championship leader Hanninen was heading for the podium to salvage some honour for the Czechs. Tense times. So would Skoda now be ready for another crack at the WRC?

A long pause from Hrabanek, eyes on the leader board. “Anything is possible. We like a challenge, but it depends on how the WRC will be promoted — the IRC has more TV coverage right now. Every car manufacturer has to promote and market its cars, and motor sport is a vital part of that strategy. Where we compete, now or in the future, is not my decision. The future of the WRC is not yet clear — who will compete, what the regulations will be. My job is to win; it’s important to win.”

And win Skoda has, with IRC Drivers’ Champion Hanninen dominating again on October’s demanding Rally of Scotland to add to its manufacturer success. Job done.

*

Back in the dark days car makers like ‘Skoda and Tatra were rotting, their engineers and designers muzzled by the dictates of Communism and war. On the ground floor of a grey apartment block on the edge of Zlin, the proud history of these Eastern European makes is hidden away. A treasure trove of Skodas and Tatras has been lovingly restored, a reminder of where today’s cars were born and nurtured. These are the jewels in the crown, brought back to life by inspirational engineer and historian Vladimir Hoferek.

One night, on my way to a Slivovitz tasting (how on earth can something made from plums be so powerful?), I was invited in. This is not an official museum, but a private collection cared for by a passionate engineer.

In a corner of this anonymous space is a Tatra racing car with a V8 engine. And this engine is in the back of the car. Extraordinary. It was built in 1951 by the company named after the Tatra Mountains close to its factory at Koprivnice.

“You want to hear?” asks a mechanic. It runs? Yes, I definitely do.

Petrol is sprayed into the eight intake trumpets, a battery is connected, the V8 rumbles into life, a blast of noise filling the low-ceilinged room. VW board members stick their fingers in their ears. I had never heard of such a racing car. Neither had the senior management of Tatra. Engineers at Koprivnice told them they were building a new truck engine, the company forced by the Germans to focus on the needs of post-war Eastern Europe. Some truck engine. In secret they had developed a racing car ahead of its time, with a mighty powerful V8 just where Jack Brabham realised it should go some years later. All this and a Slivovitz distillery in one night. The following day ‘Skoda took a thrilling 1-2-3 victory in the Czech Barum Rally. The town of Zlin, heaving with fans, went crazy.

“Only the best that we can do is good enough for our customers.” Not a marketing soundbite from the VW Group but a statement from Vaclays Laurin and Klement almost a century ago. The new owners would not disagree with the sentiment. Skoda production has tripled since the VW takeover, the latest cars being endorsed by consumer groups previously only too willing to join in the jokes.

Talk of a Skoda Grand Prix car is fanciful. But a return to the world stage would not be a surprise. This time, however, we would see the distinctive red, white and green cars when they are ready to win.

There were times when ‘Skoda was too small to succeed. The time may come when, like banks in recession, it is too big to fail. For now, the burghers of Wolfsburg are happy with their investment, and justifiably so. As for those jokes, the perpetrators are laughing on the other side of their faces now.

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