The ŠKODA FABIA R5 has enjoyed an unprecedented run of success in the WRC2 drivers’ championship. The success of Jan Kopecký is this year’s championship means that there have been three ŠKODA Motorsport drivers champions in three years. And it was in Australia where the first of those drivers’ titles was secured back in 2016.
The 2016 season was the first full season in which ŠKODA Motorsport had entered the FABIA R5 into the WRC 2 championship. It was a hugely successful year with all three works team partnerships achieving notable results.
Pontus Tidemand and Jonas Andersson had won the Rallye de Portugal while Jan Kopecký and Pavel Dresler tasted victory at the RallyRACC Catalunya – Costa Daurada. But it was the Finnish duo of Esapekka Lappi and Janne Ferm who really excelled.
Former Finland and European Rally Champion Lappi finished 9th overall and second in RC2 class at the Rallye Monte Carlo in the opening round of the season but was not actually entered into the WRC 2 standings for that race.
Despite this early promise, he actually made a modest start to the WRC2 championship. A third-place finish at the Rally Sweden was followed up by a 9that the Rallye Italia Sardegna, where he had to retire from the 2nd leg. Another 3rd place at the Rally Poland followed leaving Lappi off the championship pace going into his home event.
But it was at the Rally Finland, where his season really caught fire. He secured his first victory of the season in comfortable fashion and following that up with another strong win at the Rallye Deutschland.
Going into the penultimate rally of the season, the Wales Rally GB, Lappi was still in contention for the WRC 2 title. His rival was fellow Finnish driver Teemu Suninen, who was driving a customer FABIA R5 for Team Oreca. Alongside experienced co-driver Mikko Markkula, Suninen already had three WRC 2 wins under his belt (at the Rally Guanajuato Mexico, Rallye Italia Sardegna, and Rally Poland). If results went his way in Wales, he could have been crowned WRC 2 champion then and there.
But it was Lappi who brought his strong form to bear and claimed a third successive WRC 2 victory. Teammate Pontus Tidemand also helped him out by edging Suninen into third place by just over a second.
Which all meant that the 2016 WRC 2 championship race would go down to the final round of the season; the Rally Australia.
For Suninen, the outcome was now out of his hands. He had driven his seven rounds and would have to watch on and see if Lappi would be able to get the points he needed to overtake him in the Championship. Suninen held a 15-point advantage, which meant Lappi had to finish 3rd or higher to win the title.
In truth, the odds were always stacked in Lappi’s favour. There were just five entrants in the WRC 2 standings in Australia and Lappi dominated from the start. The big question was whether both the driver and his FABIA R5 car could navigate the 280 km of difficult gravel tracks and also cope with the dust and searing heat that affects all drivers in the Rally Australia.
But both Lappi and the FABIA R5 had been unerringly consistent throughout the season, and so it proved again down under. Lappi coped with the pressure and the conditions admirably winning a remarkable 22 of the 23 rounds driven to finish an enormous 4 minutes 35 seconds ahead of his closest challenger, another FABIA R5 customer driver, Peruvian Nicolás Fuchs.
The win meant he finished the season 10 points clear of Suninen and with his fourth win in a row, Lappi had secured his place in ŠKODA Motorsport history and the Rally Australia’s special place in the hearts of everyone connected to the team. It was here that the team clinched their first ever World Rally title and the FABIA R5’s dominance of the WRC 2 championship truly began.
ŠKODA Motorsport didn’t make a return trip to Australia in 2017, with Pontus Tidemand having already wrapped up the WRC 2 drivers’ championship for a second successive year. But current ŠKODA works driver Kalle Rovanperä did taste victory in the WRC 2 standings there while privateers Richie Dalton and John Allen took their FABIA R5 to an impressive 8th place overall and first in class.
In 2018, ŠKODA Motorsport will once again sit out the Rally Australia and it will be up to local driver Eli Evans to represent the brand’s name. But no matter if the team goes there, Rally Australia will always be a special one for ŠKODA.