Erik Cais is one of the rally talents driving the ŠKODA Fabia RS Rally2 this season. What is it like to gain experience on world tracks and how does the new car handle? We asked in an interview.
Erik, this is your first season driving the Škoda Fabia RS Rally2. Why did you choose it?
The reasons are quite simple. If you look at the results, purely statistically, the Fabia clearly dominates, and that means that it is simply the best car in its class. Another factor was that I was a Czech who did not race in a Czech car, which also played its role. I know it's a great car and I just really wanted to race in it. I'm glad we finally succeeded in making it all happen.
Have you ever driven it before?
I have, on a very, very short test. That's why I knew, how good
the car was, how responsive it was and how pleasant it was to drive. Since then, I thought to myself that I would love to get into a Fabia.
What do you think are its greatest strengths?
It's definitely the performance. The engine is really powerful. The car also shows the overall approach of the Škoda Motorsport team, which is constantly innovating it. The continuous development brings a wealth of useful data to both the customers and the drivers. This, in turn, helps to keep the car on top of its class. The car is great, but the complex work of the team is another important factor. In the Rally2 class, this is quite a unique approach.
"From the first metre I could feel how strong the car was and at the same time very pleasant to drive."
What was your first impression after the first kilometres of the first test?
My very first live test was on snow. It was in preparation for the Rallye Monte-Carlo. The conditions were really tough because the road was all covered in snow and ice and I had winter tyres on that didn't have much grip. But from the first metre I could feel how strong the car was and at the same time very pleasant to drive. The feedback it gives to the pilot was also great. From those first kilometres, I was really excited.
What exactly do you mean by being pleasant to drive?
You are not surprised by anything. It sounds simple, but it is a very important quality for a driver. He clearly knows what he can afford to do with the car and how it will react. And if he has good self-reflection and knows his limits, he sets a boundary, and then he moves on from there and sees how the car will react. When the car gives you good feedback, you can afford more and more. The Fabia is very intuitive to drive and you still feel that you have the car firmly in your hands. It's about you controlling the car, not the car controlling you. This is the way it must be.
We're on the brink of spring now; you've done a few rallies on tarmac and gravel. How are you getting used to it, is it going quickly or does it still need more time?
Of course the change is not small. There are stages where I'm more confident and you can see that the car fits me. We can be really fast on those, whether it's gravel or asphalt. But of course, at the tests, where I am not so confident, I still do not allow myself to go as fast as I would like. It's not about the fear but about the fact that I need to get to know the car better and push the risk boundaries. I know the car will allow me to do that, but it's more about my confidence and experience. I don't want to make any mistakes and risk damaging the car. At this stage, it is important for us to reach the finish line, but we´re getting used to each other pretty quickly.
"The Fabia is very intuitive to drive and you still feel that you have the car firmly in your hands."
There were some interesting moments from the beginning of the year. The first one is undoubtedly Stage 14 of the Rallye Monte-Carlo, where you had a really great run. It seems to have really suited you.
It was a stage that I really liked. And it wasn't like I said to myself at the start that I would go as far as I could. It was more about me wanting to do a very clean stage and that was the character of the track that suited me. I was confident in myself, I had a great car set up and I knew I could really lean into that car. Everything settled down just nicely and despite the fact that it was at night, I really enjoyed this run. Although it didn't look like it, I didn't take any risks at all, it was more of an absolutely confident drive, trying to make the most of my potential and the car. When I reached the finish line, I remember laughing because I knew the stage was good. But I was surprised how good it was.
Can it be said that you are getting used to the car faster on tarmac than on gravel, or is it generally because you have more experience on tarmac?
It's definitely because tarmac is my native surface. In the Czech Republic, we simply don't have many opportunities to test drive and rally on gravel, so you have the tarmac under your skin almost from your birth. And it doesn't really matter if you ride a tricycle as a child or with a fresh driver's license in your first car. You still have tarmac under your wheels instead of gravel. But I hope that my progress on gravel can also be seen.
The other two moments I'm interested in have to do with gravel. The first one is the neat turn over the roof on Fafe, after which you continued in the competition. And then there's the penultimate stage in the Azores, where you beat everyone, including Sébastien Loeb. How do you remember that?
I always say that a race car defies the laws of physics, but the laws of physics still exist. This means that when I leaned too much into the rutted track, there was so much force and tilt that the car unfortunately flipped over. However, if you take away the accident, I think the time in qualifying time would not be so bad. But of course, such things should not happen to a professional. In the Azores, I struggled a bit with my driving style. That's why I was a little lost at the beginning and only at the end I realized that I had to drive differently. There my lack of gravel experience was fully revealed. On Saturday we worked on it a little bit and in the afternoon the times were good. The penultimate stage was actually similar to the SS14 at the Rallye Monte-Carlo. More things settled in there. I was confident in the car and in myself.
So do you feel the gravel progression?
Absolutely. The pilot is moved forward by the kilometres he´s driven on that particular surface. When he doesn't have those kilometres driven, it's very, very hard to get used to it. So I'm really grateful for the fact that thanks to our partners I can race and gradually gain experience as I go along. It is the effort and systematic work of the whole team.
Last question. You have completed your first test with the Škoda Motorsport team on tarmac in Spain. What was that experience like for you, or what was the direct experience with the team that develops the car?
It was my first test, so I was a bit nervous, but I think that's part of it. It was a great experience, I'm very grateful for it. Seeing the incredible professionalism of the Škoda Motorsport team followed to the absolute detail was very beneficial for me as a driver. I'm glad I could be part of the development process.