The Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 is the fourth Fabia rally car developed by Škoda Motorsport. We invited a total of seven drivers who have plenty of experience with the cars to tell us how they enjoyed driving and what they think of the cars. Read on to find out how the Fabia competition car has evolved from the Škoda Fabia WRC to the most successful car in the Rally2 class to the brand new car of the latest generation.
Let's start at the beginning, with Toni Gardemeister, who drove the Škoda Fabia WRC.
Toni, you were involved in the development of the Fabia WRC, what was it like getting behind the wheel for the first time?
It was in 2003, so it's quite hard to remember. But it was an interesting period of time because it was the start of something new. We switched from the Octavia WRC to the Fabia WRC and I was really excited at that time. We had high expectations for the car. It was a very interesting period indeed.
In our last interview you said that the Octavia WRC is your favourite car. What was the biggest difference between the Fabia WRC and the Octavia WRC?
The Octavia WRC is a car that I liked a lot. Sure, it wasn't a winning car, but it was very predictable. I knew exactly what it was going to do. Then, when we started developing the Fabia WRC, it was something completely different in terms of driving.
What did you like about the Fabia WRC?
It looked nice. I still think it was one of the best-looking WRC cars ever. I liked its size and I liked the unique gearshift with the round paddles on the steering wheel. Driving it was a lot of fun.
Another driver is Jan Kopecký, who was the only one to compete in the World and European Championships with all competition Fabia cars.
Honza, what was it like behind the wheel of a Fabia WRC at the first World Rally?
It was in Spain in 2004 and to be honest, it's not a very nice memory. We won the Czech championship and got our first chance in the world that season. It ended with a crash on Friday, but it was a pretty good lesson for me.
Did the Fabia WRC suit your driving style better than the Octavia WRC?
Yes, we only drove the Octavia WRC for one season. I did a lot more driving in the Fabia WRC. It was a nice car with good speed and quite a lot of torque. Later on, when we drove with the support of Škoda Motorsport, we were able to achieve good results. Our first bigger success came again in Spain in 2006, when we finished fifth. Back then we were driving at the new stages around Salou and the local smooth, almost circuit-like asphalt really suited me. I had raced on circuits before, which helped me a lot. A year later in Germany, with a really strong support from the Czech fans, we finished fifth again. By then we were running with mechanical differentials, or rather with constant pressure differentials, and the car worked great with them.
That was the end of the WRC era for Škoda Motorsport. But a new development was beginning to take shape. Were you involved in the development of the new S2000 car?
Actually, I was already involved in the development of the Fabia WRC, but there I was doing work that the experienced drivers didn't really want to do. For example, when I was testing the gearbox, I drove back and forth on the polygon all day, just shifting gears and braking. But I was involved in the development of the Fabia S2000 from the very beginning.
How do you remember this generation of the Fabia rally car?
It was the perfect car for me. When I compare it to my first drives in the later Fabia R5, it was something completely different. The Fabia S2000 was a perfectly precise car to drive, it handled like a go-kart; with an atmospheric two-litre engine that had an amazing sound. I really liked that car.
The most experienced driver in the Škoda Fabia S2000 in factory colours was Juho Haninnen.
Juho, the Fabia S2000 was your first experience with Škoda rally cars, how do you remember the beginning of your cooperation with Škoda Motorsport?
The first contact was at a rally in Russia in 2008. After the first day, I was leading and then Jan Kopecký checked me out about driving for Škoda Motorsport the following year. I didn't know him very well and I led over him in the competition. I thought he was joking. At that time I was a bit on the fence, but later the management spoke up and together with Michal Hrabánek and Pavel Hortek we eventually came to an agreement quite quickly. By the end of that year I was already testing the new Fabia S2000, which was before homologation. Actually, we did quite a lot of testing.
You were used to supercharged racing cars at that time, but the Fabia S2000 had an atmospheric engine. How did you adapt to this change?
Well, it was a big change, but I was younger then and I adapted quite quickly. The working revs of the atmospheric engine are different, but it was quite easy to work with. The Fabia S2000 was also quite easy to drive, which definitely helped me during the adaptation to the atmospheric engine.
The Fabia S2000 had a fairly small window in which the engine had optimum performance, did you have to pay close attention to proper shifting when driving on the edge?
In slow rallies, getting the gears right was probably a bit more challenging because you had to keep the engine at the right revs all the time. But in the fast passages it was fine. Even when you dropped below the engine's operating rev range, there was still some power there. I think it was all right.
Juho, you and your team won the first major trophy in the modern era. That must have been quite a celebration, huh?
Yes, we won the IRC title in 2010. It was a great year, especially because I managed to beat Jan Kopecký on the tarmac, which was maybe more than the title. I remember especially the great atmosphere in the team and among the drivers. I was battling with Andreas Mikkelsen and Kris Meeke on the tracks, and it was really great.
After a successful collaboration with Škoda Motorsport, you jumped into the stronger WRC cars. How big a change was that?
With the S2000 you had more time to do everything because the WRC car at the time was almost two seconds per kilometre faster. So, I had to adapt a lot.
Andreas Mikkelsen was behind the wheel of the Fabia S2000, battling with Jan, Juho and Kris. How does he remember it?
Andreas, you have a lot of experience with the Fabia S2000. How do you remember this car, which you won two IRC titles with?
I have great memories of it. In 2009 and 2010, I drove the Fabia S2000 in several races. We managed to achieve some good results and in 2011 I was given the opportunity by Škoda UK to compete in the IRC championship. It was my first chance to drive a car prepared by Škoda Motorsport, as Škoda UK was supported by Škoda Motorsport at that time. But it was a scary start. We had tested for more than 1,000 kilometres before the Rally Monte-Carlo and I had an accident just after 300 metres of the first stage. That was a bit of a bummer. We quickly moved on and it got better as the year went on. It was a really big battle with the guys who were driving at a high level but in the end we very narrowly won the IRC title. 2011 was a really great year, we went all out for every rally. I'll always have good memories of that.
In 2012, during the development of the Polo WRC, you drove the Fabia S2000 together in a team with Sebastien Ogier. That must have been some interesting racing.
Yes, we were quite busy in 2012. We completed the entire IRC championship with Škoda UK and several rallies under the Volkswagen Motorsport banner. With the Fabia S2000, the team was preparing for the Polo WRC, which was due to start running in 2013. It was challenging, but we were celebrating the title again, so it was a good season for us. I think it prepared us quite well for our entry into the WRC.
After four years, you were back behind the wheel of a new generation Fabia rally car. How much of a difference was it to get behind the wheel of a supercharged Fabia R5 after the Fabia S2000?
My return behind the wheel of a Škoda rally car went quite smoothly. After four years since I last drove an S2000, the Fabia R5 felt very familiar. The performance was more akin to what I was used to from the WRC cars, but the Fabia S2000 and R5 drove very similarly. I quickly felt at home.
Later, you won the WRC2 category in the World rally Championship with the Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo. How big is the difference between the two cars from a driver's perspective?
Yes, the last time I drove a Fabia R5 was in 2017 and then I returned to driving a Fabia Rally2 evo in 20202. They're actually quite similar. There are a few upgrades, but the regulations haven't changed, so there's not much difference.
One of the three world champions we have invited is Pontus Tidemand. Pontus won the WRC2 category in 2017.
Pontus, you won the title in 2017, how do you remember this year?
I joined Škoda Motorsport in 2015. Right from the start, the team allowed me to do a lot of rallies and tests, which was great for me. It was a big team and I was surrounded by a lot of experienced drivers like Esapekka Lappi and Jan Kopecký. I made a few mistakes at the beginning, but I felt I was improving quickly. 2017 was my year. Everything went surprisingly smoothly. It's definitely the highlight of my career.
I was also interested to hear that in 2015 you combined the Fabia S2000 and FABIA R5 cars during the season. Wasn't it difficult to always adapt to a particular car?
I did a lot of driving that year, so I always adapted quickly. I remember my first big rally with the Fabia R5, it was in Portugal in 2015. Although we had tested a lot before that, we had some minor technical problems. I was fascinated by how the team solved even that detail at the next test and we didn´t have any technical problems since then. It was a good demonstration of how seriously they take the whole sport. No detail is too small for them not to pay attention to it. I have happy memories of my years in Škoda Motorsport. They´re still a bit of a family for me.
Was there any rally or surface that particularly suited you in the Fabia R5?
I'm a northerner, so I prefer snow and gravel. But when I joined Škoda Motorsport, I got a good tarmac school from the guys who are very fast on tarmac. The team gave me the opportunity to drive on tarmac quite a lot, so I learned a lot. I also did a few tarmac rallies in the Czech Republic. Thanks to that, I learned how to drive properly on tarmac and also how to work with tarmac tyres.
Let's go back to the third generation of the Fabia, the Škoda Fabia R5. Jan Kopecký had a big hand in its development.
Honza, you were there from the very beginning. How complicated was the development of the Fabia R5 project in 2013-2014?
The team already had a lot of experience in developing the Fabia S2000, so the basis for the car was good from the start. However, the rules of the R5 class are quite different from the S2000 ones and that was the main reason why I was initially excited about the engine, which had more power and torque. But I didn't like the handling. The car was closer to the more production N category than the S2000. But we continued to work hard on the car and gradually the R5's character became more "race-y". Now I can say that it is really good to drive and very reliable. I've been with Škoda Motorsport since 2008 and in the countless rallies we've done, I've only had to withdraw due to technical problems once.
Did you know at the time that you were creating a car that would be so successful in the future?
It was clear to everyone from the start that we had to build a car that would be successful, because that was the way to keep motorsport as part of the Škoda brand. Toni Gardemeister said that previously the cars hadn't had the reliability and speed and Michal Hrabánek, as the new head of Škoda Motorsport, wanted to change that. So, the team was completely rebuilt, and it worked. The number of sold cars surprised us, of course, but from the beginning we wanted to make a car this good, and we worked very hard on it.
The youngest member of the team is Emil Lindholm, who has extensive experience with the Fabia Rally2 evo and was also involved in the development of the new Fabia RS Rally2.
Speaking of development, the Fabia RS Rally2 was your first major development project for Škoda Motorsport. How did you like being part of it?
I really enjoyed it. It was my first real development of a competition car and a great opportunity to work with such an experienced and capable team as Škoda Motorsport. I learned a lot in those few months.
How much progress has the car made during the intensive year-long testing?
It's almost a year since I first drove the new car. I immediately felt the DNA of the previous car, so I got used to the new car quite quickly. From the very beginning, I felt great in it. The whole development was really about the details that affect the speed and reliability of the car. Sometimes it wasn't easy, but I think we managed it quite well.
What surface did you like the Fabia RS Rally2 the most on?
I enjoyed the car on all surfaces, but I enjoyed the winter test in Finland the most. That was great.
Is there a particular moment from the test that has stuck deep in your mind?
I think we all had a few interesting moments. One that comes to mind right now is meeting a couple of reindeer that was really close to us in Finland.
The development team of the new car included the experienced Kris Meeke. For him it was a completely new experience with a competition car of this class.
Kris was the development of the new car your first proper collaboration with Škoda Motorsport?
We were first in contact around 2005. I briefly drove the Fabia WRC during testing at the Rallye Monte-Carlo. Then I fought against them in the IRC, where I won the title in 2009, and we were in talks with Škoda Motorsport about a seat for 2010. In the end it didn't work out, so this development was my first real and proper collaboration.
In one of the previous interviews, you said you didn't have much experience with Rally2 cars. Have you done any comparison tests? How is the new car better than the old one?
That's true, but I have experience with a number of other rally cars, and they all have pedals and a steering wheel and you try to go as fast as possible driving them. I went into this project with a clear head and my opinion of how I feel in the car. I think the engineers appreciated that. The comparison was interesting for me because I hadn't raced in the old car like Jan, Andreas and Emil. Škoda Motorsport has incredible experience in building and developing Rally2 cars, the team has put a huge amount of miles on them and it is definitely seen. I was surprised that the new car was absolutely reliable from the first drive. I could feel the difference in the chassis, for example. It feels firmer, you can push the car more, you can lean into it more, and that's what's different from the old car. You can see it a lot in Finland, for example, or on the tarmac in Spain. It's really an advantage. With the regulations for the Rally2 class it's difficult to make any significant progress, but the details that Emil talked about, I think, will play an interesting role. We'll see on the stages.
Is there anything you'd like to say to the drivers who will be driving this car?
Enjoy it! It's a brand new car, but we've all tried to put our best into the development here. We hope it will be fast and durable and that it will pick up at least as many trophies as the last generation.
Finally, I would also like to ask other development drivers to share their impressions from driving the new Fabia RS Rally2. What do you like most about it?
JAN: The engine. It's really great. It has power from low revs and you hardly ever need the number one; only in really sharp corners. The car is very stable and very precise in the driving.
ANDREAS: It's a different car. I remember when I switched from the Fabia S2000 to the Fabia R5, I felt similar. What I like most is the better stability at higher speeds. I always struggled a bit with that in the last generation, but the new car feels very good at higher speeds. I think this will be a big advantage in Sweden or Finland. The engine handles better because it has a bigger engine's operating rev range. In corners you can go into second gear, which saves time. Inside you feel like you're in a real racing car, and that's good.
EMIL: For me, the biggest difference is also the engine. The low-end torque is a real improvement. You feel like you have a bigger engine under the bonnet. You can have a higher gear and therefore go faster in the corners. And I have to say, it looks great, too. Modern and fast.
Note: The Škoda Fabia R5 and its upgraded version, the Škoda Fabia R5 evo, were renamed the Škoda Fabia Rally2 and Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo in 2020. So it is still just two cars. In this article you will find the naming of these cars depending on the time the driver is talking about.