What's it like in a rally car at full tilt? Our man Euan Doig bravely volunteered for a trip to Sardinia, with Skoda, to find out in a gravel-spec Fabia Super 2000.
The man sitting about a foot to my left is smiling. His name is Jan, and hes clearly a man completely at ease with himself and his surroundings. This fills me with a certain sense of relief, because at this moment his surroundings are a gravel-spec Skoda Fabia Super 2000 rally car thats straining against the rev-limiter in sixth gear on a flick-flacking ribbon of rock-strewn Sardinian countryside that is an insult to the term rutted track. Honestly, a donkey would baulk at the terrain being used for this test stage, yet were travelling along at something into three figures and theres a corner approaching fast. With a cliff at the other side. Jan merely dabs the middle pedal, at which point Im staggered by just how quickly a gravel car will stop on, well, gravel. He bangs the sequential gearbox down a couple of cogs, which gets the Fabia into a sideways drift, then he gets straight back on the accelerator, and we howl on to our next seemingly inevitable interface with the scenery. Jan continues to smile; I continue to sweat. A lot.
Skoda works driver Jan Kopecky is Czech and is clearly a bit handy, although I knew this already because the day before hed taken his 265bhp 2.0-litre, four-wheel-drive Fabia to third place in the Rally of Sardinia, which is a round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Not bad, considering that, by his own admission (just as we were about to start our run down the stage), hes no gravel expert. His Finnish team-mate, Juho Hanninen, won the event, and leads the IRC overall with Jan in second. Skoda UK driver Guy Wilks lies third in the standings, but was sidelined by a high-speed argument with a rock on day one of the Rally of Sardinia. Skoda is investing heavily in rallying, and the results speak for themselves, with the Czech make having almost double the points of its nearest rival manufacturer, Peugeot.
The reason for all this investment is simple, and goes back to the old Henry Ford mantra win on Sunday, sell on Monday. Skoda has just launched the new Fabia vRS hot hatchback, and rallying gives the performance model a competition halo version that should entice buyers.
Anyone who does feel tempted by the Fabia vRS will be getting a car with decent performance credentials. It has a 178bhp turbo- and supercharged 1.4-litre engine, which is attached to a seven-speed DSG semi-automatic gearbox, all of which hurls it to 62mph from rest in just 7.3 seconds. Itll go on to a top speed of 139mph, too, which is even faster than Jan on the special stage that Ive found so invigorating.