Czech rallying is all about Jan Kopecký. Czech rallying is also all about Škoda. There’s a perfect synergy between the two parties which have gone on to achieve great success in World and European rallying.
The European Rally Championship in 2013, the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship a year later, and then the World Rally Championship’s second tier in 2018 were all honours swept up by this combination,
Five consecutive Czech titles since 2015, and a monstrous nine victories on the country’s biggest rally – Barum Rally Zlín – do Kopecký’s talking for him.
But the current king of the crop should be looking in his rear-view mirror. Very soon Czech rallying is going to be all about Erik Cais. Seventeen years Kopecký’s junior, Cais is showing all the hallmarks of a future champion after only two full seasons of rallying.
And he has a tantalizing goal to aim at. While Kopecký has been a professional driver for Škoda for well over a decade, and had two years of WRC starts in its Fabia WRC, he never quite joined the elite at the WRC’s top table. Nor did the Czech Republic’s other famous rallying son – Roman Kresta – despite his seasons for Škoda in 2002 and Ford in 2005.
Filip Mareš is one step up the ladder from Cais, having won the ERC1 Junior title (for drivers aged under 29) last year through sheer consistency. But outright rally wins have been hard to come by for Mareš; he’s accrued only one so far at national level or above, which was on round four of the Czech championship round Rally Hustopeče last year. His WRC3 debut was Sweden this year so the top level is currently looking a long way off for him.
In short, the Czech Republic is still waiting for its first WRC winner. Could Cais finally right that wrong? Absolutely.
“Jan Kopecký is the biggest name in rally sport in the Czech Republic. For sure, it’s also Roman Kresta and he sat in the WRC car, that’s what I really, really want,” Cais tells DirtFish. “[I want to] finish his job [and be a World Rally Champion]. It’s just a dream [now], but I will do my best to be like the best guys in the world.”
Words are of course just words, and a 20-year-old rally driver claiming they want to win the WRC is nothing extraordinary. But there’s something about Cais that suggests he really is the real deal, which is some achievement given he didn’t even have a driving license three years ago.
When his contact details were passed onto DirtFish for example, it came with the note ‘hold onto this one, he’ll be a world champion one day’. And the FIA Central European Zone Talent of the Year award – covering all disciplines of motorsport, not only rallying – that Cais scooped last year helps support this theory.
It’s no surprise that Cais was drawn to rallying. He was always addicted to speed, starting out his competition life as a downhill mountain bike racer. But sharing a birthday with Colin McRae and having a father – Miroslav Cais – that spent a decade rallying domestically, his move to rallying once he was old enough to was somewhat inevitable.
Despite making something of a late start his rate of progression behind the wheel, relentless passion for driving and his desire to live the dream he’s laid out for himself are exemplary. His results in last year’s ERC3 Junior category (for drivers aged under 28 in R2 cars) are a further case in point.
He adapted superbly to the jump up to the ERC in a car unfamiliar to him and on rallies he’d never done before. Admittedly, the first three gravel rounds yielded a modest best ERC3 class result of fifth and an accident in Latvia, but from there his learning curve was obvious as Cais kicked on to take four consecutive class podiums and a win on Hungary’s season finale.
This year, Cais is stepping up to compete for ERC1 Junior title honors in a Ford Fiesta R5 Mk2. It’s a huge opportunity for him and one he is determined not to squander, which means his aforementioned drive to succeed is intensifying.
“I’m working on myself a lot,” he says. “Last year in R2 it was sometimes like ‘Ah, why do I need to watch onboards? Why do I need to do this?’ And now I really want to watch the onboards, it’s always ‘I want to do this’.
“If you are making step-by-step [progress] to the top, the motivation is also going to the top so I am now absolutely motivated and absolutely in love with this sport. But I also want to be a pro and not make mistakes. We don’t do sideways, this is not my style. I will be absolutely professional.”
Cais already has three R5 starts to his name, two of which were in his 2020 weapon of choice. Although the sodden conditions that greeted crews on last year’s Var Rally in France negated some of the learning, he had a very handy run to third place back in March on Spain’s gravel-based Lorca Highlands Rally.
That was Cais’ last competitive appearance before the coronavirus-enforced lockdown put a stop to rallying across the globe. But his preparation for the ERC – which kicks off in late July – has been absolute. Lorca Highlands Rally was a test for Rally Azores, the original season opening round, and he will enter Rally Bohemia this weekend, two weeks prior to the new ERC season opener in Rome.
He’s been doing plenty of actual testing too. The Czech Republic’s lockdown measures eased in late April and early May, presenting Cais with a golden opportunity to get back behind the wheel while his rivals were stuck at home.
“I don’t know the [exact number of] kilometers, but we’ve done four tests,” Cais says. “First of all it was for me to get to know the new R5 and get a set-up for this. The first two tests were for this and after that we did a little set-up [work] for ERC and I think now we really know the car, I feel amazing in it.”
Cais has also been using his ingenuity to ensure he has all bases covered and is ready for all conditions: “We wanted to do a water [wet] test, but the rain didn’t come so we used water from the firefighters’ [trucks],” he explains. “They helped us get water to the road and we could get a proper test on the wet surface.”
It won’t be until that first timed special stage starts however that Cais will truly know where he stacks up. Of course he would love to attack Rally di Roma from the outset, but he’s aware his first ERC rally in the top class, against drivers with considerably more experience of the cars and the stages, could be a baptism of fire.
“I think we are really well prepared for the season but for sure I don’t have [even] 10% of Nikolay Gryazin’s kilometers in [an] R5 [car] so it will be absolutely getting to know the car on the stages,” he says.
“[Until you have] tried R5 with people in the European championship, you will not know where you will be in the result. I can have a lot of kilometers in R5 but if you have bad pacenotes for a rally you are only [doing for the] second time, you will still be s***.
“People like Chris Ingram, Nikolay Gryazin, Alexey Lukyanuk and also the other guys, know Roma and other rallies much more than me. I drive them only once in R2 and this car is absolutely different, so it will be really, really difficult to race with these guys in ERC1.
“We will try to fight for the title, for sure I will do absolutely my best. Also we will fight for [the] podium on some of these events, [and] I will be absolutely happy [if we do this]. If not, it’s my first time in an R5 so it’s OK.”
Being the best comes naturally to Cais, so you can expect it won’t be long before he’s achieving those goals and winning rallies and titles outright. Which all feeds into Cais’ plan: to tell the rallying world that he has arrived and is here to stay.
“The motivation is f****** big. I have never had this motivation [before] because I absolutely love the car. If you drive R2, you love the rally but if you are sitting in [an] R5, it’s like just as good as sex. It’s f****** amazing.
“But [ultimately I] really, really want to say to [all of the] factory teams and to all people ‘Hello, my name is Erik Cais and I’m here’.”