The worst WRC team debut ever

Škoda’s first foray into rallying’s top-flight was a shocker; now, it has become a rallying titan

Rally Montecarlo Monte Carlo (MC) 18-21 01 2001

The phone rang. Two-time World Rally champion Carlos Sainz was calling.

“Are you going crazy or what?” queried Sainz. “What on earth are you doing there?”

The place, conceptually speaking, was Škoda. The recipient of the phone call was Armin Schwarz, the lynchpin of the Czech manufacturer’s first venture into the top level of rallying.

It was a prescient question, given how Škoda’s story as a fully-fledged works team began.

Two Octavia WRCs showed up to the 1999 Monte Carlo Rally at the last minute; by the end of the first stage, both cars had retired and the team was packing its bags.

Schwarz hadn’t even made it to the official start of the rally. The clutch’s master cylinder had leaked into the gearbox and killed any hope of powered forward momentum from the Octavia – as it sat in the queue to cross the starting ramp in Casino Square. As for Pavel Sibera in the other car, an electrical failure ended his event soon after.

Rally Montecarlo Monte Carlo (MC) 18-21 01 2001

Schwarz did manage to get an Octavia over the Casino Square start ramp in later years. There's a reason you won't see any Monte 1999 photos in this article – neither car got far enough for stage-side photographers to capture them...

Over a year of work leading up to Škoda’s big moment had come to nothing. How had it gone so wrong?

The problems had already begun back in 1997. As the Octavia Kit Car had already come on stream, Prodrive had simultaneously been commissioned to work on a World Rally Car version.

Schwarz told DirtFish: “It was far, far from ready to race. But it had a taste of what the Octavia was capable of.

“When we started testing we saw there was a lot, a lot to do on the car.”

“It was quite difficult because Škoda had good experience with their kit cars. But nobody was prepared for the rigors of a WRC car. There was a limited budget from the start and you couldn’t go, ‘Hey, Magneti Marelli or Porsche, you develop software or hardware for our engine and we pay it’. There was just not the budget for it. It was like doing research with inexpensive resources.

Rally of Portugal Estoril (POR) 03-06 03 1993

Schwarz's 1999 teammates Pavel Sibera and Emil Triner, along with most of the team personnel, were a carry-over from the 2-Liter WRC era. The Favorit was the first time Škoda had rallied a front-engined car and they'd scored plenty of podiums with both it and the Felicia that succeeded it; a World Rally Car proved a far tougher ask

“You also had to make the board of directors aware that you cannot have everything like what you have done before in a Kit Car version, or the team; they cannot work as they did before. A World Rally Car needs 10 times more budget to address problems, buying the best parts and components that you can get. That was the biggest thing to overcome at the beginning.”

Trying to make the Octavia WRC competitive ahead of its debut with little budget was one of the two problems blighting preparations.

“I was disappointed in the geometry that Prodrive built for that car,” adds Schwarz. “I think it was a good program for the junior engineers to get experience in a WRC car but this needs a lot of improvement.

“The other thing that was the engine – not a Prodrive thing – because at the time Škoda used the five-valve engine because it was built into the road car. That was not the best concept of an engine to develop a lot of power – a four-valve would have been better.”

Škoda’s other downfall was team infrastructure. The demands of running a WRC team were far beyond that of the Kit Car days but little had change in how they went about running the motorsport division.

“They handled the parts like they used to do on the Felicia and Octavia Kit Car; it was just getting some parts into a truck and then we go rallying,” Schwarz explains.

“I remember the night before the very first Monte Carlo Rally, nobody at Škoda got any sleep. They got the cars from the Czech Republic to Nice with the Škoda importer and at 10am, they just brought the car very last minute. And the cars, they were not finished.”

Of course, to the untrained eye, they very much were finished: the two Octavias were in one piece, with all the bits bolted to them. But in a practical sense, it was hardly the case: the cars had their shakedown the week of the Octavia’s debut rally, in the streets of Nice. They were still fitted with the same two gearboxes used for development testing.

Ultimately, Škoda had failed to scale up to the challenge of running a works WRC team.

Rally Cipro 2005

Schwarz had to put in as much work outside of the cockpit, to change how Škoda Motorsport operated, as he did when at the wheel of the bulky Octavia

Schwarz continued: “You can imagine, if you just set up your ECU at 5am at then at 7am you do the first start of your engine. The rollout was around the block in Nice and then [the cars were] put on the trailer and came to Monte Carlo. This was far from ready to rally.

“They finished the cars at 7am and at 10am you need to start Monte Carlo…the guys were burned out. They are tired; the mistakes that happened were inevitable.”

This failure, as Schwarz is keen to point out, was not the fault of the engineers and mechanics spannering hard to get the Octavias ready to roll on rally week. There were organizational flaws at the heart of the rush to get two cars to Monte Carlo.

“At the time, Pavel Janeba was the motorsport director; he handled everything himself. He made the hotel booking, also the hotel payment when we went to an event! He made all the orders for spare parts.

“They realized they needed to be on a different path to that they were on in the past.

“The team had a workshop in the main factory, which made things quite complicated. You needed to deal with things as if you wanted to get something into the factory for road cars; the purchase department needed to take the same avenue as buying lights or wings for a road car.

“You can imagine…with a rally car, you get the best gearbox and you need to have that one. But the guy in the purchasing department says no, we look for two other options, and we take the cheapest! Hey guys, you know, then we don’t need to rally!

Rally de Portugal Matosinhos (POR) 21-24 03 1999

Portugal was the second round of the 1999 season for Škoda – the fourth for everyone else. They at least finished the first day this time, though the car would stall mid-stage on multiple occasions. They didn't come back for the second leg.

“At that time, I was quite often at the technical board, in his office. He wanted me to report to him. We had some discussions…it was funny, they thought they could do it their way. But there was only a WRC car way. Either you do what needs to be done or you stay behind.”

There was no overnight fix: Škoda only ran the Octavia for half of the WRC events in its debut season at the top level and didn’t record a finish until the Acropolis in June. Greece was the only time Schwarz reached the finish line of a WRC round that season.

But there was light at the end of the tunnel. Bruno Thiry finished fourth on Rally GB, benefitting from reliability problems for others in the closing stages. And by 2001, the Evo2 version of the Octavia achieved the gargantuan saloon’s best WRC finish in the hands of Schwarz; third place on the Safari Rally was no fluke but rather a culmination of the team’s gradual shift towards the approach needed to succeed in rallying.

“It was a main goal to be successful at Safari because they had this kind of image that Škodas just break down, they are on the highway stopped on the side of the road because they are not reliable. So they wanted to prove at the Safari Rally that the car is bulletproof; that you can buy a Škoda because it resists Safari roads.


Schwarz's 2001 Safari podium was no random act of fortune. Škoda was, at last, starting to do things the 'motorsport' way when chasing their previously elusive first rostrum finish

“I had a list of what I need to get the car to a podium finish. Every day, new shock absorbers. Every day, new rims. Things that you bend and break and need to be new. I knew from the motorsport director, Pavel Janeba, that he wanted to use everything from Greece, Cyprus, Argentina, all those parts he wants to send to Kenya because they are already quite used. So I went to the director and said, look, if you send all the used parts to Kenya, it’s better for us to stay home. It will break, and you want to have a result.

“Then he got very angry with me! He said, ‘You come here, you ask me to get all these new parts, they go to trash anyway in the rally!’ And I said yes, but you want to have a podium finish. And I had a discussion with him. He kicked me out of his office!”

Team management would eventually relent. Schwarz got his new parts. And Škoda got its podium finish.

Fast forward to the present and the story couldn’t be more different. Škoda’s Rally2 program is the envy of the WRC service park. It has been the dominant manufacturer one rung below the top level for several years in a row now. Its development program for its newest RS model was methodical and delivered wins straight out of the gate.

No one is questioning whether its cars can finish a rally. The question is whether they can somehow be stopped from winning.

WRC Rally Portugal, Porto 30 May - 02 June 2019

Seven of the last eight WRC2 drivers' titles have been won with a Škoda Fabia. Kalle Rovanperä scored one of them in 2019

“To make it what they are today, that is a success story,” Schwarz concludes.

One of the worst starts to a rally program in WRC history was also the first step towards one of its most successful. 25 years later, you’d be crazy not to consider setting foot in Mladá Boleslav.