As 2005 faded towards 2006, Škoda Motorsport’s future at the front line of the World Rally Championship looked increasingly uncertain.
Behind the scenes, four people were doing all they could to keep the Fabia WRC at the forefront of the series. They agreed there was life left in the car. More than that, the car could be evolved. It was quick. It could be quicker.
One of them in particular knew just how quick the Fabia WRC was. Colin McRae.
The Scot had stepped into a Škoda for Rally GB in September and had impressed Mladá Boleslav-based manufacturer so much – and generated as much publicity in one event as the rest of the 2005 program had garnered up until that point – that he was invited back for Australia.
Standing in Langley Park on a sunny November Saturday, with McRae sitting second and less than 30 seconds off the lead, a plan was hatched.
The others? Well, there’s David Richards and Neil Gatt.
DR, of course, needs no introduction. Rewinding 17 years, Richards wasn’t sporting the Subaru blue shirt – he was in the unilateral all-white of International Sportsworld Communicator. Having purchased the commercial rights to WRC from Bernie Ecclestone, Richards was working to push the series further into the global sporting spotlight.
A McRae-Škoda storyline was a winner. He knew it.
Gatt offered the past, the present and the future. His company RED Motorsport had been one of world rallying’s biggest satellite or semi-works teams. He had recently taken RED over and was regenerating it.
The RED name was synonymous with the McRae family, with Colin, Jimmy and Alister all having competed in cars fettled by the Widnes firm. And now it could be about to happen all over again.
Sadly, the opportunity for a full-time return for McRae and RED wasn’t to be.
The die was cast for Škoda, with the decision to quit its manufacturer-level WRC competition already taken. Instead, there would be Red Bull-private cars run by Raimund Baumschlager in a team headed up by Armin Schwarz. Czech Motorsport Kopecký and Belgian team First Motorsport also ran Fabia WRCs with Harri Rovanperä, Gilles Panizzi, Jan Kopecký, Andreas Aigner and Mattias Ekström among the stars doing the driving.
The fourth person was Škoda Motorsport team manager, Pavel Hortek. Having known Richards for years, Pavel was present throughout the discussions and negotiations. He remembers that time and that event in Australia. And he well remembers the disappointment when a clutch change took too long and left the Scot off the podium and on the retirement list.
“As a team,” Hortek told DirtFish, “we were all crying. This was tough to take for everybody. Having Colin with us gave something to the team.
“I remember the stage when the road was dropping down (formerly Bunnings, but known as Bannister during the 2005 event) and Colin’s times in these stages were so fast. He loved those stages and it was unbelievable how he was driving in this place.
“We closed the works team in 2005, but if we would not have stopped, we would have appreciated to have worked much more with Colin. He was such a nice person.”
The deal for Colin to drive the Fabia in 2005 came as something of a surprise. He’d been retired from full-time action since departing Citroën two years earlier – but Hortek reveals they’d been talking for a while.
“Very secretly, I was talking with him in Spain [in 2003] after the rally in Catalunya. We were talking about some co-operation,” he added.
“I remember, he brought with him a young boy and we talked about the chance for this young guy to drive. It wasn’t possible at the time.”
That ‘boy’ was Kris Meeke.
It didn’t happen back in the day, but fast forward a few years and it’s Meeke who’s responsible for Škoda’s fastest and finest Rally2 car.
Funny old world.