As part of his role at Hyundai, Craig Breen spends a lot of time in its R5 cars.
He’s now testing the i20 N Rally2, set to debut later this year, having another run in it in snowy conditions in Sweden recently after an initial test in France last month.
Based on Breen’s feedback from those very first runs, the future of Hyundai’s customer rally programme is in good shape…
There’s a patch of ice – a fair-sized patch – on the run into a medium-speed left hander. It’s a typical Monte Carlo conundrum. What do you do? Brake wholesale before it, play it safe? Or do you gamble, max the ice then hammer the anchors for a short dry stretch leading to the apex?
Craig Breen is about to answer that question. Hyundai Motorsport’s all-new i20 N Rally2 could be heard launching off the line a couple of crests back up the valley and now the eerie silence accentuated by a deep-frozen morning mist is being shattered as revs rise, gear after gear.
There’s no hint of a lift. Breen sends the pale blue i20 across the ice with big speed and a feathered throttle.
Back on the asphalt and the Irishman’s left foot stands on the middle pedal with such force brakes are snatched, wheels momentarily locked. Just at the point where it’s looking like he’s been touch too ambitious, he rolls off the brake, dials in some lock and tip-toes through the corner.
Leaning on a fence, a local farmer shoves his woolly hat up and scratches his head. He grins a toothy grin.
“Eee is ‘appy!”
Breen can’t hide his emotions. It’s beyond him. Even with his balaclava pulled high over his nose, the COVID-19 style, his eyes shone bright as he relayed the latest geometry changes from the left-hand seat of the i20 N Rally2.
Nestled in the Vosges mountains, in eastern France, not far from borders with Germany and Switzerland, things were looking good for the world’s latest Rally2 car.
Breen is indeed happy.
“The car just gives so much confidence,” he told DirtFish, doing his best to warm his hands around a Styrofoam cup of tea.
“Obviously the car’s completely new and it really is a big step. The guys could have worked on the old cars, but when you’re looking at areas like the subframe, it’s going to take a few [homologation] jokers to get it where you want it.
“With the new car, there’s more freedom to work on the geometry and that’s made such a difference.”
For a driver, feeling is everything with a car. It’s confidence and feeling that allows you to skate the ice and brake late.
“The feeling is very, very good,” he said. “It’s predictable and consistent when it comes to the roll centre and the transition of grip and weight in the corner. This sort of thing’s not going to win you a load of seconds in terms of performance, but what it does do is give you a sensation of what the car’s doing and why it’s doing it.”
And when a driver is tuned into that, it helps simplify the search for those seconds.
The geometry’s just one gain the i20 N Rally2 has made over its predecessor. The other big areas are the suspension and engine management.
Despite much of the engine being carried over from the previous car, there are subtle changes from the outside. It sounds different on launch and the anti-lag’s more demonic machine gun than just plain old machine gun.
“I always struggled a little bit to manage the throttle on the old car, but with some new management, this one’s perfect,” says Breen. “The whole system, the whole car is just more refined.”
For the next two-and-a-half days, Breen refined those refinements, then continued his development of the car in a second test on the snowy roads of Sweden, handily preparing for his return to Hyundai’s top-class WRC line-up on Arctic Rally Finland later this month.
“It’s really useful for me to come and do tests like this. It’s time in the car, seat time, which I can’t get enough of. You know me and Andrea [Adamo], we share the same passion – the pair of us would be out rallying all the time if we could.
“Let’s see when the homologation’s done, but I’d love the chance to get out in it.”