“Wow!” exclaims Armin Schwarz. DirtFish has just told him that the Škoda Octavia WRC has absolutely cleaned up in our poll to discover the fans’ favorite World Rally Car.
And when we say cleaned up, we really do mean clean up. The Subaru Impreza S5-S6 WRC scored second with 13.6% of the total votes. The Octavia enjoyed a 24.8% share and was the only car to receive over 1000 votes, meaning a quarter of those who participated regard it as their favorite ever World Rally Car.
Škoda joined the WRC’s top class for a part-program in 1999 after several years running Felicias and a Kit Car version of the Octavia, signing Schwarz as its lead driver with Czech drivers Pavel Sibera and Emil Triner, plus Bruno Thiry (for Rally GB only), also driving the Octavia WRC.
It was a bit of a dismal first season as neither car would even make it to the start of the first stage on debut, and Schwarz ultimately retired on six of the seven rallies he entered finishing 12th overall on the other, although Thiry did secure fourth on his one appearance.
“To be quite honest at the beginning I totally, totally underestimated how much work it would be. Totally,” Schwarz admits.
“But I saw one thing in this team: there was a kind of proudness of their product and let’s say for the team itself, it was like a 100% Czech team. It reminded me a bit of Lancia which was a 100% Italian team and it was more or less you drove for the Czech Republic rather than for Škoda.”
Škoda Octavia WRC key stats
|Podiums||1 (Safari 2001)|
|Stage wins||2 (Spain 2000, Safari 2001)|
After its first year of learning, Škoda regrouped for 2000 and formed a more concerted driver line-up with Luis Climent joining Schwarz on all the rounds the team contested.
That year’s Rally Spain was a breakthrough moment as Schwarz claimed the car’s first stage win on its penultimate event, as for Cyprus a new Evo2 version of the Octavia WRC was debuted.
The engine was uprated, featuring a new turbocharger, the gear ratios were revised, cooling was improved as was the weight distribution, but it wasn’t a dramatic overhaul as Schwarz describes the step forward as “not that massive”.
Indeed, while Schwarz managed a fifth place on the Acropolis before the Evo2 was introduced, his best rally result with the Evo2 in 2000 was 12th.
“I think budget could make it better, for sure,” says Schwarz when asked why the Octavia never quite succeeded.
“Also what they did later on it was to get more international people on certain things which was key, because when we started with the project almost everybody came out of a long, traditional rally history [with Škoda] when they run the Felicia and they had been very, very good on those cars but to address a rally car like a Group A or World Rally Car at that time, you need to cut a lot of your old knowledge and say, ‘This is a different approach’.
I went to Kenya with all the difficulties and said ‘I’m going to be on the podium’Armin Shwarz
“And we needed to go for this different approach. That was something that took quite a while before people really let it go and said, ‘OK, you are right, we need to approach this car, this technology, this development in a new way’. But still when they got the idea how to approach it, there was a budget limit so they couldn’t do everything that they wanted to do.”
That didn’t stop Schwarz pulling off some heroic performances though. His 2001 season with Škoda is the stuff of cult legend as he placed his Octavia WRC in third overall on the Safari for ultimately Škoda’s one and only podium in the WRC.
“What nobody knows is I made a promise to the technical board that year,” Schwarz says.
“The issue was they did not understand if you go to Kenya you cannot go down there and say, ‘OK, let’s race all the rubbish we have left because after Kenya it was already destroyed’.
“So I talked to them. I said, ‘We need new suspension, we need new rims, we need new sumpguards but they will all be rubbish – you can throw them away after the rally’. Just to get their understanding that if you want to get on the podium you need all these parts, and the technical board [was tough] – it was not the motorsport director, I needed to go to the technical board; he frees up budget for new suspension, new parts for the car.
“And then he came back and said, ‘And you get me a podium’. And you know it reminds me of RAC Rally 1996 where I went to England and said, ‘This is my rally, that’s it’. I went to Kenya with all the difficulties and said, ‘I’m going to go on the podium’.
“We set the fastest time on stage one and the car was almost done on that stage, but I knew if I put the speed up that high that everybody else needed to go high speed.
“And all the perfect cars, they had problems because they went then far too fast. Everybody had a problem of how to survive, and I knew how to survive and that was my target and that worked out in Kenya perfectly.”
Perhaps surprisingly Schwarz doesn’t consider this his peak with the Octavia WRC though. He was just as satisfied with – if not more so – his performance a few months earlier on the Monte Carlo Rally.
“We missed the podium by a few seconds on Monte Carlo to François Delecour and that was, for me, almost higher rated, the fourth place, than Safari because Safari I knew we could do [it],” he reasons.
“But in Monte Carlo we had very s***** weather conditions so nobody had a perfect car because the weather was so strange, and I knew in those conditions I was probably one of the best so I set up my mind and said, ‘As long as the conditions are tricky and difficult, everybody needs to run a compromised tire, compromised suspension. Nobody can make use out of his car 100% so let’s go for it’.
“And we had a brilliant Monte Carlo Rally, it was flat out through all the rally and I must say that was the year where the whole Škoda team, together, everyone put their maximum into one basket and we had these results which were great.”
Škoda was like the underdog but we were always fighting. The whole team was always fightingArmin Schwarz
The Octavia remained in competition through 2002 – where it was at the center of another iconic WRC moment when Roman Kresta crashed and got himself wedged on a wall on the Monte, a telegraph pole the only thing saving him from a terrifying drop – and halfway through 2003 before it was replaced by the Fabia.
It underwent another update with the Evo3 upgrade receiving a new inlet manifold, throttle body, exhaust systems and modifications to the front bumper and hood.
Schwarz had left the team by this point though, and it had signed Toni Gardemeister in his place with Kenneth Eriksson also completing a full season in 2002. World champion Stig Blomqvist drove the car on certain rounds in 2002 as did Didier Auriol in 2003, giving the Octavia some kudos.
But none of this particularly explains why this car has become such a hit with rallying fans all over. Yes, given it’s a vehicle closer associated with the taxi rank than the rally stage, there is a charm to seeing this big, boxy shape fly between the trees.
But for this ultimately unsuccessful World Rally Car to beat off far more revered and classic cars in DirtFish’s poll could justifiably be rendered as a huge shock.
“It surprises me a bit because there have been some maybe better-looking cars, but this is a taste,” Schwarz laughs.
“I think it maybe comes because Škoda was like the underdog but we were always fighting. The whole team was always fighting. When they stopped with the Octavia, the car was really competitive and was good.”
To gauge fan opinion, DirtFish asked the editor of Facebook group The Gravel Crew – where the Octavia WRC is particularly celebrated – Jamie Arkle just what makes the car such a hero.
He argues that the “core of the appeal” of the cumbersome Škoda is down to it being “redolent of the peak of the WRC era” and that it was “a cult hero from the moment it broke cover”.
“This probably owed as much to it being so large, ponderous and patently ill-suited to the rigors of rallying but it had the underdog vote from the get-go,” Arkle adds, in agreement with Schwarz’s prediction as to why the Octvaia is so popular.
“It also sounded ridiculously aggressive, a bit like a socket set being repeatedly put throughout a particularly aggressive washing machine spin cycle.”
So there we have it. The Škoda Octavia WRC: the rally car you love the most from the last 25 years. Who’d have thought it?
|Pos||Car||No. of votes||% of votes|
|1||Škoda Octavia WRC||1438||24.8|
|2||Subaru Impreza S5-S6 WRC||791||13.6|
|3||Volkswagen Polo R WRC||344||5.9|
|4||Ford Fiesta WRC||293||5.0|
|5||Toyota Yaris WRC||251||4.3|
|6||Subaru Impreza S12 WRC||250||4.3|
|7||Toyota Corolla WRC||227||3.9|
|8||Peugeot 206 WRC||209||3.6|
|9||Ford Escort WRC||199||3.4|
|10||Ford Focus RS WRC ’99-‘02||182||3.1|
|11||Ford Focus RS WRC ’03-‘05||174||3.0|
|12||Peugeot 307 WRC||172||3.0|
|13||Subaru Impreza S7-S8 WRC||159||2.7|
|14||Subaru Impreza S9-S11 WRC||148||2.5|
|15||Citroën Xsara WRC||135||2.3|
|16||Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC||118||2.0|
|17||Seat Córdoba WRC||108||1.9|
|18||Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution WRC||98||1.7|
|19||Ford Focus WRC ’06-‘09||92||1.6|
|20||Škoda Fabia WRC||75||1.3|
|21||Citroën C4 WRC||60||1.0|
|22||Citroën DS3 WRC||52||0.9|
|23||Mitsubishi Lancer WRC||44||0.8|
|24||Mini John Cooper Works WRC||39||0.7|
|25||Ford Fiesta RS WRC||33||0.6|
|26=||Hyundai Accent WRC||29||0.5|
|26=||Suzuki SX4 WRC||29||0.5|
|28||Citroën C3 WRC||25||0.4|
|29||Subaru Impreza S14 WRC||21||0.4|
|30||Hyundai NG i20 WRC||7||0.1|
|31||Hyundai i20 WRC||5||0.1|