What’s your favorite rally car and why? In our new series, we ask some of the rallying and rallycross world’s leading figures about the car which started the passion, what made it so memorable and why it deserves the recognition it got (or not!).
When DirtFish’s main features man Stephen Brunsdon and I started discussing this idea, we quickly decided that it would be best for the in-house rallycross guy to pick a rallycross car. So no Abarth 131, no Lancia 037, no Ford Escort Mk2s etc.
That decision could’ve made things easier – but then what do I pick? Vermont SportsCar’s wonderful Subaru WRX STI? A Ford Fiesta in Olsbergs or M-Sport flavor? Or perhaps something older like the Group B-derived Ford RS200 or MG Metro 6R4? No. Instead I opted for an old friend…
The Volkswagen Beetle GRC – later to be known as the Beetle R – arrived on the scene at a similar time to me. My first full season covering rallycross at a professional level was 2014. The Beetle (somewhat annoyingly) debuted the round after my first US rallycross event in the paddock, arriving at the Los Angeles Global Rallycross double-header that same year.
Throughout that first year, the Beetle was teased plenty of times. Launch at that year’s Chicago motor show, we were initially told it was coming in time for the second round of the season in Austin. It then made its on-track debut at round three in Washington DC, before finally making its first race start at round seven.
But it wasn’t until the second half of the 2015 season – a year in which Volkswagen did away with the car’s WRC-derived 1.6-liter engine in favor of a 2.0 unit – that the car became competitive. From then on, it was a dominant force, winning every US drivers’ title between ‘15 and 2019 when it ultimately retired.
What was your first impression of this car, what made it stand out for you?
My first impression of the Beetle was surprise, mainly – the great thing about the Beetle is just how unexpected it was initially.
While Volkswagen Andretti initially campaigned Polos (badged as Volkswagen GTIs), with that car not being sold Stateside it wouldn’t have been an ideal long-term option, even if it seemed like it would’ve been at first.
Volkswagen could’ve gone down an easier route by choosing the Golf for its US rallycross effort. In fact, there was talk of a second Golf program for customers, but it came to nothing.
Instead, Volkswagen wanted to change the image of the Beetle in America, hoping to attract more males and more younger buyers by giving it a sporty image. The advertising campaign with the tagline ‘Don’t call me Herbie’ really hammered home just how serious and monstrous Volkswagen intended for this car to be. It wasn’t a cutesy fashion statement.
It was a brave move, for sure, but in a grid made up of Fiestas, hatchback Imprezas, and Chevrolet Sonics, the Beetle stood out fantastically.
What do you appreciate the most about this car and why?
The Beetle arrived at a time when international rallycross was changing. But while the cars were getting faster and more complex, the majority were ultimately still being based on rally car platforms – even the world championship-winning Polo that Volkswagen introduced in 2017 was based on a WRC car.
But the Beetle was very much a car built for rallycross from the ground up, using lessons learnt from the Volkswagen Group’s plethora of other motorsport programs.
Seat Sport developed the first generation of the car alongside its multiple championship-winning touring car circuit racers, while Volkswagen later took the development in-house at the German base that crafted its multiple-championship winning WRC machines.
Having that benefit of being a true rallycross car right from the off gave it not only an advantage, but a massive head start too.
The R5-based M-Sport Ford was the car’s biggest challenger a lot of the time, but besides Steve Arpin’s championship charge in 2017, it never looked like beating the Beetle over a full slate of events. In fact, it wasn’t until 2019 – four-and-a-half years after its debut – when seasoned Beetle campaigner Scott Speed moved to Subaru, that the car ever looked like being truly toppled.
What’s your lasting memory of this car?
There’s so many. The back-to-back-to-back-to-back wins in Los Angeles and Barbados in 2015 after a season full of frustration up to that point really stick out though. Until then, we knew the car had bucket loads of potential, but its results weren’t reflecting that – two wins from the opening eight rounds was a stark contrast to what would later come from the car.
Almost overnight the car came good. Really good, and US rallycross changed. There was plenty of controversy at the time, with the car’s instant upturn in form raising many eyebrows throughout the GRC paddock, but after a full inspection of the cars in Barbados – witnessed by the other teams – the cars were deemed perfectly legal. From then on the car became the dominant force.
On a more personal note, I was lucky enough to experience a handful of laps in the car with Tanner Foust in Atlantic City in 2016. It was the first time I’d ever been in a rallycross Supercar on track
The crazy acceleration is something you expect. The phenomenal braking force, which turns you into a marionette puppet in the passenger seat as your limbs flail around when you don’t have a steering wheel to cling on to, is another thing to be expected in a racing car, too. But one thing that really stood out was well refined the car was, and just how well the car handled transitions.
Rallycross cars of course have to tackle both loose and sealed surfacted on the same lap, but besides the sounds of stones hitting the car’s metalwork, you could barely notice any change in surface. The car just ate it all up effortlessly. Even GRC’s signature 70-foot jump just passed you by. Fit that thing with AC and a bluetooth infotainment system and you’d have the ultimate comfort cruiser.
Okay, not quite. But racing cars can be violent environments, the Beetle simply wasn’t, and for that it was really not at all surprising that it notched up 29 wins from 52 starts.