How rally cars are shaken down before competition debuts has changed. MN sent David Evans to investigate
Prodrive engineer Richard Thompson guides me through the start procedure. Then stops. Takes a breath and looks deeply unsure.
Thompson has spent the last few months overseeing the build of this Volkswagen Golf SCRC. Just last night, he put the finishing touches to it: seats and belts in, last little bit of bodywork done. In just a couple of days, it’s down the M40 to Heathrow, where it’ll be flown to China for the first rally of its new life.
Today, it’s being born. And I’m the midwife. Sort of.
With 2017 and the next generation of World Rally Cars around the corner, everybody’s talking about their cars in terms of roll-outs and shakedowns. So we decided to get in on the act to find out exactly what those processes involve.
Which is how I’ve found myself sitting in Prodrive’s newest of new motors: Chris Atkinson’s 2016-specification Chinese Rally Championship Golf.
I’m going to shake it down for the Queenslander.
Thompson’s taken a breath and looks me right in the eye. “This is a brand new car…” Message received. We’re at an asphalt test track just outside Bicester and the plan is to run for around 20 minutes, bedding brakes, getting a feel for the car and gathering data to fill Tomo’s spreadsheets.
“We’re going to make sure everything is operating as it should be,” says Tomo. “We’ll check turbo targets, fuel pressure, oil pressure, make sure there’s no surge. Obviously we’ve run the engine on the dyno, but you can’t check the baffles… you can’t check that everything is absolutely as it should be. You go out and settle the whole car.”
Excellent. But first, I’ll move the paper mats from beneath my feet, take the elastic bands off the out-the-box belts and remove the paper cover from the gorgeous alcantara-covered wheel.
Everything in here’s lovely, shiny and gloriously new. It even smells new.
Suddenly, there’s a slightly more serious side to proceedings. This really is Atko’s entry car and one wrong move from me now could ruin the job for the Aussie. And for Prodrive. And for Volkswagen China – sellers of 1.3 million motors last year. Time to focus the mind.
With that, Prodrive technical director David Lapworth slides into the co-drivers’ seat and instantly I feel more relaxed. Lapworth has a knack of keeping everything completely calm. There’s nothing he hasn’t seen in his time in the world championship and we’re both acutely aware that’s not about to change in the next half-hour.
“Don’t worry about the smoke…” says Lappy with a smile.
He’s right. The rear of the car has been engulfed by smoke. All I did was start it.
“That’s completely normal,” he says, “this really is the first time this thing has run. It was wheeled out of the factory and onto the trailer last night. That smoke’s just the lagging on the exhaust burning off.” Smoke gone, we’re in the clear. The order is for some sensible running, no anti-lag and then back in.
There’s no carbon clutch or anything like that to catch me out, so we’re away first time and doing as I’ve been told.
There are periods of braking at various pressures and going up and down the gearbox while Lapworth keeps an eye on the data. In no time, the call comes: part one’s done.
Nothing has fallen off. My suggestion that bits falling off might have been part of the process amuses Lapworth.
“That’s not what today’s about at all,” he says. “The shakedown or roll-out at this level of rallying is the installation lap of a Formula 1 race. If you come here thinking of this as a safety net to catch problems then you’re never going to be on top of the thing. I can’t remember the last time I had a problem with one of our cars on a day like this.
“Some of that definitely comes with experience; if you were to go back to the early Nineties, there was an element of the safety net in what we were doing at shakedown – especially when we were running semiautomatic gearboxes and things like that. But not any more.” Tomo’s happy as well. “The sensors are all talking to each other,” he says, “the gear shift is beautiful under load, everything is perfect. You can use the anti-lag and go a bit harder if you like.”
Dengfeng, the first round of the Chinese Rally Championship, is on gravel, so the car’s running higher and softer than if it was in asphalt trim. And we’re on gravel rubber, so the car’s lovely and progressive when it breaks away and starts to slide.
Inside the Golf, the similarities to Prodrive’s last World Rally Car are marked and easy to spot. The theory here is simple, the Mini John Cooper Works WRC was never broken, so there’s no need for the Golf SCRC to fix it.
There’s a change of damper supplier, but the philosophy’s the same. The Lehmann engine is basically the same one which powers Mattias Ekstrom’s Audi S1 in World Rallycross, so the team know just how strong the base is.
“We do the installation and calibration on the engine,” says Thompson, “but it’s a very good engine. We have a bigger restrictor here, so we’ve got a bit more power than a World Rally Car, but we know we could push this one further and get more out of it. A lot more.”
As well as the extra power, there’s a heap more torque. Even in the tighter corners, you can leave the car in fourth gear and hold it in a drift. Everything is so controllable – and that’s what Lapworth wanted from this car.
“We’re sending this car to China for Chris [Atkinson] and his team-mates to drive,” says Lapworth. “We all know what Chris is capable of, but some of the other guys don’t have his level of experience and his ability. What we wanted was a car they could get in and drive without worrying too much about the set-up. This car gives them confidence and plenty of pace straight away.”
It certainly does. Just a couple of weeks after MN completed the roll-out of Prodrive’s fourth Golf SCRC, Atkinson finished the job we started with a dominant win on the Chinese opener.
Glad to have been of service… ■