Hyundai WRC round-up

There was a show car in Paris, but then auto salons are known for some pretty optimistic announcements – so what’s the deal with Hyundai’s burgeoning WRC programme?

Certainly FIA president Jean Todt is cock-a-hoop at the planned new entry for the WRC, saying: “We are delighted to welcome Hyundai back into our rallying family. This is a great boost to our championship and underlines the faith global manufacturers have in our sport, despite the difficult economic times we all face.”

It certainly is, and in the giddy whirl of flashlights playing over the white and blue show car, ST Kim, Hyundai Motor Company senior executive vice president said: “You already know that we care about developing the performance of our cars, and we’re taking our commitment to performance to a new level.

“I am happy to announce that Hyundai will race in next year’s World Rally Championship. We’re back, and we’re ready to compete.”

Crikey! Ready to compete, eh? So rather than opting for a Volkswagen-style programme of developing a car on the quiet, getting its driver line-up sorted and putting tens of thousands of kilometres on the odometer, does the Korean giant plan to just plunge straight in?

Erm… no. There may well be a genuine i20 spotted on European roads and forest tracks next year but as of now the team is still in the process of building its new base camp – in Germany. Yes, you Englanders, don’t get dejected but it seems that  ‘motorsport valley’ is no longer the first choice for factory motor sport programmes… the Germans are taking over.

According to Germany’s Rallye Magazin, Hyundai is looking to put a race shop in the neighbourhood of its European head office, located in Offenbach near Frankfurt. Heading up the operation is Michel Nandan, a 54 year-old French engineer with a fairly significant history in the WRC.

Michel Nandan brings real pedigree to the design team

In the mid-1990s, Nandan was based in Cologne with Toyota Team Europe, where he worked on the design and development of the ST185 and ST205 Celicas and the Corolla WRC. From there he moved to Peugeot and made the title-winning 206 WRC, following up with the unique 307 WRC.

After Peugeot pulled out of the series in deference to Citroën, Nandan took the lead in developing Suzuki’s ill-fated WRC car, the SX4. He’s been a bit quiet since then, but who wouldn’t be? It turns out that he’s been gainfully employed as Technical and Quality Manager of the FFSA, the French sanctioning body for motor sport.

All this is, of course, in marked contrast to the last time the words Hyundai and WRC were uttered in the same breath. That was in 2003 when the FIA slapped the Koreans with a $1million fine for quitting the series with four rounds to go, while it was also taken to court by British preparation experts MSD, who built its cars, for non-payment of bills.

Hyundai’s last WRC effort was average in life, ignominious in death

With MSD forced to make 100 staff redundant and Hyundai promising to be back in 2006 with a self-developed car, the whole thing disappeared into murk until the end of last month. Now we have a manufacturer with a show car, some Photoshopped pictures of the show car in action and some youtube footage of a test hack.

But there’s room for optimism in the appointment of Nandan, and presumably it won’t take too long to get a race shop set up in or around the European HQ. WRF thinks that the announcement that the car might compete in 2013 is ambitious, but a full-scale programme for 2014 could well deliver a tonic in terms of the competing manufacturers.

Of course the main topic of conversation among the fans is who might be recruited to drive the little beastie, once M. Nandan has declared it ready to start rolling in earnest. Well, that largely depends upon the game of musical chairs that’s currently being played out at fever pitch – presumably to some high energy disco music of the kind beloved by dodgy European nightclubs – among the existing teams. And for now that’s where our attention is being kept…