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Hyundai Motorsports: 30 Years of Dedication until It Conquered WRC

2019-11-29

Hyundai has gone through a long way until it won the WRC manufacturer's title. Here are 30 years of its dedication, from the moment when nobody in South Korea knew anything about motorsports until it conquered the WRC.

Hyundai won the WRC manufacturer’s title in 2019. It was the first time for Hyundai to win the WRC championship since Hyundai first jumped in the WRC championship back in 1998, and since its comeback to WRC 6 years ago.

Just like any other sports, showing rapid improvement in a short time is almost impossible. It requires countless trials and failures. Good lucks and the right timing are also essential.

The road the Hyundai motorsports team has been taking to become the top of WRC was very bumpy and rough. Although the record says Hyundai started 20 years ago, it took almost 30 years to win the champion’s title.

Since Hyundai started to export its Pony to overseas, some local dealers began to compete in motorsports with Hyundai cars.

It goes all the way back to the 1970s and the 80s when Hyundai first exported its Pony. Some local dealers began to compete in motorsports with Hyundai cars to promote their stores. This was not that Hyundai invested any money or became a sponsor.

Wayne Bell: The Origin of the Hyundai Motorsport

Wayne first competed in a local rally in Australia with his Hyundai Elantra.

Wayne Bell was one of the first rally drivers in a factory Hyundai – He’s an Aussie. Wayne had been rallying in Australia since about 30 years ago and entered the Rally Australia in 1991, a local round of the WRC. He won the rally with his Hyundai Elantra for three consecutive years.

Hyundai started to pay attention to motorsports, thanks to Wayne.

Wayne started rallying a Hyundai in Australia and was instrumental in getting the Hyundai brand involved in the World Rally Championship. Hyundai first competed in the WRC and APRC in 1995 and Wayne competed in several world rallies in the 1998 season including the Rally of Australia where he finished 29th and first in the A7 class (1.6~2.0 liter engine, two-wheel drive, commercialized). He also competed in Hong Kong / Beijing Rally in the A3 class and finished it successfully. He was recently inducted into the Australian Rally Hall of Fame.

Tiburon: Hyundai’s First Rally Car

Elantra and Avante made Hyundai’s entrance into a higher rally. After its debut in 1997 with Tiburon modified for the WRC F2 regulation, it was run by British company Motor Sports Development (MSD).

In order to get homologated by the FIA under WRC regulations, the automaker had to produce at least 2,500 rally cars. But there was a different rule applied for the Kit-car manufacturers, so Hyundai had to produce only 500 units. The model was called the Tiburon Special.

Hyundai Tiburon Coupe first competed in the F2 class of the WRC.

Even with the improved F2 Evo, Hyundai did not do well in the 1998 season. Hyundai then upgraded not only its car to the F2 Tiburon Evo 2, but also its driver line-up. Hyundai hired the Swedish driver Kenneth Eriksson and Alister McRae, brother of Colin McRae. Hyundai scored the top in the A7 class twice, especially McRae and Eriksson finished first and second respectively in the Rally China. This made Hyundai 10th place in APRC and 11th in WRC. In 1999, Renault won the title by seven points from Hyundai.

The Hyundai Verna: Competing in WRC A8

Hyundai first participated in the WRC 2000 after its announcement in the previous year.

Hyundai showcased its Verna WRC at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1999. The company’s involvement in the sport began in 1998, when it competed in the F2 class of the WRC for two seasons. In 1999, the team announced it would step up to the top class in 2000, rallying a fully-developed WRC car based on the three-door Accent, which competed until 2003. It was because the new regulation allowed automakers to have a minimum production of 50 rally cars after the F2 rally closed. Hyundai competing with other European and Japanese automakers in the top class became a big issue.

Hyundai cooperated with MSD.

The car, though, was in such capable hands from 2000 to 2002 across its lifespan as the four-time world champion Juha Kankkunen, Kenneth Eriksson and former British Rally Champion Alister McRae were reasonably competitive at times and showed some promise. Armin Schwarz was among the other drivers so long synonymous with life in the works-fettled Accents.

Hyundai’s First WRC Debut: The Years of Struggle

The outcome was not really good. Although most of the attention was directed at improving reliability, Hyundai finished the year of 2000 and 2001 last. Like its predecessor’s, the car’s best result in a WRC event remained the fourth place. None of its drivers stood on the podium.

At first Hyundai had a hard time competing in WRC.

Hyundai’s struggle was due to its lack of experience and investment. Unlike Peugeot, who could shower the resources for its new 206’s successful launch in the European continent, the Hyundai Verna (Accent) was focusing on the North American market. So, Hyundai had to rely on MSD for the development and management of the motorsport team. The problem was that MSD was not big or resourceful enough for the Hyundai team.

In 2003, Hyundai lost its sponsor Castrol. And after a season hampered by budget constraints, Hyundai gave up the WRC with four rallies left behind. This was so unprecedented that the U.K. journals published articles about the issue.

Hyundai’s plan to unveil its new race car in 2006 turned out to be a failure.

Hyundai gained recognition from its first involvement in WRC. But it also learned its lessons. Hyundai Motor Europe Technical Center GmbH (HMETC) in Rüsselsheim was opened. Its purpose was to make sure it supports Hyundai more effectively. It even announced the brand-new rally car codenamed RC for the season 2006. However, it needed more time than expected to heal the wound completely.

2012: Hyundai Announces Its Comeback

About ten years later at the 2012 Paris Motor Show Hyundai announced that it would be returning to the WRC for 2014, using the i20 model built to World Rally Car specifications. Hyundai prepared for its rally cars and nominated essential faculties it needed including its official drivers for the new season.

Hyundai announced its comeback in 2012.

An evolution of a vehicle designed by Hyundai’s R&D centre in Namyang, the car was prepared at its headquarters in Alzenau to meet FIA regulations. Hyundai’s return was heralded by the unveiling of a prototype i20 World Rally Car at the Paris Motor Show in September 2012. Things moved quickly with the establishment of a new motorsport base in Germany. Michel Nandan, who has been a principal of a number of other WRC teams, was brought in to oversee the task of creating a fully operational team, a rally-specification i20 and developing a brand new motorsport facility. And after the energy mogul Shell became the co-title sponsor, the name of the team officially became the Hyundai Shell-Mobis World Rally team.

Just like Hyundai started building the oil tankers and the shipyard simultaneously, it took only one year for Hyundai to come back to WRC. Though it was scheduled to begin in 2013, it got postponed a bit for better preparation.

2014: Hyundai’s Second Competitive Appearance

From 2014, Hyundai Motorsport reiterated its bold approach to the WRC.

Hyundai made its second competitive appearance at the 2014 Rallye Monte Carlo. Hyundai Motorsport has reiterated its bold approach to the World Rally Championship by confirming rising WRC star Thierry Neuville as its lead driver starting from the 2014 season. With Dano Sordo and other drivers, Neuville started to compete with strong drivers at Volkswagen, Citroen, or Ford. In the middle of the season, Hyundai created its second-string Hyundai Motorsport N squad to meet the regulation.

Neuville scored Hyundai’s first WRC victory at the Rally Germany, after he scored third place both in Mexico and Poland. His victory in Germany was even more surprising, considering what happened right before. During shakedown, Neuville crashed heavily on his third run at the stage. The car is believed to have rolled as many as six times in the accident after Neuville lost control of the car. Many thought the car would not be able to get back on the road. However, the result was even more impressive given the dramatic events in shakedown. The excellent work of the team’s mechanics, who pulled an 18 hour shift to repair the car, ensured the result was possible.

Hyundai and Neuville winning the rally for the first time was unexpected enough to surprise every motorsport fan around the world. Neuville finished the season sixth, and the two Hyundai motorsport teams were 4th and 7th on the manufacturers’ classification.

Thierry Neuville, looking young back in 2015. He became the core driver of Hyundai.

The team continued to evolve in the season 2015 and 2016. In Spain 2015, Thierry Neuville finished in a second place. Hayden Paddon ended the Rally Italy second with Neuville in third. Dani Sordo finished the Rally Espana third as well. In the drivers’ championship, Neuville scored sixth place. Sordo and Paddon finished the year seventh and ninth respectively. Hyundai ended the year sixth, which showed an improvement compared to 14 years ago.

Big Investment, New Rally Cars.

Hyundai invested huge in WRC in 2017 and finished the year second on the manufacturer’s classification.

For 2016, Hyundai re-homologated the i20 for the new regulation. Neuville won at Italy and scored seven podiums, finishing runner-up behind Volskwagen driver Sébastien Ogier. Paddon also won in his debut in Argentina.

Volkswagen Motorsport continued to dominate the 2016 season. Volkswagen and its driver Ogier were undefeatable, and they conquered the championship. Hyundai and Neuville, trailing Ogier, finished the year second on the manufacturer’s classification. For Hyundai, this was a record-breaking moment.

Hyundai finished the season 2017 and 2018 second on the manufacturer’s classification.

The Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC is a World Rally Car built by Hyundai for use in the World Rally Championship starting in 2017. But Hyundai could not conquer the championship until the Season 2018 is over. Neuville scored four wins and eight podiums, finishing runner-up behind Ogier, who switched to M-Sport. Again, Neuville won three races and claimed six podiums in 2018, but was outscored by Ogier.

Toyota made their return to the WRC after eighteen years of absence in 2017 season. Toyota last competed in the sport as a factory-supported team during the 1990s and won the manufacturer’s title three times before withdrawing. Toyota made four time World Drivers’ Champion Tommi Mäkinen its team principal when it made its début during the 2017 season. Jari-Matti Latvala left Volkswagen Motorsport following the team’s withdrawal from the sport to join Toyota Racing, and before the 2018 season, Ott Tänak left Ford to join the team. Hyundai had to finish 3 consecutive years second on the manufacturer’s classification. Hyundai finally won the manufacturer’s title after its comeback six years ago.

Hyundai Winning the Manufacturer’s Title After Its Comback Six Years Ago

Hyundai finally won the WRC 2019 manufacturer’s title.

And during the season 2019, after the Rally Australia got cancelled, Hyundai finally won the WRC manufacturer’s title. It has been six years since Hyundai came back to WRC. It was quite evident that Hyundai would have won regardless of the Rally Australia, given the fact that Toyota, being 2nd place, was trailing Hyundai by 18 points.

The Hyundai drivers did their job done as well. Neuville, finishing 2nd place, was fast enough to hold back Sebastien Ogier, the previous champion. Dani Sordo, Andreas Mikkelsen, and the legendary Sebastien Loeb also showed brilliant performances.

So many have worked hard for Hyundai to conquer the WRC.

Since the beginning of Hyundai’s involvement in WRC, it literally walked through a long bumpy road. The WRC rallies are held on many rough and dusty roads, and you have to overcome every road as fast as you can in order to win a championship. Only the ones who were capable of go through a series of rallies and seasons deserve to be called a champion.

Though people will remember only the names of the drivers and their teams, there are much more people who worked so hard to achieve victory. The race cars they made, Elantra, Avante, Tiburon, Verona, and i20, manifest their dedication and worth to be remembered among the motorsports enthusiasts around the world.
Also Hyundai will use the technology and the lessons it learned from motorsports to develop even better high-performing N models.

Words. Chung-hee(Jason) Ryu

Chung-hee(Jason) Ryu is doing his work in automotive journalism over twenty years and most of the period as a freelancer. He was a staff writer for well-known automotive magazines in South Korea such as Carlife and Motor Magazine, and also an author of ‘Explaining Automotive Terms and Basics’ and ‘The Car Inside-out’. He is a jury of International Engine and Powertrain Of The Year awards, since 2017.