You drive any car by using a rudimentary combination of skills that involve your eyes, ears, hands, heart, feet and so on. But to drive a Skoda Fabia Super 2000 rally car – and, more to the point, drive it quickly – you need to dig much deeper into those individual skill sets and maximise the effort in each instance. And nothing but total commitment will suffice.
An S2000 rally car such as the Fabia needs to be muscled violently along the road if it is to give its best, and the key thing that’s required is momentum. Unlike in a high-torque World Rally Championship car, there isn’t a gigantic amount of straight-line performance to fall back upon in an S2000 car, if and when you make a mistake. There’s about the same level of acceleration as there is in an entry-level Porsche 911. So you need to maximise the efficiency of its performance, all the time. Which means maximum attack. All the time.
When I sat beside works Skoda driver Andreas Mikkelsen on the special stage at Goodwood, I simply couldn’t believe the amount of speed he carried on the way into corners. To begin with, I thought he’d either lost the plot or was showing off in order to scare me. But after a while I realised that entry speed is the holy grail in an S2000 car because of its relative lack of straight-line acceleration.
Without carrying huge speed on the way into corners, you won’t generate it in the middle of them, or on the way out of them. Which means that you will be nowhere in an S2000 rally car unless you display Mikkelsen-style commitment everywhere, especially during the entry phase to whatever corner you might be flying towards.
So what do you need to do to drive one of these incredible cars quickly and, ideally, without crashing it? Over the next few pages I’ll break down the requirements into individual components. The intention is to provide an inkling of the range and depth of skills needed to keep one of these things on the straight and narrow.
And remember, it’s only when you put such skills together and employ them at the same time that the real magic begins to flow. It helps if you’re 23 and Nordic, of course, so don’t for one moment think that I’m in any way capable of driving one of these cars properly, although I’m thrilled to have had a go behind the wheel. More importantly, I also had the privilege of sitting next to someone who really can, and what follows is largely an observation of that experience.
Your hands will be inside gloves that remove an element of feel between you and the Fabia’s suede-rimmed steering wheel. In a basic sense, you’ll employ them merely to turn the wheel and, with your right hand, change the gears within the ultra-close-ratio six-speed sequential manual gearbox (there are no paddles in S2000). But on another level, your hands, along with your feet and backside, are the only contact points you’ll have with the car itself. They are the key ingredients that connect your mind to the car, and to the road below, so they’re your only means of guiding the car along that road.
Although the steering is surprisingly light and effortless due to its power assistance and the gearchange feels similarly fast yet delicate in its shift quality, your hands are always busy when driving a Fabia S2000. You will feel the balance of the car change via your fingertips as the tyres scrabble for grip beneath you.
You will even feel the way the four-wheel drive system redistributes the power of the 265bhp engine continuously between the front and rear axles when on the move, or when sliding, which happens most of the time in the Fabia on gravel. And you will feel a connection to the road, via your hands and fingers, the like of which no ordinary car could ever hope to replicate. That’s how much ‘feel’ the Fabia S2000 delivers, and the faster you go, the deeper it gets. And the more intense the driving experience becomes.
Your right foot is continually prodding the accelerator in a Fabia S2000. The response from the engine is instant when you press the throttle, and the amount of travel in the pedal itself is quite short, which means that you get a lot of response from the smallest of inputs. But it’s your left foot that’s busiest when driving this car, because it’s your left foot that operates not just the clutch but the brakes as well, like it or not.
The pedal box is set up in such a way that braking with your right foot simply isn’t possible physically, so you have to left-foot brake. The way Mikkelsen uses the brakes not merely to slow the car down but also to steer, drift and set it up through corners at maximum velocity is a surreal thing to experience. But it’s his touch with his left foot that probably defines how good he really is.
Watching Mikkelsen in action from such close quarters is fascinating because he never stamps on any of the pedals (the clutch pedal is not used on the move, up or down, incidentally). Instead, it looks like he’s dancing. His feet move in a blur across the pedals, but there’s no sense of mania to his inputs. He treads the accelerator and brushes the brakes as if they were made of glass.
If you thought logically about the amount of information being processed by your eyes as you drive the Fabia S2000 across a rally stage, your brain would probably burst. But it’s your eyes that must absorb and assess the information as it hurtles towards them, and allow your hands and feet to react accordingly. And that’s before you even mention the vast array of buttons that stare back at you from the centre console. Or the large gear selection indicator that takes centre stage on the digitised dashboard, which also has several different menus that can be scrolled through to provide data about the engine, differentials, gearbox, fluid levels and ambient temperature.
You also sit very low in the car in order to maximise the centre of gravity and, as a result, the view forwards is hardly panoramic. It isn’t helped by the thick pillars of the full roll cage that’s installed, either; they hinder your front three-quarter vision and make you wonder what’s coming next when travelling sideways. But you do, after a while, get used to the super-low driving position. Eventually it feels quite natural, in fact, even if you can’t see the end of the bonnet as it hurtles towards the next (potential) disaster.
The Fabia S2000 makes a fairly industrial kind of noise when you fire it up and prod the throttle for the first time. The starter motor is loud, and when the 2.0-litre engine catches, it chugs into life and settles into a mildly deafening idle of just under 1600rpm.
The response from the accelerator is immediate and total, and the sound seems to double in volume as you wap-wap the accelerator in neutral. The whole car moves as you do so, and the sheer intensity of the noise seems to fill your ears, leaving space for not a lot else.
Dip the clutch, select first gear and there’s an audible ‘thunk’ from the transmission as the straight-cut gear goes in. Move off and the exhaust noise is joined by an even greater cacophony as the detritus from the gravel road below showers the Fabia’s reinforced undertray and wheelarch liners. To top off the aural assault, there’s also a distinctive series of whines and clatters from the transmission that accompany your every move.
Until you fully let rip in the Fabia, that is, at which point the screaming exhaust drowns out all other sounds and leaves you with a quite fantastic range of noises that will cause your ears to ring for several minutes after the engine has been switched off. Without ear defenders or a crash helmet, you’d go deaf driving this car, and quickly.
Confidence is key when trying to squeeze the last few tenths out of any competition car, but in a Fabia S2000, it is a grade ‘A’ essential. As such, your head must be totally convinced that the car will respond in the way that you want it to when you throw it towards, say, a fourth-gear, off-camber left-hander, on which there is gravel on one side and a 250-foot precipice on the other.
At the same time, you must also be as relaxed as possible when driving this car, even – and especially – in the heat of the moment. Mikkelsen looked as cool as a world-class poker player as we slithered through the Goodwood forest sideways at 85mph, the trees just inches away, left and right. The Fabia’s reflexes are so immediate that nothing less than perfect concentration is needed to control it at high speed. One small mistake, one tiny lapse in focus, will put you into those trees faster than you could imagine when driving with this kind of commitment and at the speeds of which the Fabia is capable. Even a touch of arrogance might be needed to get the most out of this car on and beyond its heady limits.
The rally driver’s backside is arguably his or her greatest asset. It’s where your centre of feel lies when trying to work out how the car is going to react next as it slithers sideways through the forest. It’s where a driver’s sense of spatial awareness and balance begins and ends.
In the Fabia’s case, your backside is clamped into position by a massive, high-sided bucket seat and there’s a six-point harness, which is done up so tightly that you can no longer breathe properly to begin with. By the end of a stage, those belts will have loosened, as they always do, although you’ll still be located just so by the bucket seat, which has an unusual amount of padding to it for a competition chair.
They say that a driver’s heart rate closes in on 200 beats per minute when they’re in full flight in a rally car, and I’m certain that was the case when I drove the mighty Fabia. Yet watching Mikkelsen in action, he seemed the absolute opposite of stressed. He looked calm; he even spoke calmly through the headphones to me, describing what the car was doing as we flew through the trees at 90mph, a bit like a tour guide pointing to Big Ben for the 400th time that month.
Either way, a big heart plays a vital role when trying to get the most out of a Fabia S2000. As I said at the beginning, total commitment is needed to go faster than the next person along the stage. And there’s only one place that comes from: the heart.
I shall never forget the day I drove the extraordinary Fabia S2000. It was one of the scariest, most humbling experiences I’ve had doing this job, not least because I felt so far out of my depth.
Even so, it was sufficient to deduce that the Fabia is one heck of a fine rally car. Fast, strong, agile and quite incredibly smooth to drive, it made even a novice like me feel worryingly invincible. In the hands of Andreas Mikkelsen, it was something else again.
And that’s what I’ll remember most: being driven in the Fabia at full speed by someone who does it better than just about anyone on the planet at the moment. It still makes me shudder with nerves, thinking about it now, months later. Quite how we didn’t crash I’ll never know – but I’d guess that having a Fabia S2000 to play with, week in, week out, probably makes all the difference.