Stage Fright - 2000 Hyundai Accent WRC2000

Throughout its relatively short history, rally racing has seen a number of ups and downs in terms of performance. Initially the sport consisted of poorly organized monster marathons featuring gigantic grand tourers driven by the super rich, and outright speed was often not even of concern.

It took until the 1950’s before the Swedish and Finnish rally scenes introduced the special stage, a shorter section on the route which took place on a closed road, allowing for much higher speeds. Th adoption of this format increased the demand for smaller and more nimble cars, giving rise to unlikely rally weapons based on the humble Mini Cooper, Saab 96 and Ford Escort.

Thanks to the Scandinavians, rallying became a frantic sport for small, agile cars.

As the rallying world shaped itself around the special stage, so did the cars. A clear example of this was presented in 1973. That year the first World Rally Championship for constructors was won by the tiny French outfit of Alpine, using a rear-engined sportscar perfectly suited to tight special stages: the Renault-powered A110.

Following the win by Alpine, looser FIA Group 4 regulations gave rise to the first bespoke rally machine: the exotic Lancia Stratos. It promptly took the next three titles, leading the way for ever more extreme interpretations of the rules.

Eventually the example set by Lancia was given physical form with the advent of the hopelessly extreme Group B regulations in 1982. The manic monsters produced in that were not to last however, giving way to the vastly more conservative Group A category in 1987 after a series of fatal accidents.

Group B's dangerously high-powered cars spelled the end of the category by 1986.

In comparison to its defunct older brother, Group A imposed incredibly restrictive homologation requirements. Instead of 225 road going examples of the race car, any company wishing to compete now had to produce at least 25,000 of a given model. Out of these 25,000, 2500 had to be the exact type the company desired to run. This meant Lancia had to produce at least 25,000 Delta’s, of which 2500 had to be Integrale’s.

The formula worked brilliantly for the next decade, and delighted pure-blooded petrolheads everywhere with exciting road going equivalents of fire-breathing rally cars. Marketing departments were also pleased, as the mundane 1.6L versions of their cars now had a direct link to the wonderfully crazy world of rallying.

Group A featured largely standard machinery.

However, as the years dragged on, companies like Toyota, Ford and Subaru started growing tired of having to homologate every single slightly improved part. The FIA responded by allowing more and more freedom in designing the rally cars, but found itself on a slippery slope. Realizing the days of homologation madness were coming to an end, the governing body introduced the much more liberal World Rally Car formula for 1997, exactly ten years after Group A had taken over as the top category.

The minimum 2500 example production requirement remained, but manufacturers were no longer required to build actual road going models of their racers. Furthermore, the cars could now be fitted with turbochargers, sequential gearboxes, anti-lag systems, four wheel drive, an aero package, revised suspension layouts and engines up to 2.0L regardless of the specifications of the donor car. This renewed freedom attracted the attention of several new car companies, who now had an easier way into the sport.

Hyundai's first passenger car, the much maligned Pony.

One of these eager newcomers was South Korean auto giant Hyundai. Started in 1967 as the automotive arm of the colossal Hyundai Group, the company had built a reputation for building terribly cheap square piles of uninspired, dreary plastic misery.

Following Cortina and Taunus models produced under license from Ford, Hyundai created the first ever South Korean car with 1975’s Pony. Though fantastically cheap, the car was famed for it’s hideous build quality and questionable reliability, perhaps the result of Hyundai’s hiring of George Turnbull, the man who designed the horrendous Morris Marina.

Despite the initial missteps, Hyundai’s industrial might gave the company a relentless impulse forward. By 1991, the firm had freed itself of the dependence on Mitsubishi for engines and transmissions, and proceeded to produce an in-house developed drivetrain. The mechanical independence worked wonders for the company, enabling Hyundai Motor Group to increase spending on research and development even further.

The front wheel drive, naturally aspirated Coupe F2 Kit Car paved the way for Hyundai's WRC program.

Apart from an unprecedented 10-year or 100,000-mile (160,000 km) warranty for American market cars and a frenetic marketing campaign, Hyundai’s top brass decided to attempt to build the brand’s image further by participating in the oldest promotional tool known to motoring man: motor racing.

Just as the WRC-formula was introduced, the company took their sporty Coupe model into the second-tier F2 Kit Car category. With two-wheel drive and naturally aspirated engines required, the Coupe had little chance of an overall victory, especially on loose surfaces.

Nevertheless the car broke the ice for Hyundai’s rallying effort, scoring a career best of 3rd in class on its debut at the 1997 Rallye New Zealand with driver Robert Nicoli and navigator Jim Carlton. The decent results seen by the Coupe urged Hyundai to go one step up and join the top boys in WRC.

Hyundai turned to the drab Accent to create its first World Rally Car.

Like its competitors Subaru, Ford, Skoda, Toyota, SEAT, Mitsubishi and Peugeot, Hyundai decided against using a stylish coupe to defend their honor. Because of this the Coupe was dropped from the works team, and replaced by one of the most unlikely rally cars in modern history. Hoping to capitalize on the exposure provided by the WRC, Hyundai had chosen the critically panned second-generation Accent as their new rally hero.

The Accent was a tiny bundle of uninspired but capable transportation for those young enough to barely afford it, and those old enough not to care anymore. The pedestrian model featured a range of 1.5L 3 cylinder and 1.6L four-cylinder engines, with the 1.5L diesel apparently being the work of some ancient force of evil. Lacking anti-lock brakes and a host of other features, the Accent was cheap, but definitely not very cheerful.

Unsurprisingly, the world looked on in awe when Hyundai presented the heavily mutated WRC-form of the Accent to the public. Developed and built by British specialists Motor Sport Development, the Accent WRC2000 looked like serious business. Its aggressive aero package started with a gaping front grille to help cool the engine, wide bulging wheelarches adjusted to the modified track front and rear, and a massive double spoiler on the trunk of the car.

Under the hood was a beta G$GF 2.0L four cylinder engine, boosted by a massive Garrett TR30R turbocharger. Power was limited by the mandatory 34mm intake restrictor to 300 horsepower at 5300 rpm, but torque was more impressive with 520 Nm (383 lb ft) at 3500 rpm. A 6-speed sequential transmission supplied by Xtrac powered all four wheels, which were suspended on dual wishbones and coil springs on all four corners. In compliance with the WRC-regulations, the Accent weighed 1230 kg (2711 lbs), 204 kg (449 lbs) more than the heaviest version of the standard car.

MSD had been testing the car late in 1999, and felt the Accent was ready for its debut at the second round of the 2000 WRC season, the challenging International Swedish Rally. Famous for its high snow banks, slippery conditions and often adverse weather, Hyundai had selected one of the most difficult events to unleash their still unproven car.

Hyundai’s driving talent consisted of its Coupe F2 drivers from the previous three seasons. Hometown hero Kenneth Eriksson (SWE), 1986 Group A champion and former factory driver for both Mitsubishi and Subaru took the #14 car. Eriksson was joined by Scotsman Alister McRae in #15. Alister was the younger brother of 1995 World Rally Champion Colin, who he had occasionally joined at Subaru’s world rally team.

Alister McRae braving Sweden's famous snowbanks, 2000.

With David Senior (GB) partnering McRae and Eriksson joined by Staffan Parmander (SWE), the pair set out on the car’s first ever World Championship event. Kenneth Eriksson scored a highest stage finish of 5th at Stage 15: Lugnet, but overall didn’t have the pace to match the front runners. Alister McRae on the other hand could only manage a pair of 11th placings in Stage 18 and 19, Sagen 2 and Rammen 2. Eventually the pair finished 14th (Eriksson) and 15th (McRae) after 20 stages.

Kenneth Eriksson giving his all, 2000 Rallye de Catalunya.

Unfortunately the encouraging finishes in Sweden were immediately followed by a bitter dual retirement in Portugal. Three stages in Eriksson’s clutch failed, with McRae reporting a broken transmission just a stage after. it had become painfully clear Hyundai and MSD still had a lot of work to do to get the Accent up to speed.

Alister McRae, 2000 Rallye de Catalunya.

At Rallye de Catalunya in Spain, Hyundai faced mixed results. Alister McRae was out again on Stage 9: Gratallops - Escaladei 2, when his engine failed. Eriksson kept on going however, and recorded an embarrassingly distant 23rd place overall following mechanical issues of his own.

Luckily the pace picked up considerably in Argentina, with both cars making the top 10 for the first time. Alister McRae managed to beat his more experienced teammate to 7th overall, with the Swede having to settle for 8th. Sadly the team’s good spirits were stifled again in Greece.

On Stage 4: Kineta, Kenneth Eriksson suffered another engine failure. His teammate was little better off, as McRae only made it 6 stages in before he was unable to meet the maximum allowable travel time limit between stages. Once again a lack of reliability had cost the British/Korean outfit the race.

The pair received new chassis for the seventh round of the championship in New Zealand, but to not avail. Alister McRae went well for most of the rally, even managing to score a stage victory on Stage 9: Te Akau South. To his shock and horror however, one of his differentials disintegrated on the final stage of the rally. Meanwhile, Kenneth Eriksson brought his Accent home in an impressive 5th overall, marking Hyundai’s first ever top 5 finish.

Following Eriksson’s success, Hyundai entered a third car for the Australian pairing of Michael Guest and David Green to contest Neste Rallye Finland. Guest was another driver previously engaged in the F2 Kit Car program, and had finally been given his big break. He managed to finish his debut event, but couldn’t get further than 30th overall. Kenneth Eriksson came in 15th, with Alister McRae the highest Hyundai finisher in 9th.

Alister McRae, 2000 Rally New Zealand.

Hyundai reverted to the original two-car team for the Tour de Corse, but didn’t experience anything in the way of better results. Kenneth Eriksson was out for lunch early again, as his suspension failed as early as Stage 3: Bellevalle - Pietra 1. Alister McRae meanwhile raked in a colorless 12th place overall.

Following the misery of Corsica, Hyundai reversed strategy again, allowing Michael Guest to start in the third car for Rallye Sanremo. Unfortunately his appearance was a fleeting one, as he crashed out on Stage 2: Perinaldo 1. Eriksson fared little better however. The Swede experienced a tough rally, ending up 45th overall. McRae was once again the best placed Hyundai driver by steering his Accent to 16th overall.

The three car team was retained for the Australian round of the championship. Again results were rather poor. Alister McRae was the first to give up the fight after a suspension failure on Stage 15: Stirling West. McRae was joined by Guest four stages later, after he experienced electrical gremlins on Bannister North.

However, Kenneth Eriksson managed to save face by achieving Hyundai’s best ever WRC finish . thanks to two stage wins (SS9: Atkins, SS16: Murray Pines), Eriksson was able to power on to a stellar 4th place finish. Thanks to his amazing performance, Hyundai managed to gain a positive feeling from an otherwise dreadful weekend.

The final round of the 2000 World Rally Championship took place on the slippery wet roads of Wales, the home of the Rally of Great Britain. On partly home soil the team hoped to build on the encouraging result scored Down Under. Sadly, the car’s unreliable nature again got the better of it.

Kenneth Eriksson and Alister McRae were selected to defend the brand’s honor for this event, but disaster stuck painfully early once more for the experienced Swede. A fatal mechanical issue meant he was forced to retire on Stage 4: Rhondda 1. His teammate pressed on however, and eventually recorded a decent 11th place finish.

At the end of their debut season, Hyundai Motorsport found itself joint 6th and last with Skoda in the constructors championship. Owing to countless frustrating retirements, the British-Korean squad had amassed just 8 points. Compared to championship-winners Peugeot and their 111 points, Hyundai’s record definitely needed some improvement.

Out of the three men chosen to represent the ambitious company, Kenneth Eriksson had proven to be the fastest, most consistent and substantially more fortunate driver. His two top five finishes added up to five world championship points, placing him just outside the top 10 in 11th place. With so many good results spoiled by appalling reliability, Hyundai felt it had missed out on a dream debut. Despite the hardships, the company was motivated to keep trying, and commissioned MSD to develop a much improved evolution model for 2001.

The Hyundai Accent WRC2000 was the product of an ambitious car maker hoping to free itself from a questionable image. As an up and coming manufacturer, Hyundai saw the importance of demonstrating their products in the harsh environment of the World Rally Championship. Following a brief campaign in F2, the company made the switch to the big leagues.

Unfortunately Hyundai and engineering partner Motor Sport Developments found out soon enough they had bitten off much more than they could chew. The jump from F2 Kit Cars to WRC turned out to be rather big, resulting in a reasonably quick but very fragile car.

Thanks to their inexperience with the WRC-formula, the team had a hard time forging the car into a competitive package. Eventually 2000 became more of a development year, as the facelifted and heavily revised Accent WRC2 was readied to take its revenge in 2001.

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