Think of motorsport and you will most likely conjure images of Formula 1 cars barrelling through Eau Rouge, Le Mans racers chasing shadows late into the night and stripped-out WRC Rally cars drifting casually on powdered snow inches away from unforgiving alpine foliage. In all its forms, motorsport has entertained us for years, so when Volkswagen invited us to experience WRC Rally Germany, Volkswagen’s home rally, we certainly did not hesitate in accepting the invitation. The 1227 kilometres of Rally Germany took place over 21 stages, all on tarmac making it one of the fastest rallies on the calendar.
The location for such an important race for the German manufacturer, Trier, the oldest city in the country peppered with Roman ruins reminiscent of the Colosseum itself. The city is not the most accessible and after a two hour journey on the road from Frankfurt we arrived in the city, caught up on a couple of hours sleep and headed over to the service park to grab our FIA accreditation, get close to the drivers in the media area and watch the VW team in action servicing the three Polo R WRC racers.
The Polo R WRC car is the only car Volkswagen have ever entered into the championship, the team is one of the youngest in WRC having only debuted in 2013. The 2015 racer has been labelled the “second generation car”, and features a modest 1.6-litre 4-cylinder engine. The modesty ended when Volkswagen added an anti-lag system meaning this tiny engine produces a buzzing 318 horsepower and an impressive 430 newton-metres of torque. This means that the Polo will scramble to 100 km/h in just 3.9-seconds, but on almost any surface.
We had arrived on the Friday, a good day for Volkswagen with reigning world champion Sebastian Ogier leading with team mate Jari-Matti Latvala close behind in second with the final Volkswagen car, piloted by Andreas Mikkelsen sealing the top three standings. Having dominated WRC since joining the series, Volkswagen reigned supreme in the 2014 season but were denied the glory of winning their home race at Trier 12 months ago after accidents in the closing stages swept victory away from their grasp. The drivers promised to deliver in 2015, the pressure was on and the stage was set for the drivers to deliver on their words.
The atmosphere in the service park was buzzing, the Volkswagen Motorhome was the place to be with constant updates on the racing and delicious canapés to hand. As the cars trundled into the service park we dashed over to the media area to catch a glimpse and a few quick words with the drivers.
Lines of spectators, young and old, male and female leaned over the barriers in an attempt to listen in to interviews, snap pics and fill autograph books from team members the many looked up to as heroes and idols. When Sebastian Ogier roared into the park the crowds shifted and bunched as the French driver drove further into the paddock. As he and his navigator emerged they quickly vanished out of our line of sight, shrouded in reporters from the world’s sporting press after whispering feedback on the car and its performance to a designated team technician.
It was approaching 10pm and the German heat lingered heavy over the Park, as the cars entered the garages we were surprised to still see hundreds of fans relishing the carnival aura all waiting to watch the mechanics in action repairing, replacing and cleaning all that they could in the strict 45 minute end of day service time.
As the counter began to countdown the team set to work, it was rhythmic, mesmerising almost hypnotic watching the Volkswagen WRC team in action. Without a word being uttered each and every man around the car was engaged, absorbed and focused with the task at hand. With Volkswagen VIP passes we were allowed unrestricted access in the garage, as we walked around the car we saw dozen of parts being work on. From the front bumper being removed and cleaned, the entire braking system replaced and suspension forks being swapped on each corner of the car and even the hovering of the interior, it was clear that every member of the team knew what had to be done and would not rest until the task was completed.
The next morning it was time to head out to watch the cars in action at a stage set that snaked through a German army training facility complete with an active mine field in addition to being littered with old fighter jets and other military paraphernalia. Access to the stage from the Service Park was not easy and traffic through the rural roads was known to be heavy. Volkswagen had a surprise to help us bypass the congestion, helicopters and five of them.
A 30-minute flight to the stage treated us to the most spectacular views of the dense woodlands around Trier that was punctuated by clusters of wind farms graciously spinning as the sun glinted off their long metal blades. As we rose over a hill we passed over a deep quarry followed by a break of towering trees and the most stunning dam that held back thousands of gallons of water. As we neared our destination the stage came into sight, it was time to watch some racing.
After a quick tour of the Volkswagen hospitality facility the WRC racers began to queue at the start line. The first three cars were the most significant, the current leaders, all three in Polo R WRC cars and they did not fail to put on a show. As the cars rounded the first hairpin and down the hill we crossed to the other side of the hospitality suite to see the view over the hill down the stage where thousands of dedicated fans were enjoying the racing and a host of entertainment including a German pop band that were in attendance courtesy of Volkswagen.
On track all three Volkswagen driver extended their leads on the other manufacturers and victory, as with 2014, was close with just two stages remaining. As the Opel Racing series took to the tarmac it was time for the WRC racers to move onto the next stage and for us to head back into the skies. The Helicopters swooped onto the hillside and whisked us away, after a short flight we arrived at our final stage of Saturday and were track side in the midst of all the fans, the buzz and anticipation of catching a glimpse of the racers in actions.
As the warning horns sounded and the marshals closed the cross-track paths, the crowds took to their feet and eagerly raised their cameras. This time we were just a few meters from a sharp hairpin bend, it was fascinating watching the drivers yanking their huge hand brake levels to swing the rear of the car around the acute turn with such poise and skill more accustomed with the ballerinas from the Black Swan than the ferocious power, speed and force of motor racing.
Once again it became apparent that the supporters of WRC are unlike those of any other sport. Where Le Mans fans will set up camp for the long 24 hours, WRC patriots will arrive hours early to see their favourites for a mere few seconds before travelling great distances to the next stage to do the same again.
Having completed a days spectating we headed back to the service park to eat dinner and watch the final evening service of Rally Germany and return to our hotel in anticipation for the next mornings entertainment, the final day of Rally Germany. The next morning we skipped breakfast to be the first to the stage along with the crew to witness the final stages of the rally. We headed high into the hills of Trier where the hillsides were lined with neatly arranged vineyards.
After a short trek and quick snack the horns sounded in a distant valley, the leaders were making their way through the German hills. Once again the three drivers extended their leads over the rest of the field and the excitement in the Volkswagen camp was heightening.
The final stage of the rally was one of the longest and most testing on tarmac anywhere in the world. Ogier, Latvala and Mikkelsen were poised for a victory that would have made up for the errors of 2014. A few hours later we were back in the service park with German garlands around our necks hiding behind the team to avoid a Champagne showers. The trio had done it, a Volkswagen one, two, three at the manufactures home race and the team celebrated in style. The most senior members of the team were visibly impressed, smiles glistened late into the evening and the team packed away all their equipment ready for the next race. The next challenge would be a very different proposition in very different conditions. Australia is next on the calendar and the excitement of being able to clinch the constructers championship has the Volkswagen team dreaming of locking out the podium once again.