Why Hyundai’s WRC Title Win is Inspiring

“Hi – I’d like to enter my Hyundai into your ‘Rally-inspired road car display’ please.”

A few years ago, you’d have read that email subject twice – maybe even three times, before chuckling and telling the whole office about it.

A Hyundai rubbing shoulders with giants of rallying like Subaru Impreza STIs, Mitsubishi Evos and Escort Cosworths? If I hit ‘accept’ on the entry, that would be irrefutable evidence of the Korean car manufacturer having successfully reinvented its brand to appeal to one of the most critical motoring audiences on the planet; the petrol head.

Of course, you could argue that had something to do with the fact that – as of today’s cancellation of Rally Australia amid terrible circumstances for locals – Hyundai is mathematically crowned as the Manufacturers’ World Champion. In fact, it probably has more to do with the journey Hyundai – the brand – has been on in order to arrive at this milestone.

The journey began back in 1998. Hyundai was not a cool brand to be a fan of; not with a model history that included cars like the Lantra and Pony. Not even with the marque joining the ranks of the world rallying elite, employing the likes of Alistair McRae to drive its Formula 2 ‘kit car’ version of the Coupe.

It’s a shame, because their road-going special edition, the F2 Evolution remains one of my favourite road cars (that I wish I’d owned).

I was actually pleasantly surprised to see a Facebook fan group dedicated to Hyundai’s debutant F2 challenger, boasting a whopping 344 followers. Directly underneath is a statement by Facebook, explaining that it is “trying to help people better understand the purpose of the page.”

I bet they’re struggling.

Next up was the Accent, a car that is arguably one of the best-looking cars of the early ‘WRC’ (World Rally Car) era of the World Rally Championship. It went OK too, taking a number of top ten finishes in its first season, and even taking a fourth place in Australia (ironically) in 2001 in the hands of Kenneth Eriksson.

Despite struggling to match the pace of the four big teams; Ford, Peugeot, Subaru and Mitsubishi, the evolution of the car continued to provide consistent top five finishes, and the firm’s relative inexperience at this level of the sport catapulted them into the spotlight, with the Accent filtering through to National competition, to good effect.

With four-time World Champion, Juha Kankkunen announced as the headline driver for the team in 2002, along with Freddy Loix and Armin Schwarz, Hyundai was starting to look like a serious player in the WRC, securing ‘best-of-the-rest’ status against Skoda in the 2002 standings, behind the big four.

The Accent, though remained a lowly hatchback and despite its ‘almost-glory’ in the World Rally Championship, the marque appeared to lack any real interest for its modest rally success, and was certainly not interested in leveraging it for marketing purposes.

This was confirmed when, part way through the 2003 season, Hyundai pulled the plug on its rally programme. This would certainly be written into the rally history books as the end of an era, but was not the end of the Hyundai rally story.

Hyundai would leave the World Rally Championship at the beginning of a period of decline in manufacturer backing, spelling a difficult time for the sport, which had no choice but to reinvent itself and try to find relevance to new audiences.

Hyundai, too would be doing the same, and by the time the company announced its return to the WRC, some nine years later in 2014 it was a very different Hyundai that you’d find on the rally stage, and indeed on the road.

This time, the Korean firm would find itself under the spotlight for all the right reasons, as credibly one of the ‘big four’ in a bold new era for the sport. With a new purpose-built factory facility in Germany, the firm made it clear very early on, it was not here to make up the numbers.

Belgian rally star, Thierry Neuville scored the brand’s first WRC podium at Rally Mexico, before stealing the show with his – and Hyundai’s – first rally victory in Germany; somewhat fitting given the location of the team’s shiny new base of operations.

In 2017, Thomas Schmid, Chief Operating Officer at Hyundai Motor Europe announced the firm’s intention to be the number one Asian automotive brand in Europe by 2021. In order to do so, he said they had “defined four strategic cornerstones, each grounded on our customers’ needs and expectations…[to] create a completely new customer experience and attract new customer groups.”

One of those strategic cornerstones is performance and motorsport, and I got a closer look at the heart of this strategy when the highly anticipated new i30 ‘N’ was launched to the press at Cadwell Park, on 1st November that year.

I’d attended press launches before on the steering wheel side, and I know how they work. I also know that the majority of staff concerned are contracted for that particular event, and their passion tends to extend to no more than ensuring the timetable for the launch days is adhered to.

This one felt different. For one thing, I’d never met any Hyundai management previously, but I had a good chat to the CEO of Hyundai Motor UK, Tony Whitehorn and I was astouned at how ‘in-touch’ he was. I actually chatted rallying with the CEO of a motor manufacturer – in 2017!

The whole team seemed energised by the ‘N’ performance brand, and from the way they changed the branding of the Clubhouse at Cadwell, one thing stood out – their motorsport programme was central to this; the fourth of their strategic cornerstones.

[Flashback to my teenage years]

I worked in a ‘Total’ petrol station when I was a student and I remember being both stunned and frustrated at the lack of reference to the brand’s sponsorship of major international motorsport teams.

So I decided to add a bit of value and made a makeshift stand-up poster for the counter, depicting Sebastian Loeb’s Citroen World Rally Championship success with Citroen. It was taken down pretty quickly, and I remember being reprimanded by a somewhat bemused retail manager.

“People don’t care about motorsport, Paul. They just want to buy their fuel and go. Actually, while we’re having this chat – what on earth is that in the back of your car, parked on the forecourt?”

“It’s a roll cage…”

[Back to 2017]

After my chat with Tony Whitehorn, I listened to his address to the first cohort of eagerly gathered, freshly breakfasted motoring hacks, and two things stood out to me.

Firstly; Hyundai had picked Cadwell Park, not for its suitability as a race track or its location, but because of its unofficial title ‘the Mini Nurburgring’ and the inherent link that this made with the i30 ‘N’, which – yes you guessed it – took its initial from the infamous German race track.

Secondly; the marketing team were keen to point out at every opportunity, that Albert Biermann – the former head of BMW’s ‘M’ division, had joined two of his colleagues in making a switch to Hyundai as head of R&D.

From these two things, it was clear that Hyundai finally had a strategy for positioning the brand that was at the core of everything it was doing. Words like ‘emotion’ and ‘driving experience’ and ‘performance’ were littered throughout a presentation that linked the DNA of Hyundai’s motorsport programme with their latest product.

After the presentation, while cars were assigned to drivers, I chatted to a journo I’d met at the launch of Infiniti’s Q30 hatchback a few years earlier.

We discussed this very subject, musing over what might have been had the management of the company been so in touch with what people wanted from a car on the day that the Accent WRCs were trailered out of MSD for the last time 14 years before.

Fiddling with a nicely-finished Performance Blue ‘N’ branded pen, I agreed that things may have been a whole lot different. Inside though, I felt a little uneasy – something was niggling, the rally enthusiast in me was stirring.

You see, prior to the launch, I’d had quite a lot of contact with Hyundai’s UK press and marketing team on arrangements for the day, and I’d offered to organise for an example of both the F2 Coupe, and Accent WRC to be in attendance to provide a handy link to the company’s motorsport heritage.

Not only did Hyundai not want me to organise this, I got the feeling that if a journo had turned up driving a 2002 model Accent road car, they would have been asked to leave it at the hotel and arrange a lift to the circuit instead.

This was a completely different company, so proud of what it had achieved since its comeback to the world of motorsport three years previous, and so confident of where it was going in the next three, that it had made a clear decision not to be associated with its former self.

As a rally fan, I was disappointed. I am a follower of the Hyundai F2 Coupe on Facebook now, after all.

But as a marketing and people enthusiast, I was fascinated by the energy that rallying success had brought to a big car manufacturer like Hyundai, and moreover the impact that energy was having.

What a turnaround the brand has seen on the rally stage – and that’s ignoring success on the world’s race circuits, too. In fact, you could say Hyundai has gone full circle in National rallying. When I first started my rally TV presenting career in the early 2000s, Accent WRCs were the car to beat. Then it went to the Subarus, then Ford ruled the roost.

This year, I presented the British Rally Championship, as well as a number of high profile closed public road rallies, including the North West Stages, Three Shires Rally and the highly acclaimed Rali Bae Ceredigion. Not once has a Hyundai been out of the fight for the top places, and the latter of the three featured a fierce battle between two of UK rallying’s brightest stars, Tom Cave and Osian Pryce, both driving Hyundai R5s.

Indeed, even this year’s British Rally Champion, Matt Edwards – who won his title for M-Sport, driving a Ford – switched to a Hyundai R5 for his assault on the UK round of the WRC, Wales Rally GB.

Earlier this year I stood at the Autosport International Show, at the NEC waiting for the launch of the 2019 WRC cars. As the covers came off, the Hyundai was the car everyone wanted to photograph. It somehow seemed to steal the show.

This year, after the last few as the bridesmaid in the manufacturers’ and drivers’ championship the i20 Coupe looked like it might actually be the car to beat for the world title. So despite the low-key way in which the title has been decided this year, with the cancellation in Australia, the victory is poignant.

You could point to Toyota of course, returning even more recently to the WRC and taking the drivers’ title this year with Ott Tanak. But while Toyota Gazoo Racing is a relatively new team, Toyota has won world championships before and its rich history in the sport follows close behind.

I haven’t seen anyone posting a photo of a Hyundai Coupe on social media today, whilst congratulating Hyundai on the 2019 title. In fact, I might do that now and redress the balance.

By the way, you may be pleased to know I accepted the i30 ‘N’ into our ‘Rally-inspired road car’ display.

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