‘It’s amazing that GTI still means so much’
From rallying to running VW's electric Pikes Peak victory SvenSmeets has had a wild ride through the world of performance cars. What's been there throughout? Hot hatches, of course

RALLYING IS IN VW Motorsport boss Sven Smeets’ blood. He was a long-time co-driver for fellow Belgian Freddy Loix, bouncing with him from Toyota to Mitsubishi to Hyundai to Peugeot. In 2012 he made the leap into team management with VW, working with drivers Sebastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala and team principal Jost Capito. On his watch the team netted four constructors’ championships and four drivers’ championships on the trot.

And then, at the end of that 2013-2016 period of World Rally domination, VW pulled the plug on the whole project.

Capito left to manage McLaren Racing, but VW was determined to keep Smeets close, even though there was no longer a WRC team to run. He was made motorsport director, with a brief to steer VW into new avenues of racing. Capito, after one year with McLaren, is back at V W, running the R division, focused on road cars such as the Golf R; the two work closely together.

The exit from WRC came as part of the VW Group’s post-Die-selgate change of priorities, which also saw Audi pull out of top flight endurance racing. But it was never going to be a complete withdrawal from car racing.

Says Smeets: ‘After the WRC exit, one focus of ours was customer racing. It was almost non-existent at Volkswagen Motorsport; we were only doing a little bit of TCR (the touring car formula that’s now used for many national championships and the world series) but not like we are doing today. With rallying, we saw that the Polo R5 could be a customer racing project. It’s something that would fit us, given that we were coming from the top of rallying anyway.’

It’s a winning formula. The Polo R5 for customer rally teams was announced towards the end of 2017 and it’s already gained the interest of at least 15 teams, which ‘overwhelmed’ Smeets, and VW recently handed over the keys to the 100th Golf GTI TCR racer; they cost €95,000 a pop.

I meet Smeets at the huge GTI gathering at Worthersee in Austria, blessed by baking sun and soundtracked by a giddy mix of tuned Golfs and bass-heavy dance music. He’s a GTI fan and has been for most of his life, telling ofhow he yearned for his uncle’s Mki Golf GTI as a child. ‘I find it just amazing that a brand called GTI still today can move so many people. The GTIs I have driven have always been fantastic to drive. It was not always the car with the most power, but the driveability, how the suspension works, the engine... the whole concept has always
been fantastic.’

He’s determined that there should be genuine two-way traffic between road and competition cars.

‘With the TCR cars, I’d say the link to GTI and VW Motorsport has become very tight. About 60 per cent of the (race-spec) Golf GTI TCR is still from the production car. With this car that came into our motorsport family, there’s now a very strong link - same with the Polo R5. Now, we can start to link the road car with our activities on the racetrack.’ Hence the roadgoing Golf GTI TCR set for production at the end of 2018. Confusingly named the same as VW’s track-bred customer car, it’s set to be the fastest roadgoing Golf GTI ever.

Although Smeets has a strong attachment to the old school, he’s also excited by the winds of change blowing through motorsport: as Le Mans prototypes fade, the GT classes gain fresh impetus; World Rallying may seem too niche, but World Rallycross is making great strides; and VW’s ID R Pikes Peak - as featured in the July issue’s Tech pages - has quite magnificently underlined the performance potential of electric cars.

‘I don’t have all the answers, but it’s inevitable that the direction of the whole automobile industry is going into e-strategy, so we have to follow. Motorsport has always been the pinnacle of the automobile world, so it’s not possible that we stay behind.

‘With development moving so fast, you will see more possibilities to have e-racing. So let’s say today that Le Mans with e-cars is not possible, but in a few years it will be.’ Sound far fetched? Perhaps, but then who’d have thought that
the ID R Pikes Peak, built for the Colorado hillclimb, would not just beat the electric record but - at 7min 57.148sec -  shatter Sebastien Loeb’s outright record by more than 15 seconds?

Speaking after the event, an emotional Smeets said: ‘I think we’ve proven that electric cars can be passionate; that it’s fantastic to see them driving. And that this is our future as we will experience it. We’ve written motorsport history-but it will take us some time to process that.’

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