John Haugland: Why “underdog” Skoda was a force to be reckoned with

by | Aug 5, 2020

John Haugland explains how, contrary to expectations, Skoda became a successful rally team

Photo source: Jan Splidek

“A lot of people didn’t think that the Skoda could do very well in motorsport,” says former works rally driver John Haugland, “and they also thought that ‘Ok, these drivers driving Skodas must be fantastic drivers that can drive so well in a shitty car like the Skoda’… but it was completely different. The cars were much, much better motorsport cars than the public, normal people, thought.”

Haugland racked up over 100 international class wins with Skoda in a career spanning 21 years. Today, that doesn’t sound so surprising – the Czech firm is hardly a rallying underdog. In fact, its current rally car, the Fabia Rally2, has dominated the WRC 2 class in recent years.

But go back to the 1970s and 80s, before Skoda became part of the Volkswagen Group, and people’s attitudes towards the brand were very different. However, that didn’t stop it from claiming some huge scalps and dominating its class.

Skoda’s Fabia Rally2 is a common sight on rallies today, as was the Estelle during the 1980s. Photo source: Jan Splidek

One of the reasons for the rally cars’ success, according to Haugland, is that they were developed “hand in hand” with the road car. “Very many of the designers, they had a motorsport interest, so when it comes to the design of suspension and things… it was made in a little bit of a motorsport way in the road car, which meant it was easy to convert it further, modify it and make it work well as a motorsport car.”

Haugland is effusive about the “fantastic” engineers and technicians he worked with during his time at Skoda: “I learned so much from those guys, they taught me everything.” He credits the talent that existed within the company to a “big interest” in cars and the existence of good technical high schools and universities in Czechoslovakia.

Skoda mechanics in action. Photo source: Jan Splidek

However, political circumstances also helped Skoda attract the best employees, as Haugland explains: “At that time the country, as a communist country, had closed borders, so people who want to go to the top as engineers in the car industry or in motorsport, they couldn’t move to any other country and work for Ford or Opel or Lancia… And their biggest ambition of course that they had, that was to work for the biggest motorsport company in the country, which was Skoda Motorsport.”

Despite the ridicule that was heaped on its road cars, Skoda earned respect for its rallying exploits. “You know, when you drove Skodas, it’s cars that not everybody are expecting the biggest results from…,” says Haugland. “It was a little bit of an underdog and I know especially the English public, English motorsport people, they like underdogs.”

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