Feast your eyes on this brand, spanking new Skoda Fabia R5. To date, less than 50 of these cars have been produced and this one – number 43 – is primed for an attack on both the British and Irish Tarmac Championships at the hands of Desi Henry…
This 275bhp four-wheel-drive beast arrived at Desi’s Portglenone home in mid-January after a 2,100 mile round trip to Skoda Motorsport’s headquarters in the Czech Republic.
Before he had a chance to apply graphics to the car let alone drive it in anger, Desi kindly allowed us to take a closer look at his spectacular new ride near the family’s PRH Construction premises.
It was towards the end of 2015 that Desi started to hunt for a new mount. Having sold his Skoda Fabia S2000 to Scotsman Calum Duffy, Desi was hankering after a car suitable to tackle the Irish Tarmac Championship. As of 2016, World Rally Car drivers are no longer eligible to battle for the overall Tarmac title, so an R5 was the natural choice.
But which one? Skoda? Ford? Citroen? After a lot of careful consideration, Desi decided to go for another Skoda.
“We looked at different options but the only two real proven cars are the Skodas and the Fords,” Desi told Pacenotes. “Our Skoda Fabia S2000 was a very good car for us and that’s the main reason why we went the Skoda route again. We knew what the S2000 was like, we liked the car and had no problems. We saw how well it treated us and I’m hoping the R5 is going to treat us the same.”
During his S2000 ownership, Desi was happy with the support provided by Skoda, making his decision to stick with the manufacturer that little bit easier.
“If you have any problems, you can pick up the phone or email them,” he said. “They are very good at English and they usually get back to you quickly with a response. You can phone a technician if you have a technical fault and you can upload the data from the car and send it on to them. They can usually advise you what the problem is.”
“Some parts of the car – such as the engine – need to be sent to mainland Europe if they need rebuilt. That can be a bit of a hassle but you know the job is going to be done and it’ll be done right.”
If looks could kill, this mean machine would win every rally outright. The car simply oozes quality and the attention to detail in all aspects of the build is impressive. Just take a look at how the door cards wrap around the roll cage, or how various plugs in the engine bay are colour coded and labelled.
“It’s an all round great car and it’s very well built,” he added. “I don’t know what the performance difference will be like between the Super 2000 car and the R5 car…I haven’t tested it yet!”
“The S2000 was basically a two-litre normally aspirated World Rally Car but the power was the big problem with it. With the new style cars having a turbo, there should be a wider range of torque.”
“That should help in tricky conditions where you have to use half throttle, footer about a bit and pull gears early,” he added. “You couldn’t really get away with that too much in the Super 2000 car because once you were out of the power range you were snookered.”
“And you have a bit more top end speed with the R5. With the Super 2000, you were limited to around 107mph…and you got there quite quickly.”
A slightly different driving style will be required to get the most out of his new mount but having driven a variety of machinery, it shouldn’t take Desi too long to get the hang of things.
“I think the R5 revs to 7000rpm which is quite high revving for a turbocharged car,” Desi said. “You don’t rev it right out in every gear the same way as you would with the Super 2000 – the shift light comes on at around 6500rpm.”
When we visited Desi, he was hoping to get his first run in the car at the Kirkistown based New Year Stages Rally before tackling the Donegal Mini Stages and then the Galway International.
“Donegal will be the first proper run in the car but we’ll just use it as a learning curve,” he admitted. “There’s only a week between that and Galway so the last thing we want to do is end up damaging the car or doing something silly. And I think it’s going to be quite a steep learning curve.”
“There are going to be a lot of quick drivers in quick cars in Galway,” he continued. “With the new championship format, I think a lot of people are going to come out of the woodwork that you wouldn’t have competed against in the past. So nobody knows who is going to be quick and who is going to be slow.”
Rallying runs in the Henry’s family veins and Desi’s brother, Niall, recently switched to an R4 specification Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X.
“Niall’s Evo X is a very good car too,” Desi said. “If you were racing the Evo X and the Fabia R5 side by side, the Evo X would probably be quicker in straight line speed. But the R5 should be quicker at the end of a stage when you take into account the better handling, better brakes and everything else. The R5 is around 200kgs lighter.”
The question is…can we expect to see older brother Niall behind the wheel of the Fabia as well?
“There might be a row at the dinner table if Niall doesn’t get a run or two out!” Desi laughed. “But I think with the car being left-hand-drive, it might slow him down a bit when he drives it. I started driving left-hand-drive when I was 18 or 19 whereas Niall never went left-hand-drive.”
“My road car is left-hand-drive too. I think you have to do one or the other. You decide what side of the car you want to drive on then stick to it. The way these modern cars are going, most of the manufacturers aren’t going to make them in right-hand-drive so you have to go with the times.”
Both Desi and Niall are in their 20s and they have a lot of competitive experience behind them. They started rallying when they were 17 but at that stage, they already had around four years of competitive karting experience.
“I passed my driving test when I was 17 and started doing small events,” Desi revealed, “but I started rallying properly when I was 18. The Ulster Rally was my first closed road rally. That was in a Fiesta ST and it was a baptism of fire as we were straight into some night stages!”
“We were new to pace notes and basically new to rallying. We didn’t really know what we were doing but we finished the rally and in the end we were setting some very competitive times. It was great to do that as our first event.”
Later, Desi switched his Fiesta ST for a Citroen C2 R2 Max, a car which he used to win the 2011 Citroen Racing Trophy UK. Another car change followed with a Citroen DS3 at his disposal for 2012 and 2013 but luck was not on his side…
“We had a lot of mixed results with the DS3,” Desi said. “We had a lot of good results but in the British Championship, we had a lot of bad luck. We had a couple of mechanical problems and a couple of accidents. Those championships are very competitive and you can’t afford to drop scores, so that limited any chance of having good results in the championship.”
“We went on to the Evos after that. I hired an Evo 6 and we actually won a couple of rallies in it. I had my first overall rally win at the Sean Conlon Memorial – the first round of the Irish Forestry Championship.”
From an Evo 6 to an Evo 9, more rally wins were achieved and Desi came tantalisingly close to picking up the Irish Forestry title.
“We tied on points for the Irish Forestry Championship in 2014 but lost out on the tie-break. It was a bit of a sickener! We had a breakdown on another event before that when a shaft broke in the gearbox. If that hadn’t have happened, we could have potentially won it.”
“But rallying is rallying and that was a good year’s racing. It was always very competitive and that’s good because it keeps your speed up. It keeps you hot.”
Desi also tried his hand at World Rally Car power with a Subaru Impreza WRC but that car brought little in the way of event results. Mechanical problems thwarted his progress, although he did manage to achieve a couple of podium finishes.
Midway through 2015, he acquired a Skoda Fabia S2000 and that’s when his love affair with Skoda began. Podium finishes at the Ulster, Bushwhacker and Galloway Hills rallies were among his season’s most notable results.
“The Super 2000 car was another new learning curve,” he admitted. “We were back in a normally aspirated car where you had to rev it in every gear and keep the car in the torque range. That’s probably the luckiest car we ever had – we did around eight rallies and were on the podium for a lot of them, including second overall on the Ulster Rally behind Donagh Kelly. That was a big result for us.”
The S2000 chapter in Desi’s rallying career has now closed and the R5 chapter is about to be written. After his Donegal Mini Stages test session, Desi stepped onto the rostrum with 2nd OA at the New Years Stages and folllowing an off in Galway, Desi has rebuilt the car and regrouped to claim a top ten spot in the forests of the Mid Wales Stages and on his last event retired with mechanical woes in West Cork.
“The Irish Tarmac Championship is a great championship,” Desi said. “To be honest, we never had the opportunity to compete in it because the World Rally Cars were too expensive to run in a long event. And if you clipped them, it cost a fortune. So we just stayed away from it.”
“With these new regulation changes, it’s back to an affordable level. You can buy a car at half the price, you can run it for half the price and if you hit it, it’s half the price. For these new rules to come to Ireland was a big step forward. In my opinion, Irish rallying was always stuck in the past. I think this move will entice a lot of new people to the championship so I think they made the right decision.”