All eyes were on Hyundai Motorsport at last weekend’s round of the FIA ETCR – eTouring Car World Cup in Zolder. In addition to being one of the three competing manufacturers in the Belgian round of the electric series, alongside Cupra EKS and Romeo Ferraris, the team brought along its hybrid-powered World Rally car, the Hyundai i20 N Rally1, for a unique activation event – and we were there to provide a boost.
The ETCR paddock had been in full swing since Thursday. The Energy Station was prepped, ready to charge the competing vehicles – including Hyundai’s Veloster N ETCR – while the ‘Hot Zone’ was primed for live interviews with senior team members and drivers over the course of the weekend. The sun had also made a welcome appearance, warming things up nicely.
Friday’s opening sessions had offered some initial positives for Hyundai Motorsport with its quartet of drivers – Mikel Azcona, Norbert Michelisz, Nicky Catsburg and Jean-Karl (JK) Vernay – all in buoyant mood. Michelisz, the 2019 WTCR winner, was in particularly fine fettle, as the team attracted the attention of the ETCR media.
From the opening session on Saturday morning, the cameras flocked to garage 11 to capture the two Veloster N ETCR cars as they took to the track. Yet just three doors down, there were two other cars also getting ready to make a starring role, adorned with the names T. Neuville and N. Michelisz.
The premise of the activation was a car swap between Belgian rally star Thierry Neuville, a mainstay team’s WRC programme since 2014, and ‘Norbi’ Michelisz, with ETCR providing the perfect platform for Hyundai to showcase its latest electric and hybrid motorsport vehicles.
“Thierry will be arriving at 11.45”, buzzed our WhatsApp group. The alert levels raised up a notch as we prepared for action. First, up for the Belgian would be a seat fitting in the Veloster N ETCR, making sure he was well briefed on the car before venturing out on track. He also checked his more familiar surroundings in the rally car to make sure things were in good working order.
At 1 pm, our designated window of track time, the cars were lined up in the pitlane, media assembled – including some notable members of the Belgian press invited by Hyundai Belgium – ready to watch the display. Norbi readied himself, with no sign of any nerves, and with Thierry in the co-driver seat, the Rally1 car roared into life. A handful of laps later, the pair returned with beaming smiles. “Fantastic,” was the succinct summary from keen rally enthusiast Norbi as he relayed the experience to reporters. “He’s a professional driver, so I knew it would be fun,” added Thierry.
Next up, it was Thierry’s turn in the Veloster N ETCR. The Belgian is no stranger to TCR events, but this would be his first experience in an all-electric race car. A far quieter departure from the pitlane but no less exciting, as he got quickly up to speed. “If he had five more laps, you would not realise it was a rally driver at the wheel,” was Norbi’s summary.
The pair then swapped over again, but this time with Thierry reclaiming his driving seat in the WRC car for some ‘hot laps’ with Norbi as a passenger. The show ended with an impressive display of donuts, carried out with pinpoint precision, and a round of applause up and down the pitlane for their efforts. The smiles were still firmly intact, as Norbi returned to his ETCR duties.
The ‘King of the Weekend’ title might have eluded the team in Zolder but as activations go, this was a crowning moment for Hyundai, as a high-octane showcase of its hybrid and electric capabilities in motorsport.