After seeing his Proton Satria Neo Super 2000 run higher on a round of the World Rally Championship than any S2000 machinery had before, MEM team principal Chris Mellors spoke to Autosport about the car's highly impressive WRC debut in last week's Rally Ireland.
Niall McShea placed the Proton, a car which Petter Solberg is tipped to drive next season, in third place on the lanes of the Eire and Northern Ireland last week - briefly running ahead of five-time champion Sebastien Loeb.
Unfortunately, the former Production Car World Rally champion's hopes of being the first person to score WRC points with a Super 2000 car disappeared when he suffered an electrical fault on the opening day and then crashed on day two.
Q. What exactly was the part which caused the electrical fault?
Chris Mellors: It was an o-ring, missing from the seal. This let water into the ECU (Electronic Control Unit). This caused the circuit to burn out.
Q. How much does that part cost?
CM: 50 pence. If that.
Q. They were fairly extreme conditions, though...
CM: Yes, they were, but that won't happen again. We know what happened. The ECU's a prototype and it's not a part which we build ourselves. But, like I say, we know what happened and we won't be having that problem again. It was one of those things. Unfortunate. After we'd changed that, we didn't put another part on the car.
Q. How would you sum up Niall's performance on Rally Ireland?
CM: Stunning. Absolutely stunning. After the asphalt testing we'd done in the French Alps, we were fairly confident that we were quicker than the other Super 2000 cars. We used the same stages other [Super 2000] teams had used to test on two weeks before and we knew we were going faster. We were quietly confident.
People were asking if we thought the car would be competitive against the Group N cars out in Ireland, it was difficult, but I think we've certainly shown this car is considerably quicker. This car falls between a Group N car and a full World Rally Car.
Q. Is there more performance to come?
CM: Absolutely, we're only just scratching the surface right now. We only did a day and half testing with Niall and we go away from here with more ideas for the car and more work to do. We haven't played any of the 10 jokers (changes to the car specification allowed without homologation) we're permitted in a year. We've got a couple of options for a new homologation in March.
Q. What makes this car so good?
CM: It's just the right size. It's only five millimetres higher than it needs to be [for homologation] which makes it just the right length and it's very low. The car's only 1.3 metres high. That and the very steeply raked bonnet gives it good aerodynamics and the combination of those give it that go-kart-like handling. This is what all the drivers say and some of the spectators are saying it was like a Formula 1 car the way it went through the corners without moving, it was as though they weren't there.
Q. When you saw Niall was third overall, did that exceed your expectations?
CM: Of course. I honestly didn't believe we could be in a podium position on our first ever World Rally Championship outing. After the test with Niall, our general thought was that we could be ahead of some of the local World Rally Cars and we wanted to be ahead of the Group N runners. But to be ahead of the World Rally champion, Sebastien Loeb, was unbelievable.
Admittedly, it was a good tyre choice. But look at the in-car and you'll be able to see both Niall's commitment, but you'll also see that he's not working hard at it. That's the big difference. You get to the corner, turn the wheel and it goes around, simple as that. You don't have to slide this car to set it up. It was the same when Kris Meeke tested the car. He couldn't find the limit because it was so easy to drive. It's only when drivers push it a lot harder that they do find the limit.
Q. What's the next step for the car?
CM: We've got some manifold homologation parts coming in March. We're still doing a lot of engine work right now. The engine's already very strong: it's a long stroke and a small bore, which gives it a lot of torque compared with the other Super 2000 cars. If you watch the in-car, you can leave it in gear for a lot longer, it doesn't have such a small power band. We've got a 1,500rpm to 2,000rpm power band rather than the 500rpm which is normal. You can drive this thing along the main road at 3,000rpm - that's how flexible the engine is.
Q. When will the car be out next?
CM: Well, we've got an incredible amount of interest in the car, as you can imagine. We're working on a variety of programmes, in the WRC, the IRC and in Britain. At the moment, we want to get the gravel testing underway, that's the priority and then we'll start looking at the next rally. Put it this way, it won't be far away.