Wednesday | 02 Jun 2021

The Beetle World Rally Car that never was

Top-tier motorsport engineer Francois-Xavier Demaison has revealed how the WRC came close to welcoming a Volkswagen Beetle to the stages.

Demaison arrived onto the WRC scene with no previous rally experience, but his vast technical knowledge helped Marcus Grönholm and Peugeot to world titles in the early 2000s.

He also developed a close relationship with Petter Solberg at Subaru and Citroën before joining the formidable Volkswagen Motorsport team in 2011. 

The Frenchman took time out from his current role as technical director at Williams Formula 1 team for an exclusive interview with Becs Williams in the latest WRC Backstories podcast.

He shared a host of stories, including tales of the unique relationships he shared with drivers, comparisons of the engineering differences between WRC and Formula 1, plus the day he moved to Volkswagen.

After leaving Citroën, Demaison was due to meet Volkswagen Motorsport’s technical director to discuss joining the German squad. He spent the previous night in a hotel, before Kris Nissen - motorsport director at the time - called and asked him to attend the office a few hours early. 

“I took a taxi to Volkswagen Motorsport and we had a five-minute chat,” explained Demaison.  “We basically started the interview, and after five minutes, we shook hands and the decision was made. I said, ‘but I was supposed to see the technical director,’ and he [Nissen] said, ‘don’t worry, I will call him later and introduce you to him.’” 

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At the time, Volkswagen still hadn’t decided which model to base their new World Rally Car on. Demaison recalled how, during the short but sweet interview, Nissen laid out the choices. 

“After speaking to their marketing department,’ he said, ‘we have two options. Their preferred option is to rally the Beetle. For communications, it would be fantastic, but for us, we think it’s not the best base car, and we would prefer to use the Polo.’ 

“I said, ‘well, for me, it’s clear. If it is to come and do a rally car with the Beetle, I will stay at home. There’s no point to come’. And then, he said, ‘Okay, the deal is done. You are employed - I am happy you take the position!’”

The sight of a Volkswagen Beetle in the FIA World Rally Championship would have been quite extraordinary. But, from an engineer’s perspective, Demaison believed it would not have been competitive. 

“The car choice was easy,” said the Frenchman. “I was there if it was the Polo, but if it had been the Beetle, I would not have joined the team.

“You only learn from your experience - the Beetle would have been a disaster. It would have been nice with the two stripes on the bonnet and number 53 on the doors, but to do motorsport and not win, there is no point,” he added. 

The Polo turned out to be hugely successful

As fate would have it, the Polo was successful from the get-go. Following its 2013 Rallye Monte-Carlo debut, the car won at 43 of the 53 rallies it started, and carried both Sébastien Ogier and Volkswagen to four consecutive drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles before the team withdrew in 2016. 

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