Praga : History Makers
We take a journey through the 100-year history of Praga, and find out why we should all be paying attention to them going forward.
Written by: Tom Kent
When you think of automobile manufacturers with the richest of histories and the greatest stories to tell, your mind will wander to Detroit and the Big Three, or maybe even Modena and the supercar scions, but Prague? Bear with us, you’ll like this story.
The Praga brand is over a century old. It built its first car in 1909 in what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which then became Czechoslovakia. The company grew fast during the industrialisation of Europe and, over time, expanded its growing road car and racing car activities into truck, bus, motorcycle and aircraft manufacture as well as military and agricultural machinery. We’re not talking about small-scale production here; Praga built hundreds of thousands of vehicles and machinery and in the first half of the 20th century became a true industrial powerhouse of the European continent.
So, why don’t you know more about Praga? Well, it can be argued that no vehicle manufacturer has faced the trauma of war, the reshaping of a continent and its resulting socio-political upheavals quite like Praga has. Combine this with the fact that the business operated behind the veil of the Iron Curtain for the majority of its existence, and the fact that its structure and assets were subsequently reshaped after the ‘Velvet Revolution’ of 1989 and you have, unsurprisingly, a brand of which little is known.
Today, Praga is the kind of company vehicle enthusiasts should follow. It is no longer a mass-producer, but its focus on karts, racing cars and aviation is fascinating. It is that rare thing in the modern automotive world; a company ploughing its own furrow and one which is seemingly powered by an endless supply of passion. Take a look at the Praga website and its racing car and aviation ambitions, and you’ll see what we mean. Oh, and did we mention the 1,000bhp Dakar truck? Driven by cross-country rally raid legend Aleš Loprais, the Praga V4S DKR truck heads to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 to compete in the two-week event.
Praga is not immune to the very latest developments in automotive either. In June this year, it dipped its toe into the sim racing waters with a collaboration with the virtual racing club, 27racers.com. In typical Praga fashion, it looked to make an impact in an area within sim racing that is underdeveloped — karting. The resulting events, using the ‘brand-neutral’ go-kart within Gran Turismo Sport, have been entertaining in the extreme but moreover have introduced the Czech company to a growing and valuable sim racing audience.
UK MD of Praga and ex-BMW and McLaren executive Mark Harrison explains, “The company is on the verge of something big. 2020 has been about laying the groundwork for our ambitious plans for 2021 and beyond, and making sure that the automotive world understands our unique history, and our unique offering”.
At the heart of Praga’s business is the R1 racing car. As flamboyant and dramatic as any modern supercar but underpinned by the most up-to-date racing car technology, the R1 is currently cleaning up in the Britcar Endurance Championship and has evolved into one of the quickest and most formidable cars of its kind in the world.
It does so with a focus on lightweight and downforce, with a full carbon chassis and safety cell, and bodywork that is shamelessly shaped to generate negative lift. Indeed the top-spec Praga R1T Evo can generate downforce over 1.5 times its weight, which in turn means up to 3G of lateral force in the corners.
The engine? Based on a Renault-Alpine F4R Formula 2.0 unit, it has four cylinders, 16-valves and 82.7mm x 93mm bore/stroke. The turbo runs at between 0.9 and 1.2bar of boost and with a 62-litre fuel tank, the car will last between 45 and 60 minutes on track (depending on the weight of another crucial item, your right foot).
The rev limit is set at 7,000rpm and peak power arrives at 6,800rpm, but the R1T Evo doesn’t have one peak power number, it has three: 330bhp, 360bhp and 380bhp depending on the position of the cockpit-mounted calibration switch. Torque is 273lb ft, 288 lb ft, and 302lb ft respectively. “In this world of 1,000bhp mega-cars, sub-400bhp doesn’t sound like much but we’ve had had drivers with GT4 or even GT3 race car experience try the Praga R1 and they are blown away by its performance”, says Harrison.
Speak to Praga’s Engineering Director Jan Martínek, and he will tell you that at the core of the R1’s extraordinary abilities is its lack of weight. This in turn generates a feeling not unlike a go-kart.
“I know that mostly every sports car manufacturer will tell you the same, that their car feels like a go-kart, because it’s kind of a holy grail, but a few if any actually work to engineer this feeling”, says Martínek. A driver will discover this, explains the engineer, with a very direct steering response and feel and the car’s pure agility on track.
“It’s definitely a go-kart feeling. The R1 is as close as you can get to this holy grail because at its core it is essentially a racing car derivative of a go-kart, and that makes me happy because a kart is the purest form of driving”.
Mark Harrison concurs, “We see this time and time again, especially this year. Drivers will climb from the car after a successful test or race with a big smile on their face because they’ve been able to compete against much bigger and more powerful cars”. For comparison, at 592kg, the Praga R1T Evo is 158kg lighter than an F1 car.
When you speak to Jan, the authenticity comes through loud and clear; in many respects it’s like he and the company are on a mission to reclaim the phrase ‘go-kart feel’, but then if anyone can, it’s Praga. Last year they built 7,000 karts and there are over 50,000 in circulation globally, so arguably no other car company has such a close connection with the purest form of motorsport.
But there’s another card up Praga’s sleeve, and that’s a focus on low running costs. “There’s a lot of focus on this in the track and race car world at the moment, for obvious reasons, but for Praga it has always been a goal to create a racing car that could compete with the fastest exotica at a fraction of the cost”, explains Harrison. “Brake pads, tyres, suspension components, they all last significantly longer on the R1 because the car isn’t moving any unnecessary mass around”.
This year, Praga has been racing three cars in the UK: two turbocharged R1T Evos and one naturally-aspirated R1S. Prepared and run by VR Motorsport, the squad is looking to repeat their 2019 Britcar Class 1 title win with the R1T Evo and take a few more scalps from the more recognisable manufacturers in the championship.
The R1’s size and relatively small-capacity engine would have you believe it cannot compete with bigger, multi-cylinder exotica, but compete it does, and win, and not just in the UK either. The R1 has been successful in recent seasons in US and Dutch challenge series and took a record 30 race wins and podiums in the US and in the UK in 2019.
But what makes the car not only great to drive, but great to race? Jan Martínek identifies the exceptional aerodynamic performance of the car, “Drivers can really feel this when they are in the heat of the battle. The R1’s aerodynamics make it possible for drivers to brake really late and deep into corners, which gives them real confidence in traffic or overtaking situations”.
Vincent Randall has another take on it, an angle that’s perhaps unsurprising given his role as team boss, “Drivers are encased in a really strong carbon fibre structure, which gives a high level of safety and confidence”.
Aspiring teenage drivers Jem Hepworth and Danny Harrison feature in one of the VR Motorsport-run Pragas, with ex-servicemen Warren McKinlay and Martyn Compton in a second. The third car is raced by Jack Fabby and Garry Townsend, a more traditional ’Pro-Am’ set up.
“This year we’ve got a great squad of drivers and a nice mix of experience, youth and enthusiasm. They’re competitive but they also have a really strong work ethic”, says Mark Harrison.
Praga is a brand that’s going places, that’s for sure. As we go to press they have just announced more details of their ambitious expansion programme, which includes a new R1, plus an all-Praga racing category created to run within Britcar in 2021, with the aim to take a one-make class international in 2022.
There haven’t been many good news stories in motoring circles recently, but Praga is one of them, with more to follow.