There are things about Slovakia, a country not much larger and just about as populated as Maryland, that you might not know. Firstly, its capital is no longer Prague after Czechoslovakia split into two countries in 1993. You may also not know there's a good racetrack there, creatively named Slovakiaring, and finally Slovaks have their own car worthy of it.
It's named Praga after the former capital. Dusan Maly, an automotive entrepreneur and the company's CEO, didn't take notice of the separation like Nadia, who still claims in the American Pie movies to be from Czechoslovakia well into 2000s. Instead, he resurrected the name known for grand, luxurious cars, before the country's economical revolt after World War II. Since 2011, the small company located in post-communist farm buildings on the outskirts of Bratislava (the current capital of Slovakia) has fought its way to become one of the best and most popular go-kart makers in Europe. You may be familiar with the company's stylized logo thanks to the recent 24-hours Le Mans races, where it appeared on some of the cars from the "LMP" prototype class. The experience of the people behind the new Praga goes even beyond that—about a decade ago, it became reasonably successful with its sports car, the K-1 Attack, brought to the U.S. in small numbers.
Praga's first supercar, the R1 launched appropriately on the Slovakiaring, may look like a take-no-prisonera, money-no-object fantasy, but in fact it is built on a very sensible concept: It's the cheapest closed-cockpit monocoque race car not only to buy but to run. Not exactly the news to steal headlines, but it should make the heart beat faster, at least the heart of a person who is actually into buying this kind of a car. The price is roughly $130,000 and the need to rebuild the engine every 6,000 miles will cool some heads down again, but this is the hard life of a racing driver. Or at least someone pretending to be. Still, at the end of the day, the R1 will chew up less of your budget than other race car bargains like Radical or Wolf.
What's more, compared to the previously mentioned track-day celebrities, Praga is a far more serious racer. Not only does it get more pit lane cred from looks alone, but it's closer to a true LMP competitor than any other car of this kind in terms of technology and quality. That's quite an achievement, bearing in mind that Slovakia makes little contribution to the automotive culture other than building bodies for Touaregs and Cayennes.
It's too often the case with small aspiring car manufacturers with little experience that good first impressions end with the release of the official photos of their new cars. Hands-on experience often reveals some pitiful half-measures and shoestring budgets for bodies and interiors. That's why many minor manufacturers come and go at auto shows, falling into oblivion only weeks after the first press release.
None of this applies to Praga. As the gold plate inside indicates, the car we're going to drive is already the 25th of the finished R1s, and further orders will keep the company occupied for the next few months. Once you climb through the doggy door acting here as the hatch to a jetfighter-meets-submarine cockpit, you notice Praga's craftsmanship. The closed cabin gives the impression of greater safety than the open-cockpit machines and science proves it actually is. The body made of fiberglass panels reinforced with carbon fiber and Kevlar with polycarbonate windows is built around a monocoque, which in turn consists of a sandwich structure using outer layers of carbon fiber and aluminum honeycomb core. This is a technology taken straight from Formula 1, where, admittedly, the aluminum part is thinner, but the Slovaks have opted for the best balance of safety, lightness, and costs. This way the car still complies with the FIA CN regulations and doesn't involve a sticker price only 10 racing teams in the world can swing. There are some more advantages to the closed cockpit unknown to most of the British featherweight warriors: The roof dome protects the driver from the wind and rain so the car is more comfortable—to some extent. Nothing's for free: There are some drawbacks as well, like worse visibility and more difficult access to the cabin. To get in, first you need to sit on one side of the body, then put your legs down on the Kevlar seat that you're going to put your bum on in a moment. Provided the steering wheel is detached, now you can slide into the coffin-like tub, get the steering wheel back in its place, and bring the engine to life.
The 2.0L Renault unit sits just behind the driver's back on the very same carbon-fiber floor. It's a naturally aspirated engine good for 210 bhp and 162 lb-ft. Yes, it'll lose badly in the Top Trumps, but there's so much more to car performance than numbers. It's really one hell of an engine: taken straight from a Formula Renault car designed for Eurocup. It revs frantically up to 7,250 rpm, when it reaches its peak power, and then well beyond. There's a turbocharged version with the power nearing to 400 hp for the ones that don't really care about their lives, but as the R1 is extremely light—only 1,305 pounds before adding the liquids—even the basic version has more than enough grunt.
Remove the two-part quick-release cover, which amounts to the whole rear part of the body, and you'll see the engine compartment identical to that of the formula cars you watch on the telly on Sunday afternoons. R1's competition engine is covered by a carbon-fiber airbox and surrounded by anodized parts joining the unequal length upper and lower control arms with progressive coil springs and the specifically developed dampers, while at the rear meanders a stainless steel exhaust system ending with a centrally mounted single exit tailpipe.
Despite its small size (actually R1 is shorter than an Audi TT), Praga intimidates with its raw, serious nature in every possible way. The out-of-this-world advanced design was dictated purely by wind. In some places, the body avoids it by flowing gently, reducing drag, and packing the components tightly, in effect leaving big holes exposing the bare control arms. In other areas, the surface is sculpted to make good use of the passing air for cooling through the roof-mounted air intake. The R1 can develop 1,900 pounds of downforce with that huge bi-plane rear wing and a diffuser to match. The body was designed with the use of computational fluid dynamics, CFD technology that has sped up the progress of aerodynamics in the top-end racing series. The completed product was taken to the wind tunnel only to confirm what was already known from the computer. No mention of the aesthetics yet, but R1 does bring some ocular sophistication to the racing track. You may find grace and balance in its body, even if it's nothing more than a side effect of mathematical calculation.
The science lesson is over, the car is pushed out of the garage, mechanics are gathering around me, and my butterflies reach critical mass. Looking through a little hole left through the open door, I'm waiting for a crewmember to fasten me firmly with the six-point Schroth racing harness and mount the steering wheel. That rectangular Cosworth wheel is the most important thing for me now, not only serving its usual purpose but housing a wide array of buttons and a big LCD screen. There's no speedo or a rev counter on it—this info is displayed on another screen mounted in a place where you will have no time or interest to look at on track.
R1 is one of the cheapest ways to see the difference between a car pretending to be a race car and a racing driver's real environment. Praga is authentic and uncompromising to a point where even Ferrari 458 Speciale or Porsche 911 GT3 looks like a toy. There is no soundproofing, no air conditioning, but some additional switches hanging from the roof and a big red pull handle connected to the OMP fire suppression system that will be my only hope in a giant fireball if I make a mistake.
I maneuver my feet on the carbon-fiber pedals and instantly realize setting off won't be easy. The far left pedal connected to the twin-plate ZF Sachs clutch is used only for starting and stopping, but it makes these two operations impossibly difficult. Trying not to make a fool of myself, I somehow manage to start without stumbling, and off we go on the Slovakiaring's main course. This surprisingly modern track hosts some of the most prestigious European and world racing series, where it's known for its notorious tendency to set the fastest cars in the air on its two high-speed humps. The rest of the roughly 2-minute lap consists of 100-mph corners and the technical middle sector where you need some advanced mathematical skills to contrive the best racing line.
That's the theory, but as for now, the reality sets some more basic challenges, like how to control this thing. It's like trying to tame a lion—from the inside. As there's only one centrally mounted seat in the cabin (a second one on the side is an option, here absent), I can count only on myself. The conditions aren't helping me. As the engine is bolted directly onto the floor, it transmits vibrations and shrilling noise directly to the rock-hard seat. Still, it's nothing compared to the beating the driver takes from changing the gears through the extreme Hewland six-speed pneumatically actuated sequential. You thought shifting in an Aventador is dramatic? Well, that's sweet. Praga's gearbox hisses and shakes the whole car with each gear change, leaving me scared and even more confused. The gearbox's knocks would be less intrusive at the lower revs, but the R1 doesn't like to be driven by the timid. The engine has to be revved up to the stratospheric levels without mercy or it will quickly warn you it's getting too cold. The svelte slicks need to be pushed hard or they will lose grip. It's an "all or nothing" attitude: The car is made to work only at 101 percent commitment of a skilled racing driver in extreme conditions of a racing track. R1 is a professional tool, and that makes some things really difficult. From the vast collection of the performance cars that I was lucky enough to drive, the sensation of driving the R1 reminds me most of that of BAC Mono. It's based on a similar formula-turned-to-a-car concept, but one thing that sets them apart is aerodynamics. While BAC's engineers chose to rely mostly on the mechanical grip, much easier to exploit, the R1, like the Radical, Caparo, or any other car with a huge rear wing that is there to create downforce. It doesn't just look like a race car; it works only when you go beyond your comfort zone and dive into corners at frenetic speed. Go too slow and you'll crash into the barrier, but find that optimum pace and you'll be rewarded with levels of grip alien even to the drivers of La Ferraris, Koenigseggs, and McLarens.
I won't pretend I was anywhere close to exploring the true potential of the R1. Its extreme nature means you've got to have proper track experience and weeks with it to know the car enough to appreciate what has been achieved. However, once you've got all of the required ingredients, it's a car even more special than the performance and price would suggest. The R1 can be used as the ultimate track day toy or can serve as a brutishly effective race weapon. It proved to be unrivalled among the much pricier GT class cars on both sides of the Pond. If kicking the butts of the helpless Porsches and Ferraris until it bores you isn't your thing, the Slovaks have just launched their own R1 Endurance Cup, so far limited only to Central Europe. But the supercar elite can't feel safe any more—hard to imagine, but a road-legal version called R1R will join Praga's lineup soon. Ferrari, Porsche, and Lamborghini—brace yourselves. The new Slovakian supercar is coming!