There is no discipline of motorsport where adopting electric vehicles presents a bigger headache than rallying. Power-to-weight ratios are tricky, yes. But rallying has one extra challenge to deal with: range.
Range anxiety is real. Volvo discovered as much when they conducted a study on why the average consumer might be hesitant to buy an EV road car; 58% said they were worried about running out of juice.
Other electric series have dealt with this issue in varying ways.
World RX, once it goes electric next year, needn’t worry. A race distance is only about four to six kilometers and there’s plenty of time between heats to recharge. Rallying doesn’t have that built-in advantage. Nobody wants it to turn into a sprint. We need long stages. We need cars that can go out, do a loop of three proper stages at full chat and get through liaison sections without running out of energy.
Kreisel, who design and manufacture the RX1e kit, has also developed the RE-X1 in conjunction with BRR Baumschlager as an equivalent to Rally2 and have rallied it in Austria with Raimund Baumschlager at the wheel.
Formula E has it a bit harder. It’s not just racing but managing energy, trying to use every last watt during a non-stop 45-minute race without hitting the critical 0% battery remaining threshold that leads to automatic exclusion.
That has occasionally led to farcical outcomes like this year’s Valencia E-Prix, where only six out of 24 cars had enough energy to finish at racing speed. Another three limped to the finish several minutes down. The rest were either disqualified for using too much energy or couldn’t finish at all.
We don’t want any of this conserving battery nonsense in rallying, do we?
“Exactly,” agrees Jörg Schrott, Opel Motorsport boss.
“The Formula E story is different to what we are doing.”
Marcus Lacroix, Opel Motorsport’s PR man, gives Schrott an assist and reinforces the critical point.
“What we don’t want for sure is a conservation run. We don’t want drivers to save energy to make sure they come back to the service. When it comes to the special stage, they can go full throttle.”
Opel was first to take the plunge and volume manufacture electric rally cars with the Corsa-E. While it lacks brute-force power, advanced suspension or beefy brakes like Hayden Paddon’s Hyundai Kona project, what it has achieved is a full season of electric rallying between competing drivers, on real rallies, all in similar cars.
What Paddon’s crew is setting out to achieve with the Kona and what Opel needs the Corsa-E to do are two very different things. But there are still similarities: you can’t compromise peak performance. Energy conservation can’t be allowed to creep into rallying’s DNA even if electric vehicles become more prevalent.
“This is also important as we are talking about the basis of a young talent promotion program,” says Schrott.
“We would like to see the fastest drivers in our cars,” he explains, referencing his team rebooting its factory ERC Junior program next year, “because then we would like to promote them to the next level. “Therefore it’s important that the guys can really put the hammer down and show how fast they are.”
How real is range anxiety? Schrott knew a single Corsa–E running out of battery before reaching service would lead to its bold move to embrace electric being questioned – perhaps even mocked.
“We can say there was one clear statement from outset – there will be no Opel out there standing still with an empty battery,” he says.
“Therefore we are analyzing all the events, every single stage, really in detail beforehand and then there’s a buffer to make it quite safe. But for next year we know so much more because of the data that we can even make it possible to drive more stages that we know better where to place the service park and place our charging infrastructure. With that, we can make it even more interesting to the participants.”
Six events made up the first-ever Opel e-Rally Cup – five in Germany with an away trip to Barum Rally Zlín to add some spice.
This is where it gets complicated. The Corsa–Es didn’t do the entire itinerary. They called it a day early instead. Range anxiety is one thing – range limitations are very real. And they can’t be solved quickly.
“We are in need of specific requirements,” explains Schrott. “Recharging connection can mean a standalone service area. Or when it comes to e-driving, it’s always about range. Sometimes we need additional charging time, so therefore we need a specific procedure or schedule as specific safety preparation. This is what we started with but now we have the first results, we have the first data. We are much more confident now.”
For now, electric rallying remains limited by range. It needs work. Battery technology has only gotten so far. Renault seems to think it can do better, as Renault Sport rally boss Benoît Nogier has already claimed. But for now, that means rallying having to be flexible with EVs until battery tech can catch up.
Saintéloc Racing, which runs customer programs for the Citroën C3 Rally2 in WRC3 and ERC, knows this all too well. It was the preparation firm running Opel e–Rally Cup champion Laurent Pellier’s car this year.
Next year the Corsa–E will be allowed to compete in France. But it means compromise from those planning rally itineraries.
“We are working on the subject with the French federation,” Vincent Ducher, Saintéloc’s rally boss, tells DirtFish. “It’s already been agreed that we can run electric cars next year in France for some rallies. The organizer will adapt the itinerary to make some stages shorter or not doing all the loop as we did in Germany.”
Pellier, who won all six events during the e-Rally Cup season, showed how wringing the neck of an electric rally car is just as challenging as a combustion-engined equivalent. When Schrott poured over the charging and consumption data, he noticed something interesting.
“This is really one of the most important points. Laurent Pellier, who won the cup, this for me is really fascinating. We have all the data together of the participants and I can tell you that this guy is the fastest but also the best in terms of consumption. It’s fascinating. He developed a kind of driving style that I would call the ‘e-flow’ because he’s running in a way that’s so efficient and so fast. This is really impressive.”
Not everyone is as good as Pellier, who has also earned a works ERC seat with Opel next season thanks to his e-Rally Cup success. Those who are less skilled are actually using more energy despite being slower. That poses a logistical headache.
“When we had the last event sometimes the cars coming in the state of charge was different by about 20%, which is really a lot. And when they get out, they have the same battery load, all of them,” says Schrott.
“We had no range issues, we had no charging issues, and to make all this happen, this was really just possible with a lot of effort. But it’s working so we’re really confident.”
So the pilot season has been a reasonable success. But there’s better news for those trying to join the FIA rallying pyramid.
Formula E has had something of a cost-control issue fall its way. Some Formula E manufacturers are understood to be spending around $50 million a year. Meanwhile, Andrea Adamo has indicated he can’t make customer i20 Rally1s make sense on cost grounds, even if Malcolm Wilson over at M-Sport has.
Despite electric being viewed by some at as an expensive research and development nightmare, it’s proven to be the opposite in the one-make Corsa-E series, as Ducher discovered while running Pellier to the e-Rally Cup title.
Rallying won’t be setting new technological standards for the consumer market to follow. Those days are over
“It was really interesting to do this cup,” says the Saintéloc boss. “On the sporting side, it’s a competition. Even if you arrive with a car that has only 130 horsepower it’s enough for a young driver and it’s the cheapest formula in rallying. The car is like a standard car with a rollcage.
“During the season we did seven rallies and we changed brake discs and pads once – that’s all. Nothing more. It’s a very reliable car, very well built and it’s very cheap to run. You can have only one mechanic, the driver, the co-driver, and that’s it. Just changing the tire because of course you need to change that. But even with the tires, we use between four and six tires per rally.”
That’s all well and good at the bottom end of the pyramid but what about higher up?
For the moment range continues to be a thorn in the side of EV adoption. Manfred Stohl, who heads up the STARD organization that developed the ERX electric rallycross platform, is certain the WRC could adopt electric tomorrow if it shortened its itineraries. FIA rally chief Yves Matton doesn’t want that.
Will the battery technology get better? Maybe. Nogier over at Renault seems assured that’s the case, as it continues to work on a proof-of-concept vehicle to be unveiled next year.
What’s also looking likely is that while a prospective eRally5 vehicle will be easy for a privateer to run, there won’t be a Formula E spending war at the other end of the spectrum.
Opel won’t even consider building a Rally2 EV on cost grounds for now. Alpine – the high-performance brand of Renault Group – won’t consider Rally1 while it’s got a Formula 1 program on the go.
M–Sport is likely to support Rally5 going electric but not at any other level, for now. So there’s not likely to be a spending war breaking out anytime soon. Especially as moving from combustion engines to electric won’t be as big a shock to the system for rally preparation firms as you might think.
“For sure because fewer people is fewer expenses,” says Ducher. “But if there is [more cases] like Manfred Stohl did with the electric C3 R5, it’s quite similar to the combustion-engined car, so except for the engine it’s the same.
“There is the gearbox, the differential, special dampers, special brakes, and everything, so for that, you need mechanics. On the combustion-engined car, we don’t work on the engine anyway. When there is a problem we send the engine back to Citroën.”
In one way, rallying really will be unlike any other e–motorsport. It won’t be setting new technological standards for the consumer market to follow. Those days are over. Imprezas and Lancers winning on Sunday and selling on Monday won’t happen again.
Instead, we’re waiting for battery tech in consumer vehicles that manufacturers will use to build rally cars to catch up, thus making driving long distances at higher power using only batteries more feasible.
But while it’s not clear when that day will come, we can rest easy knowing one thing. No one wants to turn rallying into an energy management race. Not even the most ardent of electric vehicle manufacturers. The fastest driver will still win.
As long as Spain’s WRC round remains in Catalunya and doesn’t go south to Valencia, we should be alright?