It’s Halloween. A day of horror. A day for exchanging scary stories of crimes past and dystopian futures.
For some bobble-hatted rally fans, the last couple of days have featured stories that will make their toes curl and send a shiver up their spine. Rally5 might be going fully electric. There’s no turning back on hybrid Rally1s now. Bringing hybrid rules to the Rally2 table is back on the agenda too. Oh, the humanity!
Enough of the hyperbole. Rallying embracing electric vehicles is not the end of the world. Though, as some in the automotive industry are asserting, not ditching combustion engines for electric might be.
Electric rally cars being adopted to the FIA’s rally pyramid was likely to be a matter of when not if. Now we know how it’s likely to begin. Turning Rally5 electric is on the agenda and being discussed between the FIA and several manufacturers. There are no manufacturers at the bottom end of the pyramid vocally opposing such a move.
What’s notable is that nobody’s talking in hypotheticals anymore. This isn’t moonshot stuff.
Opel pushed ahead and took the plunge by developing the Corsa-E Rally, the first electric rally car sold to and rallied by customers. Not a working prototype. A finished product people have bought with their own money.
Meanwhile, Renault is working on a concept vehicle that could provide the template for an FIA-homologated electric rally car. Their goal is to replicate a similar approach to building the combustion-engined Clio Rally5: take a road-going car and make minimal refinements to get it ready for the stages. No bespoke electric powertrain that ramps the cost up.
Jörg Schrott, head of Opel Motorsport, believes he’s proven electric rallying is viable and here to stay, with the manufacturer’s one-make e-Rally Cup acting as his thesis.
“When it comes to taking a pioneering role it’s always quite easy to talk about it with the PowerPoint in the background. But now it’s completely different,” Schrott tells DirtFish, kicking off what amounts to a well-rehearsed stump speech.
“Now it’s confirmed, I have valid statements now, as we’re running the electric cup for five events now. And I can say we proved that electric rallying is working. It’s a completely different story just talking about it and realizing it.
“You are facing so many new things every day. Sometimes every day, sometimes every weekend, sometimes also during every single event.
“It’s very comprehensive in terms of the charging infrastructure, in terms of developing completely new safety guidelines for e-rallying, so this was really a very comprehensive task.
“You cannot just talk about alternative motorsport in the future. You have to start it. Therefore I’m really happy and convinced now that we’re on the right path.”
It’s no surprise Opel believes it’s on the right path. It has to believe. Its future depends on it. Umbrella group Stellantis – which owns Opel, Vauxhall, Peugeot, Citroën, Fiat, Abarth, and Lancia, to name just a few of its brands – is committed to going electric. Opel intends to sell only EVs in Europe by 2028. There’s even going to be a Manta-E.
It’s the same story over at Renault. Its rally boss Benoît Nogier is singing from a similar hymn sheet as his counterpart at Opel.
“Our long-term vision is clear. The future of rally cars is not even hybrid. For us, the next generation of cars will be fully electric and I think the FIA should be a bit more visionary and should now push a bit more for full-electric cars.
“It’s clear that in the future all the sporting cars available will be electric,” he surmises.
Opel and Renault are certainly talking the talk – and in Opel’s case, walking the walk – when it comes to building customer rally programs around EVs. But ask them about whether the top level of rallying going EV would lure them in and the tune changes.
“I think yes, it will be the next step,” says Nogier when asked about Rally1 going full EV. But there’s an important caveat here.
“It doesn’t mean Alpine will be involved in a program in Rally1 even if it’s 100% electric. Because for sure F1 will remain the main program for the Alpine brand.”
Fair enough. Formula 1’s an expensive endeavor. Toyota left the WRC behind at the end of the last millennium so it could focus on F1.
The question of the sharp end of the rally pyramid is raised to Schrott. Rally1 doesn’t get a mention – it’s not got a wide customer base, so that comes as little surprise. But what is said about Rally2 speaks volumes. Full EV? No thank you. Hybrid will do nicely for Opel.
“In the end, you need a viable business plan to make things happen. It’s always a balance between the technology opportunities. In the end, it must be affordable to the customer,” says Schrott.
“If it comes to higher classes, you also need to think about the whole process. It’s a business model on the one hand, on the other hand, you have to provide the right technology, the right performance and the right power of the car.
“Therefore, personally, I would like the next step if it comes for the highest level of customer racing in the Rally2 car, I think an electrified car – not a fully-electric car but an electrified car – would be the right step for the next homologation.”
While finding a way to convert a road-going EV for rally use, as Renault hopes to do, is feasible at the lower end of the pyramid, such an approach does not appear as feasible at the top end.
We need to be very careful in motorsport that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwaterMaciej Woda, M-Sport Poland boss
Back to Nogier for a moment. His position was that it’s “clear” that all sports-focused cars will be full EV. But even the Rally5 team bosses – of which there are currently only two – aren’t in full agreement on that point.
M-Sport Poland boss Maciej Woda isn’t convinced. At all.
“Yes, I see room for fully electric Rally5 cars, only,” he says, drawing a metaphorical thick red line for where he believes the EV revolution is going to start and finish in rallying.
Ford, like Stellantis, is going heavy on electric cars. They’re hoping to hit close to a 50/50 split between traditional ICE and zero-emission car sales by 2030.
But Woda personally remains cautious about how much of that push will trickle down into rallying.
“The direction which the FIA is taking right now is a small step but a sensible step,” he says. “It would be easy for the FIA to jump on the current fashion, saying ‘OK, we’re going for electric cars only’ but the move into hybrid cars, the move into sustainable fuel, it’s something that’s moving in the right direction but without being crazy.
“We need to be very careful in motorsport that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Is caution the right approach, though? The Cop26 climate change conference, which is kicking off on Monday, has been widely billed as a make-or-break summit for our planet’s future and decisions made there will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on the automotive industry. And we’re being told almost daily by climate experts the world over that there’s no time for caution.
As Rally Australia showed the WRC in 2019, when wildfires swept mercilessly through New South Wales and led to the season finale’s cancellation, climate change is already here and impacting our sport directly. Whether we want the responsibility or not, those outside our insular motorsport circus are demanding answers.
Schrott has experienced as much first hand. The Corsa-E has become more than a competition vehicle; it’s a useful political tool.
“What we learned is – and this is not only in Germany but also in other countries – the interest to show this car and to run the car also as a zero car is really high because it’s getting more and more difficult to get approval for rally stages in some countries.
“There is a green movement wherever you go and therefore running rally in towns and doing some stages there, it’s important to do this step so that we have our sport still together for the future.”
Depressingly, the main driving force for change is politics and money. That will surprise no one, of course. We live in a capitalist system after all. It’s designed to work that way. But oddly, those forces could also lead to the adoption of EV in the WRC being extremely difficult and potentially impractical.
Even if the FIA adopted an EV ruleset for Rally1 in the future, the two biggest proponents of introducing EV rallying aren’t interested in joining the top level of WRC as a factory effort, only in selling cars to customers. And Opel prefers hybrid to full EV in Rally2 on cost grounds. So how is anyone going to justify the cost of developing Rally1 into an EV formula?
Just look at Alpine. A factory Rally1 program is not on the table in the long-term future for now as it’s spending its big bucks in F1, a series where sustainable fuels are locked and loaded into its roadmap for the coming decades. Interesting isn’t it? A marque with a road-car lineup that’s slated to be entirely EV in the latter half of this decade is spearheading its motorsport activities around a hybrid formula. Who’s going to be brave enough to step up and put money behind a Rally1 EV?
I think we're going to see quite a few combustion engines for a long time yetMaciej Woda, M-Sport Poland boss
It would seem the internal combustion engine isn’t going anywhere at the highest levels of motorsport for now, regardless of whether EV really ends up taking over the consumer car market or not.
“I think we’re going to see quite a few combustion engines for a long time yet, with the improved emissions and more sustainable fuels,” Woda concludes.
Fully electric cars are still is likely to show up in FIA-sanctioned rallies in the medium-term future. Rally5-e (or whatever it ends up being called) has support from all the major players. But will it make it to the WRC? With long liaison distances at the top level, plus the unique infrastructure demands electric rallying has when there are a dozen or more EVs in the same service park, it’s not likely. And Rally5’s top level in the existing pyramid is at the continental level, not international.
If electric’s feasibility for adoption in the WRC remains highly questionable, does that make hybrid power the long-term answer then? No. There is a near-universal agreement among the key players that this can’t be permanent. Most of the service park agrees with Nogier on that point. Hybrid is a stop-gap solution.
What’s scary is not that electric is coming to mothball the combustion engine, eliminating the soundtrack for which many a fan feels is essential to the rally experience. Actually, electric may not show up at all. Consider that the Rally1 engine specification freeze ends in 2026 – and then what?
What happens after hybrid is truly unknown. And what could possibly be scarier than the unknown? Happy Halloween, everyone.