It won’t be long before the World Rally Championship is at a crossroads. In fact, it’s already there. Where does the championship go with its cars beyond Rally1?
Now entering just its second year, talk is already beginning to turn to the next generation. Rally1 cars are majestic and brutally powerful machines, but they are still incredibly expensive and although there’s been progress with hybrid technology, WRC cars are still a long way behind the likes of Formula 1 and the World Endurance Championship in terms of overall efficiency.
People are asking whether WRC should go electric in the future, or if it should set its sights on a different renewable source. Debate is brewing, but should there be any?
For this writer, the answer firmly lies in WEC.
In many ways, the WEC is very similar to WRC. They might compete in entirely different environments, but the ethos of both championships are essentially the same.
At the top level of each, the cars are primarily based on road-going chassis. Cars need to be able to sustain significant endurance tests and both categories inherently have fast iterations trickle down to their road-going cousins.
So in many ways, it would make total sense for WRC to follow WEC’s pursuit of hydrogen technology.
In a world where finances are getting tighter and tighter, and more onus is being put on motorsport championships to become cheaper and cheaper, it’s clear that there’s one reason why so many manufacturers are returning to sportscar’s greatest endurance category.
Let’s face it, building and developing a hypercar capable of tackling the Le Mans 24 Hours isn’t going to be cheap.
And yet, despite the costs that will inevitably be associated with the class, the likes of Ferrari, Peugeot, Cadillac and BMW are all returning to the series.
Many governments around the world have touted electric as the future of the automotive world, but car manufacturers are less certain. Yes, electric has a part to play in the automotive world, but despite what the billboards say, it’s not sustainable.
For starters, if the world is to go electric, then all petrol and diesel cars will need to be demolished, and will inherently be redundant. Only a small amount of the battery can be recycled and, right now, cars lose their performance after just five to seven years.
You start killing cars every five to seven years, and it won’t take long before you run out of the precious metals required to make the batteries that sit within the cars.
But with hydrogen, fossil fuel cars can be adapted to run on the fuel, again through adaptation petrol stations could be retained and filled with hydrogen instead, and wear wouldn’t be that much different to a petrol or diesel car.
Right now, there’s two forms of hydrogen-powered cars being tested in WEC. Manufacturers are going down the route mentioned above – using hydrogen in a conventional internal combustion engine, but the Le Mans organizer, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, has gone down a different route, creating a prototype Le Mans car using a hydrogen fuel cell.
For manufacturers, an ICE is more in-keeping with the road cars they sell to the general public. It’s more relevant and therefore also a cheaper solution to pursue, bearing in mind standard combustion engines already exist.
I think hydrogen is one of the technologies for the futurePierre Fillon
But while ACO president Pierre Fillon accepts that, he argues that that method is not as environmentally friendly as a hydrogen fuel cell.
“There is a great interest from the manufacturers about this technology,” says Fillon. “We have a working group with eight manufacturers, big ones in the world, so they are working on that. We had Covid, but all of these manufacturers are working on the hydrogen car for the future.
“And the issue now is to work on the technology. We have the fuel cell and, for me, it’s a better one because it’s a three zero emission technology. Zero CO2, but zero emission just water, zero NOx. But, you have some manufacturers who are working on the IC with hydrogen. So it’s a zero CO2, but you have NOx and it’s not so clean.”
Fillon doesn’t believe that hydrogen is the sole answer for the automotive world though, and believes in the future that there will be several different fuel types in existence. But he does believe hydrogen is a great sustainable fuel for motorsport.
“I think hydrogen is one of the technologies for the future,” he says.
“It’s not the only one. I think there is place for the battery, there is a place for new fuel, renewable fuel, and so on. But for sure, endurance hydrogen is a good, right solution because you have the big range of autonomy and you can refuel.
“At this time, it’s five minutes but our plan in Le Mans in ’25 or ’26 to have refueling in two minutes. And believe me, refueling 12 kilos of hydrogen in two minutes, this is a big, big challenge.”
That challenge is a significant one in WEC, given cars can spend no more than two minutes in the pitlane. Essentially, in order to get the fuel in the car in that timeframe, the hydrogen needs to be compressed. That’s not straightforward, but progress is being made.
But in the WRC, that doesn’t really matter. Hydrogen will provide more than enough range for the cars, and they can be refueled sensibly back at the service area. Time isn’t as much of the essence in that scenario.
One hydrogen concern to many though has been the fact that it’s highly flammable.
Many have an image in their mind of a huge firebomb going off if a car was involved in a huge accident.
But as Fillon and GreenGT (the company behind the ACO’s hydrogen Le Mans prototype project) president Christophe Ricard explained, in many ways it’s actually safer than an electric battery.
If you have a fire in a battery, in an electric car you need two or three days to extinguish itPierre Fillon
“I remember in the beginning, many people were telling me about Hindenburg [airship disaster in the US in 1967]. You know, it stayed in the memory, in the collective memory” Ricard explains.
“Fortunately now, nobody speaks about that and I believe it’s due to the fact that we have been showing that it’s safe. OK, then some problem might occur one day, somewhere, but we are making everything for it not to occur with us. That’s for sure.”
“But it’s the same with fuel,” interjects Fillon. “Fuel is dangerous.”
“And I do believe that the fireman they prefer to extinguish a hydrogen fire than a fuel fire,” adds Ricard.
“Because hydrogen fire is just vertical,” says Fillon.
“Yeah, and you just need water and you just need water to stop the fire. That’s it,” responds Ricard.
Fillon adds that electric tech fires are even harder to put out.
“If you have a fire in a battery, in an electric car you need two or three days to extinguish it,” he says.
“The only thing is to put it in the swimming pool and to wait for two days.”
Dani Sordo’s fire on Rally Japan showed just how hard it is to put out a fire when an electric battery is involved. In fact, the fire brigade were pretty much surplus to requirements, having to wait for the Hyundai i20 N Rally1 to essentially burn itself out. But hydrogen would be a different kettle of fish, and more easily containable too.
It’s therefore easy to see why the likes of Toyota are keen on WRC switching to hydrogen in the future.
It can be cheaper in the long term, it can be more sustainable and it can quickly and directly impact road car models for any manufacturer wishing to compete.
Look at how quickly manufacturers have flocked to WEC and it wouldn’t be too much of a leap to imagine a similar thing happening in the WRC if it adopted this type of powertrain.
It’s not often that rallying and circuit racing mimic each other and nor should they. But this could well be the exception to the rule that could make the WRC a big draw for more of the world’s automotive giants once again.