Hybrid power in the World Rally Championship has arguably been the biggest talking point of the 2022 season so far. The new cars are faster, more powerful and trickier to get on top of.
But last time out in Croatia, several crews elected to turn off the hybrid boost as rain made for treacherous roads.
This got us thinking about whether it is right for crews to be able to select when they use, or don’t use, the electric boost. Needless to say, it’s piqued our writers’ interest!
Not a good look for the new WRC era
The hybrid system was introduced for a reason. Partly it was to increase the show on World Rally Championship events, giving drivers another tool at their disposal to try and find some extra time, but predominantly it was all about ensuring that rally cars remained relevant to the road.
So what does it tell the world when it becomes apparent that in certain situations drivers are turning the systems off?
It’s hardly a great look for rallying and the hybrid skeptics will no doubt be gleefully rubbing their hands together, feeling their point has been proven.
Those skeptics argued that introducing hybrid technology into the WRC was a gimmick. Something to appease car manufacturers, but that wouldn’t actually change much. Right now, they have a strong case.
But it goes further than that. It also raises questions about driving ability and taking the easy way out. Every motorsport fan wants to see drivers pushing cars right to the very limit, carefully towing the line between wizardry and disaster.
There’s nothing like watching a driver carefully balance heroism and disaster, staying right on the edge of what’s physically possible. It can be otherworldly to witness.
The additional power created by the hybrid system has the ability to push the drivers into that zone, giving them a challenge that transcends their abilities from good to superhuman. They should be tested to the maximum on every level, so why is it not mandated that the hybrid element must be in play at all times?
After all, there is a failsafe for drivers who aren’t comfortable. They can back out of the throttle if they aren’t prepared to go flat out on a tricky surface, and who knows, that could play to their advantage.
But simply turning off a switch so everything is more manageable seems the easy way out and risks damaging the reputation of the WRC field’s skill, when that shouldn’t be a discussion topic at all.
Intelligence, not flair, wins championships
So, people aren’t happy because drivers are backing out and using less than maximum power? The belief being that the cream of the World Rally Championship crop should be able to handle these powerful monsters in all conditions? After all, they are the best drivers in the world.
OK, fair point. But motorsport’s been consumed by numbers in recent years, more power, quicker acceleration, higher top speeds, lower lap times – no matter what the category is, there was an obsession with numbers throughout the 2010s, only for many series to then backtrack when they realized they did nothing for the spectacle.
Writing headlines about cars with a million horsepower that can do crazy speeds is all well and good, but sometimes, less is more.
Now let me put this to you – surely the ‘best of the best’ should also be the smartest, right? So, the conundrum of whether or not to run the hybrid system is, in itself, adding another element to the competition. Run it and make use of all the horses and risk an incident or play it conservative and get to the finish and hope that your rivals falter.
Strategy, mind games, it’s all part of it. Knowing when to not use everything at your disposal is just as great a skill as being able to master truckloads of power in less-than-ideal conditions. I mean, the hare and the tortoise is an age old story, what’s stopping us from retelling that, but with a few pops and bangs thrown in for good measure?
Strategy is all part of the game
I’m really not sure what there is to talk about with this one.
The decision to keep the system active or not brings a tactical element to the competition that we should surely all be embracing. I personally find it fascinating – and wasn’t even aware that it was doable or possible before Croatia.
Whether it makes a huge difference to on-stage performance is difficult to decipher, but that’s precisely what makes it interesting. What’s wrong with a bit of variety? We certainly don’t ever complain when drivers make bold and diverse tire strategy calls, do we.
I can very much appreciate the points put forward by my colleagues about the gimmicks of disabling the hybrid system and the image that may portray, but in my view, we’ve got bigger hybrid-affiliated image problems than whether a driver is using it on a stage or not.
Crews need to deal with power surplus
One of rallying’s biggest assets is its ability to reflect life on the road for mere mortals like you and I. Next Sunday, for example, the best drivers in the world will go at it hammer and tongues on the N311 north-east of Fafe. On Monday, you, me and the Portuguese postie will be driving down exactly the same stretch of road.
OK, you and I probably won’t be, but you get the point.
Would we turn the hybrid off? Nope.
Should the drivers be able to turn the hybrid off? Nope.
I get the fact that it helps driveability and all of that, but ultimately turning the thing off is a performance gain, right? It’s a performance gain in that it keeps the car on the road. That’s not really in the spirit of the job in my eyes.
The folk at the very sharpest end of the WRC are, let’s face it, the most universally able drivers anywhere on planet earth. I think they can cope with the modern-day version of pedalling with the choke out. (Millennials, ask your parents about route one to making their Mini Metro go faster.)
But it’s also a messaging thing. Hybrid’s here and we’re fully invested in this thing, so let’s not make it optional.
Rally1’s a hybrid formula. Not hybrid when the weather’s right.