It is, it seems, the devil. Or the deep blue sea. Frying pan. Fire. The list of idioms to describe the situation faced by the World Rally Championship goes on. And on.
The situation? Hybrid.
I know, I know, we thought it was a done deal and we were all on the same, silent road watching electrified Rally1 cars nose their way through towns and cities without a whiff of burnt fossil fuel.
With a timeline in place for hybrid to be delivered for testing in three and a half months, you’d have thought everything was aligned. Turns out it’s not.
It’s hard to remember a more contentious and debated regulation change in the whole history of the World Rally Championship. Few folk will talk openly about their feelings, so complicated are the internal politics of who wants what. And who really wants what.
Way back when we started talking about hybrid – back in the days of four manufacturers – it was clear three were pushing for the proposed 2022 change. Citroën, indeed, made it clear it would be walking away from the WRC without firm commitment to hybrid.
No sooner had hybrid colors been nailed to the WRC’s mast before the red army retreated. Citroën’s departure raised the financial burden among the other stakeholders with Hyundai Motorsport’s Korean overlords, initially in favor, now reckoned to be recoiling at the concept of further investment.
Ford’s support of change has never wavered and M-Sport’s development of the next generation Rally1 car – understood to be based on a Puma for the first time – comes courtesy of trans-Atlantic investment.
Toyota preferred what was viewed as a more focused solution to the fundamental problem of the world’s fastest rally cars being too thirsty. From the outset, an e-turbo was seen as a better way to cut consumption and resultant emissions. Transmission hybrid will keep Rally1 cars quiet for 10 kilometers of road section, but either side of town or city the turbo’s anti-lag system is still in place and being deployed in stage mode.
A turbo car’s anti-lag system offers instant performance but remains one of the most inefficient pieces of engineering known to man. It’s reckoned 15% of a rally car’s in-stage consumption is fired in and pointlessly exploded while the car’s turbo is kept spinning off-throttle. An electric turbo would have done away with that and improved the consumption by 15%. Such a saving would surely dwarf the benefit of a car through a town in electric mode.
And, let’s not forget, Toyota’s been at hybrid for a while now.
The Prius arrived in the same year as Harry Potter. The same year Titanic premiered and grossed millions. And Spice World premiered.
Toyota’s Prius beat its current factory driver Kalle Rovanperä to planet Earth by three years.
Is it right then, 25 years on from hybrid’s mass-produced introduction to road cars, to see the WRC punting it out as a plausible solution to going green?
Put it this way, I can understand the reservations.
And those reservations continue to grow. For the teams and for the sport there’s still so much unknown about the hybrid generation and what’s being put forward for the round one startline a year on from January.
And the costs continue to rise. Undoubtedly, scaling back the technology in terms of transmission and suspension will help contain the running costs of the next generation of Rally1 car. But scaled, tubular chassis and hybrid? They can’t be helping to contain the development costs.
And that is, apparently, where the problem lies for Hyundai Motorsport. The Koreans were supporters of hybrid when it was first mooted, but the onset of COVID-19 and the global economic downturn which follows in its wake has forced companies world-wide to consider and then reconsider pre-pandemic plans.
Word is, Hyundai’s top brass has reconsidered, and the budget required – and value derived – to make hybrid sing silently, is no longer appropriate.
An extreme take on this is that Hyundai Motorsport could walk before the new homologation cycle arrives in 2022. Is this likely? Don’t know.
Is it possible? Absolutely.
Manufacturer participation helps underpin the WRC. But it can never be relied upon to form the strongest of foundations. Who would, for example, have seen Volkswagen’s departure before somebody started fiddling with diesel emissions? Even Citroën’s exit at the end of last season came as something of a surprise.
Manufacturers are fickle and entirely self-serving.
What are we saying here? Stick with hybrid and two of the three manufacturers remain? Drop it and we lose two but keep one? Potentially, yes.
I was very much in favor of hybrid 18 months ago. As a box-ticking operation, it made sense – even if the deployment of an e-turbo would have produced an arguably more efficient environmental response.
But now? Now I’m not so sure.
Now I genuinely wonder if the Rally2-plus (formerly R5-plus) solution isn’t what we need?
The one thing the WRC seems to find uniform agreement on is the need to contain costs. Nobody has the cash to splash we did 12 months ago. To that end, a cost-effective solution would be a be-winged Rally2 tweaked to make it look like Rally1.
At a stroke, the cost of a top-end car could be cut to €250,000 with running costs similarly slashed.
I know I’m looking at this in the simplest of terms, sitting at a desk entirely unburdened by technical questions and engineering conundrums, but is it too late to give this some thought?
I suspect it is.
But I hope it’s not.
The World Rally Championship remains the greatest sporting spectacle anywhere on planet earth. But right now, it’s searching for a response to a question where nobody really likes the answer.