This regulations cycle has been a strange one. Before Rally1 cars even turned a wheel in anger, the question of what would replace it had already been raised.
The World Rally Championship was late to the hybrid game. Very late.
Less than three months after Toyota debuted the Corolla WRC at Rally Finland in 1997, it released a very different sort of vehicle: the Prius. The world’s first mass-production hybrid car.
Motorsport was once the proving ground for new automotive technology. Yet it took the WRC 25 years to implement a technology that has already become semi-obsolete, with the automotive industry thundering towards battery electric vehicles.
Except Toyota. It has a different vision. And it wants that vision adopted to be part of the WRC’s future.
And as Toyota’s WRC team principal Jari-Matti Latvala points out, that vision needs to become clear very soon: “We need to think about this era with the hybrid is going until the end of 2024, and quite soon we also need to decide what are we going to do in 2025 onwards?”
So far a lot has been discussed about what isn’t viable for the WRC. Business as usual is considered a no-go; there is little appetite for the current hybrid regulations to remain as they are for a long period of time.
Battery electric vehicles are also widely considered off the table, aside from at the bottom of the rallying pyramid where a Rally5e technical formula has already been approved by the FIA.
Rally5e has a chance for success because it relies on the tried and tested method of customer rally cars; take a road-going consumer vehicle and adapt it for rally use. You can’t do that at the top level. Energy density levels in batteries are simply not high enough to produce a battery that can deliver both the power required for a top-level rally machine while being able to handle a long but compact WRC itinerary. Not even close.
And, crucially, car companies like Toyota lack the ambition to make that happen. There is no manufacturer publicly battering down the WRC’s door to make top-level EV rally cars a reality.
What Akio Toyoda, chairman and CEO of the world’s largest car manufacturer, has to say carries the most significant of weight in rallying circles. He and Ford’s Jim Farley (who, coincidentally, moved there from Toyota) are, in some ways, two peas in a pod – both go racing when they’re not at the office.
But the directions the companies under their stewardship have pursued are rather different. Farley wants half of all Fords being churned out of the assembly line to be EVs and has committed $50 billion to doing so.
Toyoda has a different perspective. Eight words at a Japan Automobile Manufacturer’s Association press conference last year made clear that his marque wasn’t going all-in on electric.
“The enemy is carbon, not internal combustion engines,” Toyoda said.
Fast forward to now and Toyoda – under his racing pseudonym Morizo-san – sat alongside four-time world champion Juha Kankkunen to demonstrate his very public proposal for the WRC’s future.
This GR Yaris H2 prototype hasn’t even reached its final form; it’s still being tinkered with back at base in Finland. And there are problems around infrastructure, which Toyoda acknowledges.
“Hydrogen or electricity is kind of… we need some infrastructure,” he said. “We have hydrogen station in the only city of Belgium so we need that kind of infrastructure.”
There’s an argument that Toyota needs to create that infrastructure, as Tesla did with its ‘supercharger’ network and, for a rallying example, as Opel did for its Corsa-e (a bespoke recharge facility is assembled in the service park for Opel-e Rally Cup rounds).
But what matters right now is that it’s a proposed solution. There are, as yet, no other solutions being offered up – discounting Manfred Stohl’s radical idea of shortening WRC itineraries to accommodate EVs. STARD, his engineering firm, sells EV powertrains. You do the math.
Toyota is thus far the only mass-market manufacturer to stand up and suggest what may come next for the WRC. The critical question is whether anyone would be willing to follow it, given how many of the automotive conglomerates have gone head-first into EV strategies.
The good news is that rival WRC team Hyundai is one of the other leaders in this area – alongside Toyota’s Mirai, it’s the only other major marque currently selling a hydrogen-powered vehicle.
Hydrogen affords the WRC an opportunity to make itself an innovator
Other brands, not so much. BMW announced a hydrogen tie-up with Toyota earlier this month but other marques have yet to show as much enthusiasm.
As Honda Europe’s president said not too long ago: “Maybe hydrogen fuel cell cars will come, but that’s a technology for the next era.”
Perhaps that is not the drawback it looks like. For the WRC, that may well be an ace card.
Motorsport was founded on the principle of being a high-performance testing ground for road cars; a place for vehicles to prove their worth when pushed to the limit. But the needs of the consumer car market changed.
Now motorsport is spending its time playing catch-up to road car technology – the 25-year wait for hybrid in the WRC a case-in-point.
Hydrogen affords the WRC an opportunity to make itself an innovator. A place where those manufacturers who aren’t betting the house on EVs can congregate.
Formula 1 has gone for sustainable fuels. Rallycross has gone fully electric. This is a chance for the WRC to find a new unique selling point of its own – with the backing of the world’s largest car maker when taking that risk.
It’s a chance for the WRC to go from being years behind to years ahead.