How often do you find yourself wishing you could get a little glimpse into your future? It would make things a little easier when approaching your next challenge, wouldn’t it?
Hyundai Motorsport agrees with you.
This week, it manufactured its future. That involved Ott Tänak, Thierry Neuville, a hybrid i20 Rally1 and a healthy batch of rally stages. But why wait three months when you can sample that right now?
Hyundai arranged what it called a rally simulation test. Instead of running its new-for-2022 Rally1 car over the same stretch of road several times to perfect a specific set-up or chase marginal performance gains, it wanted to see what it could do on an actual event.
With the car yet to pass homologation (in fact the i20 Hyundai is testing remains a prototype version of the finished product we’ll all see on January’s Monte Carlo Rally) that would be impossible to do for real.
So the ever-resourceful Andrea Adamo called in a few favors and organized a test that simulated a real-life rally. And that wasn’t just marketing speak, this really was a proper simulated rally with a proper itinerary – right down to the hardcore details such as the timing of tire fitting zones.
The location? Piedmont, northern Italy. Or to put it another way, Adamo country. He grew up in the city of Cuneo and so knows a few people and a few roads in these parts.
“This rally simulation in this period of the year with the development process has been properly planned,” Adamo tells DirtFish’s Colin Clark, who was invited along to the test.
“As you can imagine, to organize all this has not really been an overnight job because it’s three days of real rally, so you have to ask all the authorities for permission to close the road.
“We have 52 marshals along the stages so it’s not something you collect Sunday for Monday.”
Indeed. Even as you read this very feature, the final day of Hyundai’s test is being completed.
— dirtfishrally (@DirtFishRally) October 29, 2021
DirtFish arrived on Wednesday for the first day of the mock event. Tänak was at the controls, and suddenly the gravity of the 2022 rule change hit home.
Tänak’s i20 Rally1 crawled into view as it traveled through a small village on its way to the first of its planned stages. Normally, even when not in competition mode, it is a raucous affair to witness a top-line rally car obeying the laws of the road.
But not on Wednesday. And not in 2022.
Next year, cars are mandated to complete certain road sections in electric-only mode. Standing at the side of the road as the rallying world got its first very real look at the discipline’s future, Clark was quite overcome by the gravity of the moment.
“I’m happy for you!” says Tänak, when Clark catches him in the service area, based in La Morra.
“It’s nice and quiet and you can speak to your co-driver,” he adds. “So it’s good fun but it doesn’t make a big difference in the stage, but altogether as PR it’s not so bad.”
Not one for big emotional speeches, the 2019 world champion was more concerned with the job in-hand.
“We are still learning, still trying to understand. There’s a lot still to develop,” he says.
“We are still not in the end of our development phase for the moment so quite a bit to do, also I still need to understand a bit more.
“There are now some strategies in the car and some other things that you need to consider, so it’s a bit of a different challenge and altogether as well [the car is] quite a lot heavier and bigger.
“So for sure it needs some very different approach.”
Hyundai’s private rally has been organized for this precise reason: to find imperfections. Things were a bit worrying when the Italian hills went quiet once more on Wednesday morning – and not when they were meant to – as Tänak was due to be attacking the hairpins, internal combustion engine singing.
A technical issue had developed, but it was soon resolved and Tänak was back putting in the miles in the afternoon.
We ran three and a half hours without stopping. It's totally different from a testAndrea Adamo
“It’s quite important because in a test normally we just go in the stage, do a couple of runs, we come back, but now we have to do some road sections, EV zones and things like this to really see how the things are working and where we can improve,” offers Tänak, when asked for his thoughts on Hyundai’s testing format.
“Actually it’s pretty important I believe.”
Adamo was in agreement.
“I’m not used anymore to following the car during the stages, on one side it’s making me younger,” he says.
“The good thing is we are getting all the kinds of information that we were thinking we would have, because it’s one thing to do up and down on the stage testing for performance only and then stop and check everything. It’s another thing to do a 25km stage, then stop [for a] few minutes, then do 50km road section, and then check the tire pressures again and go again.
“The kind of stress you have in the car is totally different, not least part of the management – if you want to call it management – to run electric, to understand the passage between electric and internal combustion and vice versa.
“And there is also all the mapping of the engine for the road section that could look stupid, and all these kind of things: the comfort in the car, the temperature – because it’s a totally different system between the exhaust, the central tunnel, so the temperatures we are seeing in the car now are quite high in respect.
“We ran three and a half hours without stopping basically. It’s totally different from a test.”
The increased cockpit temperatures compared to the current but soon to be retired World Rally Cars was another key learning from Hyundai’s simulation. With the crews spending a far more representative amount of time in the car, foibles like this were able to be found.
The FIA was also in attendance to keep an eye on proceedings. Rally director Yves Matton was suitably pleased.
“First I want to say that I’m really positively surprised, much more also for the fans because at the beginning of the concept there was a bit of confusion between electric cars and hybrid cars, and [questions like] would the cars make some noise and a lot of things around that.
“Now you can see when you are in the stages that the excitement the cars provide today will be still there, and the speed and the performance also.
“That’s really important for the fans, to keep what we have for the moment, but on top of that for sure will be a new world with this new car, this new hybrid kit that will be able to provide some performance in the stage but also will allow us to be in full electric mode during some road sections.”
That thorny issue of noise inevitably cropped up when DirtFish published a video of Tänak driving through the town in electric mode.
“Remember what they took (will take) from you,” tweeted one user, with a video of an i20 Coupe WRC launching off the start-line attached.
“This is the future, the future death of the sport,” wrote somebody else.
“Terrible, if this is the future the sport is dying,” was another response.
You get the idea – and Matton’s point. There’s a serious lack of awareness in some quarters of what the WRC is aiming to achieve with the Rally1 technical regulations that Hyundai’s test will hopefully go some way to quashing.
“To be honest I can understand that people, especially in rallying, want to have it spectacular, that’s what rally stands for,” says Neuville, as big a Rally1 sceptic as any of the current WRC drivers.
This week, we saw the future - one that is far brighter and far more exciting than the social media naysayers will have you believe
“But we all know we are in a critical situation as well, not only for the economy but also for the sustainability and we need to get greener and that’s basically the image we want to show.
“There’s always some compromises to do, that’s why we are running hybrid and not full electric as well. We’re going to adapt to everything, that’s what humans are made for. But that’s also why I’m collecting all my old rally cars, because I like the sound as well, it’s fun for me and I hope in 20 years we can still drive with those cars.
“They might be historic but for sure the future will be electric, so we just have no choice. But I think there are many good things as well, it’s a mix of both and those who can’t get used to it, obviously we’re going to lose those fans but we’re probably going to gain some new ones as well.”
Politics aside, testing paused overnight and resumed under yet more fall sunshine – this time with Neuville at the controls.
Wednesday seemed to all be about learning, but on Thursday the onus switched ever so slightly to performance. Neuville wasn’t hanging about as he tackled stages he last faced on Rally di Alba 2020.
Impressions were positive. Even Neuville – who as just mentioned has harbored some concerns over the Rally1 cars – is starting to understand the rationale.
“I have to say that everything is pretty new, so there’s a lot of things going on, a lot of things to discover. First impression, they’re quite interesting,” he says.
“Obviously I like new challenges and I’m not at all against this integration of the hybrid kit, which is definitely going to make next season challenging but also interesting to follow.
“On the other side, there are lots of downgrades on the technical side compared to the current WRC cars so on that side they’re a little bit more [of a] disappointment.
“But I’m also convinced that with the team behind me working hard every day and throughout the upcoming season we’re going to improve the drivability of the car, we’re going to find some more performance, we’re going to make everything just that little bit better which is going to give us again the similar sensation as the current cars.”
And there is the crux of the issue. In theory, the WRC will have its cake and eat it too with cars very nearly as spectacular on the stages but far more relatable on the road. Hyundai’s simulated test was the realization of that vision.
“I was just thinking that we have just been witnesses to what will be the future of rallying, if we want to have rallying in the future,” reflects Adamo.
There were undoubtedly risks to Hyundai’s testing strategy – for example, what if Tänak’s issue had proved to be terminal? It has also gobbled up a healthy proportion of its allotted testing days in one bite.
But this week, we saw the future. A future that is far brighter and far more exciting than the social media naysayers will have you believe. Hyundai learned lots – as, inadvertently, did the other teams – and so did rally fans. Nobody lost.
Thanks for inviting us Hyundai. Monte Carlo really can’t come soon enough.