The rain in Spain…’ makes for an interesting test of an all-new racing car, as it turns out. It’s a good job I wasn’t in Montmeló, near Barcelona, to top up my tan. No, I had much more interesting things to do. Like check out Nitro Rallycross’ new FC1-X for the very first time.
I wasn’t alone either. As well as a smattering of other members of the media, the bulk of this year’s drivers (and a couple of potentially interested parties) got their first taste of the thousand horsepower monster too.
They had a couple of days behind the wheel – a dry one on Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya’s World Rallycross course, encompassing both sealed and loose surfaces as well as the small jump; and a second day on a curtailed, pavement-only layout amid a non-stop downpour – making for the perfect opportunity to get an early handle on the car that will contest Nitro RX’s premier class for this year and beyond.
While testing can sometimes bring teething troubles and maybe even frustration as people acclimatize to something new, there was a real sense of positivity in the pitlane. Buzzwords like ‘fun’, ‘easy to drive’, and ‘crazy’ (the good kind, of course) almost becoming the subject of a drinking game, such was the universal approval of the new car.
“It’s just such a big step above anything,” 2018 ARX2 champion Conner Martell told DirtFish. “It’s exciting, it’s unbelievable, it’s truly a hypercar. As soon as I stepped on the throttle for the first time my stomach literally dropped. I’ve never, ever been in a car that’s so fast.
“And it’s so easy to control, everything is put together perfectly. And I think everybody was nervous to get in it for the first time and experience it, and once you’re in it, it’s like ‘let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!’”
Cabot Bigham, who like Martell starred in the second tier of US rallycross before moving up, made similar observations.
“The car, mechanically, handles very well. It’s a very intuitive car to drive, that low center of gravity is very apparent; when you’re going left and right and you crank it a little bit too much and you get a little loose, it comes right back underneath you without any issues.
“It’s a blast to drive and I was lucky because I got to drive the dry track on Monday and the wet track on another [day], so I got to see it in both of its elements,” he added.
The Barcelona test was actually the first time the FC1-X had run properly in the wet, not only providing car builders Olsbergs MSE and QEV Technologies valuable data and insight into how it performs in such conditions, but with a day of clear weather immediately before the downpour, it gave drivers the perfect comparison scenario too.
“I think for all of us it’s a lot easier to drive in the dry than it is in the wet,” said Jenson Button, who will make his long-awaited rallycross debut in Nitro RX’s Group E class this year. “It’s quite a big car and there’s a lot of power so [I’m] trying to be smooth in the wet, which you kind of need to do, especially on the Tarmac, it’s really tricky!
“On the drier track it’s awesome. It’s really good fun. And the wet is tricky, but it’s the same for all of us and it’s all about learning really, so you would change the car for that.”
Button’s XITE Energy Racing team-mate Oliver Bennett admitted that he “probably used 10% of the throttle in the wet” but praised the car’s impressive handling and grip in what could have been truly treacherous conditions.
“[I] had a really good time actually,” he said. “I quite like the wet, I enjoyed the gravel but, it handled quite well in the wet. Obviously, it was very nursed round. But no, I enjoyed it.
“[There is] a lot of grip, especially in the loose because with these tires, they’re quite gravely-type tires and so I had really good fun.
“I think it’s going to race very well, it’s going to handle the tracks easily I think, so I’m excited.”
The power is insane. You’ve got so much power you can burn through the tires instantly.Ollie Bennett on the capabilities of the FC-1X
The ease-of-use is particularly notable when you consider that the car has the equivalent of 1000 bhp. 250 of those horses are set to be reserved for a limited-time power boost, but whichever way you look at it, it’s more than we’ve ever had, and with the instant torque afforded by an electric drivetrain, the way in which that power is delivered is rather different too.
“The power is insane,” Bennett said. “You’ve got so much power you can burn through the tires instantly. Tire management is going to be really difficult, I think.
“But overall impression is that it’s an amazingly built car, everything works perfectly. It’s nice to have cool techy things like flappy paddles in an EV, which is crazy.
“Overall [I’m] really impressed with the car. Obviously, it’s running a very base setup at the moment, so I’ll do some changes to that, but no, overall [I’m] really impressed.
Another driver on-site to test the car was five-time World Rally winner Kris Meeke, who admitted he was “never a fan of Formula E, [and] never really looked so much at Extreme E” but knew an electric car would be ideal for rallycross.
“It’s crazy, eh?” he beamed after his first run in the car. “It’s something completely different than I’ve ever experienced, it’s unique and it’s my first ever time in a fully-EV car.
“Here in Barcelona, it’s [been] pissing down with rain all morning, the track’s sketchy, we’re struggling to get the tires to work, but saying that, I think the potential is incredible.”
Elaborating on his experience, Meeke said the car’s adaptable regeneration settings, which alter both the braking and power delivery, will be something that drivers will have to master to get the most out of the car.
“For sure the power is something else, but there’s so many different variables now – you have regen which gives you a bigger braking effect.
“You would need to go away for a week’s testing with the car to try and get it dialed in the way you want to but yeah, awesome just to experience that amount of torque and that amount of power, but like I say, huge potential.”
So that’s what the people who know what they’re talking about thought, but how can a mere mortal understand? Well, they put one in the car to find out – me.
I’ve been lucky enough to ride shotgun in a handful of different competition cars over the years: Tanner Foust’s Volkswagen Beetle supercar, a couple of RX Lites, and the Subaru WRX STI that’s been the class of the ARA field for so many years, so I wasn’t going in completely blind. Adding to that, over dinner the night before, I heard Oliver Eriksson say that the car “feels like speed”, and as I found out, that was a rather apt summary.
Let’s get that out of the way first. Yes, it’s quick. Punch in the chest quick. And it stops like a racing car too – I always say that if you put your foot on the brake pedal in a road car you slow down, but if you put your foot on the brake in a competition car, you stop. It’s the same story here.
‘Car with a gazillion horsepower and good brakes goes and stops’. Shocker.
But nothing could really prepare me for the sheer amount of grip the FC1-X has.
Approaching the sweeping turns that combine for the final sector of the Catalunya Formula 1 circuit and the sealed part of the rallycross track, not once did the car stray from its line, even when the front tires called out with a deafening mix of juddering and squealing – that alone is impressive for a car with mountains of power, but then taking into account the inch-deep puddles all over the place, it was nothing short of mind-blowing.
We’re over a thousand words into this feature at this point and I haven’t addressed the elephant in the room, have I? And yes, it very much is in the room, because yes, the FC1-X makes noise! OK, so it might not be the correct noise for the old-school rallycross fans but talk of ‘silence’ and ‘no sound’ can be banished right away.
As the car headed to the track, a Star Wars starfighter-esque note bounced around the grandstands and pit buildings, and as it approached the track, or returned to the pitlane depending on where you stood, you could definitely hear it coming. Gear shifts were also distinctive as well, with a loud bang reverberating when each of the three gears was selected – pops and bangs remain, albeit different!
And from the inside, it was quite the racket, too. This wasn’t a Rolls-Royce ride – the loudest thing in the car most certainly wasn’t the clock. Ride quality could definitely rival the famed British brand, though. Sure, it’s a racing car so it’s magic carpet-like. It’s not supposed to be, but compared to similar cars, it wasn’t bad at all.
Onboard tech is quite remarkable, too. There’s no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, of course, but two full color screens give the driver multiple full pages of in-depth data covering everything from power levels and battery condition, to throttle and brake inputs, temperatures, and individual component status, and much more. There’s even an option to do away with all of that data and display a sponsor logo on the dashboard for that vital in-car camera angle.
“It’s like driving a PlayStation, with a thousand horsepower on a track,” Bennett said of the car’s plethora of onboard toys. “It’s very cool, it seems like the future.
“When you see a normal rallycross car in comparison you think it’s outdated now, I think.”
Outdated or not, supercars will remain as Nitro RX’s second tier, with the FC1-X and the Group E category up top. RX Lites, in the form of the NRX Next class, will stick around too and a fourth rung on the ladder is also set to feature as well.
But being the new premier class, a lot of eyes will be on Group E, so expectations will be high, and while touted as a long-term replacement for supercars, the general consensus is that these aren’t a like-for-like replacement, but very much a firm additional layer on top of the ever-expanding rallycross totem pole.
“Honestly no, there isn’t,” Martell insisted when asked if there were any parallels between the FC1-X and a typical supercar. “With the speed, more suspension, and the balance of the car, it’s super-easy to drive. A supercar is not easy to drive, you really have to work with the car.
“I’ve never got into a car and not had understeer the first time I’m driving it, whereas in this car, I didn’t have any understeer, so the balance of the car is just incredible. When you’re sitting in the car driving, from the outside you can see the car moving around, but on the inside, when you’re in there, it feels like you’re not moving at all. It’s just very well balanced.”
Fans, particularly those in Europe, have had a hard time adjusting to the idea of an electric future for rallycross, but I can assure you, as a fan myself, that we’ve got a bright future ahead of us. Yes, it’s very different, but it’s by no means bad. There seems to be universal agreement among the drivers too.
“Everyone that’s got out of the car has had a big smile on their face and I’m no different,” said Button. “It’s been a great experience. Basically, I just can’t wait to get our car out the box and go testing and actually put some proper mileage in.”