The FIA likes structure. It likes rules, it like protocols and it likes procedures. The further down the motorsport ladder you go, the less direct influence it has, and the more disparate organization and regulations can become.
For around two decades the final steps a young driver takes in the immediate lead-up to the top-level World Rally Championship have been reasonably clear; Sébastien Loeb won the 2001 FIA Super 1600 Drivers’ Championship, the precursor to what is now known as Junior WRC. And for the immediate step below WRC there’s been the 2-Liter Cup, F2, PWRC, SWRC, S2000, WRC2 and now WRC3. The structure has been messy at times, but it’s always been there in some form.
But those first steps before reaching Juniors can be a bit of a free-for-all. Lots of national championships running to various different rulesets means the driver development experience for youngsters varies wildly depending on where you’re based – unless of course you have the means to simply go to a different country, as Oliver Solberg did in the Latvian Rally Championship when he was 15 years old. But few have the resources for such luxury.
The FIA believes it has the answer to a unified, European-wide entry-level formula for aspiring rally and rallycross drivers: CrossCar. These lightweight buggies with bike engines in the back are nothing new and championships already exist for them, not only at the national level but at continental level too. But each championship has slight differences, especially in the Nordic countries where these buggies are more powerful than their Central European counterparts.
Thierry Neuville may still be chasing a first WRC title but he’s already got an eye on the future, managing CrossCar constructor LiveLive with his younger brother Yannick. He did a bit of Autocross in his younger days – a fairly similar concept to CrossCars – before going rallying when he turned 18.
The difference is the newer CrossCar’s versatility; it’s designed to work on all surfaces, not just dirt, with its versatility intended to make the purchase price of around €20,000 ($22,600) for one of these buggies very good value for money.
“It’s a very low-cost motorsport on quite a high level, because the competition is really high,” explains Neuville. “Those cars can be driven on three surfaces: asphalt, gravel and snow, so that makes it really interesting for youngsters to learn how to drive a car on different conditions and changing conditions on the same track, and also try to learn drifting with a car and car control. This is all you need to develop into a professional race driver.”
LifeLive has now stepped its CrossCar program up a gear by partnering with Hansen Motorsport, led by 14-time European Rallycross champion Kenneth Hansen. They joined forces at last week’s RallyX Nordic Magic Weekend under the LifeLive Nordic banner to run four of its TN5 CrossCars: one for Neuville, one for reigning World RX Champion Timmy Hansen, one for Kobe Pauwels and one for Thomas Martens in the junior category.
That outing showed why the new set of FIA regulations for XC still has a long way to go before it can achieve widespread adoption throughout Europe.
Those four TN5s were the only buggies with FIA homologation for the planned FIA European XC Championship which was originally planned to start this year, before COVID-19 got in the way and pushed its introduction back to 2021. The rest were CrossKarts, built around running 750cc motors and with less stringent safety regulations. That left the TN5 at a disadvantage.
“Of course first of all, for FIA what is important is the safety, so they have defined all the safety measures for those cars, which makes them quite heavy and different than the existing CrossKarts,” says Neuville, later pointing out that the extra bits make the TN5 “30 to 40 kilograms heavier” than the older CrossKarts. Spanish manufacturer Speedcar’s Xtrem buggy, which has for the most part been the class of the field in CrossKart, weighs 312kg. That’s a big difference.
“But on the other hand, there is more and more competition now due to the FIA, because they are pushing hard to get all the federations to implement these new technical regulations and safety measures, to build up a sport which a very good platform for people who don’t necessarily have a lot of money, but for youngsters who do have a lot of talent.
“At the same time, this category also permits older people who have retired from professional rallying or who have never made a big step or had the money to go to proper rally racing or circuit racing, to do something which is competitive on both levels: the speed and on the cost.”
While the new CrossCars aren’t quite as fast as what came before, the hope is that a single set of regulations adopted by all national racing federations will make them ubiquitous, and in turn low-cost in the long term through high resale values.
The only problem is the engines; two of them blew up on Neuville’s buggy, and they’re one of the most expensive bits of the car. The other bits, at least, are low cost and more durable, as Hansen explains.
“It depends a little bit on the level [you are competing at], but if you would like to go to the European championship I think in the end it’s between €25,000 to €30,000 ($28,240 to $33,890). Then of course you can have different dampers, you can have a little different small things here and there, depending on how far you go. In the European championship the level will be higher.
“It’s difficult to say the running cost because it’s depending on how strong the engines are. The running cost for the chassis and so on is very low, there’s not a lot of problems if you don’t have any [on-track] incidents. Tires also depends on the regulations but for example normally in Sweden you run front tires for three, four or five events, and then the rear tires you have two new [sets] at each event, that’s quite normal. And a tire is about €100, so it’s not bad. It’s more the travel cost and [employing] people, but mainly in this category it’s a family business.”
In the grand scheme of things that’s not a lot of money, though it is more expensive than other entry level off-road disciplines. Folkrace is one of those, and is especially popular in the Nordic regions: production-based cars with not a single straight body panel to be seen, akin to American figure-eight races or British banger races but on something resembling a race circuit. It’s as cheap as motorsport gets but it’s also a good education in low-grip conditions. So why bother with the more expensive CrossCar?
“It’s a little more professional, perhaps if you are targeting to go to European or World championship in rallycross, it can be good to go to a good ‘school’,” retorts Hansen. “But it could also be good to combine the two; the cost for folkrace is not high and it’s always good and quite nice to do some events. You learn from that and how to handle a normal car.
“Then also to do the CrossCars, the investment is quite different in terms of cost but I think the second-hand value of the car is still very high, so you don’t lose a lot of money to invest in a car, so in the end perhaps it’s not a huge difference.
“It’s also that if you like to work like a team and you want to work on details, you can’t do that in folkrace because someone will probably buy your car, and you can’t avoid that. You are obliged to sell the car in the post-race auction; in XC it’s not like that. So if you put some small details, have a nice touch on the car, you will still bring it home.”
While CrossCar is being positioned as the new entry level for off-road disciplines, Hansen was keen to stress it’s not designed to replace karting for aspiring rally and rallycross racers. And that’s already being put into practice by LifeLive Nordic’s junior driver at Magic Weekend, as Martens will go back to karting in his native Belgium next month.
“If you are targeting rally or rallycross, it makes more sense with CrossCar. It is powerful and it’s a nice car to drive, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do karting also, if you would like, and if you try different things, to compete a little bit in karting, will also gain [knowledge] there.
“When you are 7-8 years old, it’s more the dad that shows the direction than the boy or the girl. But if there’s different options a year or two later, once they are reaching 11 and they can do CrossCar, then the kid can choose themselves perhaps. And it’s definitely right to be on gravel as early as possible to be as good a driver as possible when you come in to normal cars.”
Will the FIA’s CrossCar push be a success? The engines turning into hand grenades without warning aside – top Nordic XC drivers Julle Ljungdahl and Oskar Andersson also had their CrossKarts go up in smoke last weekend – the rest of the ingredients look promising. Now it’s down to uptake; if resale values remain high through strong demand from large fields like the ones seen at Höljes last week, which had 50 XCs across two classes, the net cost looks very low. And with a WRC megastar and rallycross’s most successful driver of all time backing the concept, it’s got a fighting chance of succeeding.