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Do full EVs have a future in rallying?

Where once it would have been unthinkable to see electric cars competing in rallying events, improvements in technology are broadening horizons. The FIA is keeping tabs on developments as the World Rally Championship continues to map out its future pathway, and steps to adopt electric vehicles may be closer to reality than you might expect

ADAC Opel Electric Rally Cup

Engineering

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Rallying is heading towards a crossroads as the FIA ascertains the long-term method of propulsion that will ensure a prosperous and sustainable future for the discipline.

Top-level rallying has already taken its first steps in electrification through the introduction of the Rally1 hybrid regulations to the World Rally Championship last year. The FIA is currently devising its next set of WRC regulations, with hybrid power expected to continue from 2025 before a more seismic change in 2028.

Multiple options are under consideration – as FIA rally director Andrew Wheatley says, “We’re not ruling anything out”. A new demonstration class is in development that will allow manufacturers and teams to pursue alternative propulsion methods.

One of these could be fully electric, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in the rally world – a point reflected by the FIA adding new Rally5e regulations to its pyramid last year. This development, following positive manufacturer feedback on the first all-electric one-make rally series introduced by the ADAC in 2021, suggests an EV-powered future is no pipe dream.

Based around the 100kW two-wheel-drive Opel Corsa-e Rally car, the ADAC Opel Electric Rally Cup embarked on its third season earlier this month and has an eight-round calendar that includes the WRC’s Central European Rally in October. The events feature approximately 130km (80 miles) of competitive stages, and this year the field has grown to 14 entries. Last year’s champion Laurent Pellier was propelled into the Junior WRC for 2023, and last month Opel underlined its commitment by extending its deal with the ADAC until the end of 2024.

Opel is among a group of marques keen to explore EV rallying. The FIA expects several manufacturers to produce cars that can be adopted for Rally5e regulations, split into two divisions, above and below the 60kW battery capacity. The cars largely based on the production-spec derivatives will feature a stock motor, inverter and battery. The category is expected to mirror the performance of the current Rally5 combustion two-wheel-drive class. The first hot hatch vehicles eligible for this tier are not expected to come online until 2024.

The ADAC’s Opel Electric Rally Cup is starting to take off in year three

The ADAC’s Opel Electric Rally Cup is starting to take off in year three

Photo by: Opel

While the category is initially “aimed at national and regional competition”, Wheatley hopes that the category can become a testbed for the WRC and potentially integrate into future events.

“Rally5 is effectively a 90% standard road car and Rally5e does include some of the parts that are included in Rally4 to make the cars a little bit more reliable,” he explains. “In theory, it can be part of the existing pyramid. There’s no question, in the future we will have battery-electric vehicles more regularly part of international rallies.

“In the short term it will require decent facilities from the organiser, and that is quite a commitment, but part of the plan as we go forward is how we can make that simpler. If you look at the Malcolm Wilson Rally, for example, with a bit of a bigger lunch break that could be within the scope of this type of car.”

"People often get caught up judging it all based on what we know now. If you take an EV race or rally car it will be completely different in five years’ time in terms of range, performance and even sound" Hayden Paddon

In addition to Rally5e, the FIA remains firmly behind its Eco Rally Cup concept, created in 2006 and now backed by tyre manufacturer Bridgestone. This regularity competition run on open roads is devoted to production-based electric cars. The only modification is a special box, fitted to calculate energy used, to determine energy efficiency, which is factored into the overall result. This year competitors will tackle a nine-round championship all over Europe. Wheatley regards it as “one of the lowest hanging fruit we have in terms of getting involved in a competitive championship”, as a stopwatch and app that calculates the regularity speed are all that is required.

Beside these initiatives, the development of electric rally cars continues at pace in adapting the technology to rallying’s unique challenges. Austrian firm Kreisel, responsible for the World Rallycross Championship’s 500kW four-wheel-drive powertrain kit introduced in 2022, has produced an all-electric Skoda Fabia rally car with support from the Czech marque. Based around the combustion Fabia Rally2 car, it delivers peak power of 260kW and finished third on its debut in the second round of the 2021 Austrian Rally Championship with driver Raimund Baumschlager.

Perhaps one of the most exciting developments in electric rally cars is headed up by 2016 Rally Argentina winner and former Hyundai factory WRC driver Hayden Paddon. With support from Hyundai New Zealand, the Kiwi began developing an all-electric Hyundai Kona rally car in 2019.

Paddon says the EV concept was born of a desire to “stand out from the crowd” and believes by pursuing alternative propulsion, rallying can grow its appeal to automotive manufacturers.

Paddon's Kona caught the eye when it made cameo runs in the WRC's visit to New Zealand last year

Paddon's Kona caught the eye when it made cameo runs in the WRC's visit to New Zealand last year

Photo by: Paddon Rallysport

“Whether it is hydrogen or whatever there has to be an alternative energy method that can work in rallying,” he says. “The reality is tech is changing so much anyway and I think people often get caught up judging it all based on what we know now. If you take an EV race or rally car it will be completely different in five years’ time in terms of range, performance and even sound.”

Paddon’s Kona is far from a finished product and is awaiting its next stage of development to keep pace with battery technology advances. But it has already turned heads by setting a pace on par with the current Rally1 cars in selected stage outings on the WRC’s Rally New Zealand last year, and its progress is being monitored by Wheatley.

“I’m in regular contact with Hayden and what he is doing down there is fantastic,” he says. “We have to ensure we cover all of those bases to understand how and when we can start to integrate that technology into competition.”

Could the WRC shift closer towards adopting electric cars in the coming years?

Could the WRC shift closer towards adopting electric cars in the coming years?

Photo by: M-Sport

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