The evolution of the species
Marking half a century
The World Rally Championship will undergo its greatest technical revolution for a quarter of a century in 2022 when hybrid power is introduced for the first time along with brand new cars.
The 2022 season will be the 50th in the history of the WRC: in that time we've witnessed a number of significant developments. Probably the most famous technical advancements were those of the Group B era in the 1980s: the Audi Quattro making a success of four-wheel drive and spawning a generation of spectacular, flame-spitting cars. Group B quickly became too quick and was banned and replaced by Group A, where the cars had to be more strictly based on production models. During the 1990s, Japanese manufacturers Toyota, Subaru and Mitsubishi excelled at this formula with cars that were hugely popular on and off the rally stages.
Then, in 1997, came the introduction of the World Rally Car regulations. These dispensed with the need for manufacturers to have a suitable four-wheel drive road car with which to go rallying, thus opening the floodgates to a number of additional brands. Twenty years later, these cars received an upgrade with more power and more aggressive aerodynamics: these current cars are the fastest the WRC has ever seen, while also being incredibly safe.
For 2022, World Rally Cars will be replaced by new Rally1 machines. Instead of being based upon the bodyshell from an existing road car, Rally1 cars will be purpose-built prototypes with a spaceframe chassis designed to offer even more safety protection in the event of an accident. But perhaps the most significant and exciting change will be in how these new cars will be powered, with the introduction of an electric motor alongside the current combustion engine.
Hybrid power is of course nothing new in motorsport: It has been a feature of Formula 1 since 2014 and in sportscar racing for even longer. Bringing new more sustainable technologies into rallying is made more complex by the sport's nature – with each event taking place over a large geographical area and often over rough surfaces, rather than on a single circuit. At the same time, the WRC has always had an obvious relevance to ordinary road cars, and that makes the switch to hybrid power a logical one right now.
Every car will feature a common hybrid unit supplied by Compact Dynamics, a company in Germany with experience in F1 and other racing series where hybrid and electric power are already used. Rather like in F1, the system will recover energy usually lost during braking and coasting and store it in the battery. It can also be plugged into an external power supply to be recharged during service breaks. It will be capable of delivering 100kW (134hp) on top of the 280kW (380hp) from the internal combustion engine.
This extra power will be unleashed during stages under throttle, according to personalised ‘maps' created by the teams and drivers. Cars will also be required to run in full electric mode in certain zones on road sections, for example in built-up areas.
An electric future
Hybrid power isn't the limit to the WRC's sustainable revolution, though. From 2022, the championship will use a fossil-free hydrocarbon-based fuel, which blends synthetic and bio-fuel components. Supplied by P1 Racing Fuels, it will be one hundred percent sustainable and the first of its kind to be used in an FIA world championship. On top of this, the intention is for WRC service parks to be powered by sustainable energy sources.
In the longer term, the WRC could have the potential to go fully electric. As governments and car manufacturers look to phase out combustion engines entirely as they seek to reach their climate change targets, rallies could be the ideal form of motorsport in which to demonstrate the ever-improving range and performance of electric vehicles. There have already been some electric rally cars tried out successfully: Pirelli recently collaborated with multiple Austrian champion Raimund Baumschlager to create an electrically-powered Skoda Fabia, which showed promising results this year. All that is for the future though. For now, the the introduction of hybrid power for 2022 is an exciting new era in the WRC's evolution: one that promises to add to the thrill while also taking an important step towards a more sustainable vision of motorsport.