The World Rally Championship is on the brink of its biggest overhaul since 1982 when the Group B regulations were introduced. That isn't my judgement, but that of Malcolm Wilson, a man who competed through the fiery Group B years, won the British Rally Championship in the Group A era that followed and who has run Ford's WRC effort in the two and a half decades since, through his M-Sport operation. What Malcolm Wilson says about rallying is gospel.
In fact, later on in our conversation at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, Wilson suggests the Rally1 regulations that'll come into force for the 2022 season represent an even greater revolution for the sport than the Group B rules did four decades ago. Most obviously and for the very first time, rallying's top category will switch to hybrid power. The other big introduction for 2022 will be standardised safety cells that are altogether stronger than the production-based structures used today.
Mark Rushbrook, Global Head of Ford Performance and the man tasked with overseeing Ford's motorsport activities, says the hybrid regulations were crucial. Without them, Ford's interest in the WRC would have very quickly begun to wane. We can assume the same is true for Hyundai and Toyota, the WRC's other OEM incumbents, as well as any other car manufacturers who might be kicking the idea of a top-flight rally programme back and forth.
It's all about relevancy. As showroom cars move away from pure internal combustion and towards electrified powertrains, the companies who manufacture them want to go racing on the same principles. Formula 1 and Le Mans (and with it the World Endurance Championship) adopted hybrid powertrains years ago to keep carmakers on side. It was only a matter of time before the WRC was compelled to do the same, addicted as all global racing series are to the money and exposure that only vast multinational car companies can bring.
Are F1 races more exciting because of the turbo-hybrid regulations that have been in place since 2014? Is Le Mans a greater spectacle now because the prototypes can harvest, store and expend electrical energy to boost performance? Of course not. But on balance I think having the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Ford and the rest - in other words, some of the most storied car companies out there - in their midsts does make these categories richer and more colourful. As a fan, however, it can seem as though our interests are overlooked.
So what does hybrid power mean for the WRC beyond manufacturer support? On the plus side it means the cars that'll compete from 2022 onwards will be among the most powerful the series has ever known. For short bursts, the 400bhp or so that the 1.6-litre turbo engines (carried over from this season to reduce costs) produce will be boosted by around 130hp of electrical power, which equates to a total system output that only a very small number of the most powerful cars from the Group B days could better.
Wilson says he is '100 per cent certain these new cars will be faster than the ones we have today,' despite what is a sizeable weight penalty. Ah yes - weight. No petrol-electric hybrid is immune. The system itself is a self-contained unit with a battery, elector motor and all other hardware sealed within a ballistic casing that's rated for 70g impacts. Supplied by Compact Dynamics, a subsidiary of German driveline giant Schaeffler, it weighs 100kg. The teams will position them behind the driver and co-driver and as close to the floor as possible.
The lithium-ion battery has a capacity of 3.9kWh. The hybrid is a plug-in type so it can be charged via the mains or, more likely, a generator. It will also recharge itself on road sections between stages and harvest energy under braking on the stages themselves. Driving the four-wheel-drive system via the rear differential (and not through the gearbox), it delivers three-second bursts of electrical power to help punt the cars along at a fearsome rate.
Away from timed sections, the hybrid system is capable of powering the car on its own for a couple of miles at a time. Enough, perhaps, to whisk them through towns and cities and into service parks without any tailpipe emissions whatsoever. Very performative displays of environmental cleanliness such as that are exactly what the likes of Ford and Hyundai are excited by.
And for the drivers? Using a two-stage throttle pedal they'll deploy the electrical boost in the stages as often as it's available to them, but they'll need to be clever with it. Unleash the electric motor when traction is limited and it'll be wasted. Similarly, so much as brush the brake pedal in the second or two after deploying the extra kick and the benefit will be lost. The additional 130hp will be most effective when traction is good and the road ahead mostly straight. Listen out for a new pacenote instruction along the lines of 'boost!' from next season onwards...
The new safety structure is far and away the toughest ever developed for rallying. It features an additional roll over bar in line with the driver and co-driver to protect them from the type of collision they fear most - side-on into something solid. Getting out of a 2022 WRC car in an emergency will be more challenging, but the added safety in the event of a roll or serious crash will surely prove to be worth it. There may eventually be a cost saving, too; Wilson describes the current process - welding a roll cage and adding strengthening material to a standard production shell - as 'very costly and very time consuming.'
So far only Wilson's M-Sport Ford team has revealed its 2022 challenger. Based on the Puma crossover, rather than the Fiesta hatchback the squad has used for several years, the new car made its public debut at Goodwood this month, albeit while wearing plenty of camouflage. Rushbrook says Ford Performance in Dearborn, Michigan, has never had so much input into one of M-Sport's competition cars. Wilson agrees, adding that the Puma's chassis, particularly its wheel geometry, is far and away the most sophisticated his team has ever produced as a result.
More power, safer cars, ongoing manufacturer support... That's all well and good, but will any of that actually improve the show for spectators? The jury is out and it's unlikely to reconvene in court with a solid verdict until at least a few rounds of the 2022 season are behind us.
I will leave you with the gospel according to Malcolm Wilson, hoping as I do so that it doesn't dampen your optimism too much: "I went to spectate in our forest in Cumbria [Greystoke, where M-Sport develops its cars on gravel], and the way the thing reacts out of slow corners. [...] Of all the cars I've seen this one has the most direct drive. With the new geometry it just goes straight, whereas historically we've tended to have oversteer on slow corner exits."
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