Compared to Formula 1, the World Rally Championship is seen by many as the raw, dirty, low tech motorsport – but not in a bad way. There’s a fast car, a driver, his all-important co-driver, some mud, ice, gravel, dust and a finish line.
Look behind the scenes and the differences are stark. While a team like Mercedes F1 might have hundreds of staff monitoring tiny increments of data in real time, gathered from the plethora of sensors all over the F1 car remotely, WRC doesn’t have any of that.
The first time a WRC team gets to see any data from the car is after the stage is completed, and it’s nowhere near the depth of information you get from an F1 car. They have 50-60 sensors on a rally car, while the F1 car might have between 150 and 300.
We sat down with, Pierre Budar – team principle of Citroen Racing – to talk about future technological advancements that may be possible in WRC.
The first of these is that by 2022 the cars will be using hybrid technology, pairing an electric power unit with the internal combustion engine.
The rules for the move to hybridisation haven’t been finalised yet: it could be that all the teams use the same electric power unit, or that some of the shorter stages will be run using only the electric power, something that will place demands on both sides of the powertrain.
This change comes with its challenges. There’s the cost of developing the electric power unit, which would be pretty significant for each team should they all be required to come up with their own. Citroen, of course, could draw on the experienced gained from running its DS Techeetah team in Formula E.
Budar’s hope, however, is that the FIA approves the move to provide the same electric unit to all the rally teams – at least at the beginning – to give them a platform to base future development on.
From an engineering standpoint, there are also concerns over temperature and where the electric unit is placed in the car. To maintain the centre of gravity, the idea would be to place the electric unit near the petrol tank, but with temperatures running considerably higher than a standard road car, they also need to ensure the power unit is durable and safe. An exploding lithium ion battery placed next to a tank containing a highly flammable liquid is definitely not an ideal situation.
In December we’ll find out exactly how this is all going to shake out, but one thing is for sure – there’s an exciting new era coming up for rally and one that sees the race cars mirror the technology available in the consumer market. After all, that’s what rally is all about: taking cars that you can buy, and turning them into monstrously quick off-road cars.
But there is one other modern technology that may make its way to WRC cars in the future: autonomous sensors.
While implementing full autonomy is miles away from what rally would ever want – what rally even stands for – there are certain aspects of its technology which could play a part in the sport.
For instance, there are developments being made with regards to spectator positions. In theory a car could use sensors to map where the spectators are. The tech could calculate the car’s speed, its movement, read where the spectators are and then predict likely outcomes to determine where there might be people standing in unsafe positions.
It could be that the cars have the equipment to communicate with each other, so that if a car reads people standing in unsafe positions, the information is sent directly to other cars. Or that the message could be sent to race organisers, indicating that the position those people are standing in isn’t safe.
One possibility, suggested by Budan, is that it could be used in a car that goes out before the racing begins. It could map out where the spectators are and communicate the findings before someone like Sébastien Ogier – incumbent WRC world champion and Citroen Racing driver – hammers it around the track.
As we discovered while attending the Welsh stage of the WRC rally season, spectators standing in unsafe positions can be a real issue, and even lead to one of the stages over the weekend being cancelled. So anything that could help deal with that problem is a good thing.
If our road car future is danger-scanning, hybrid and electric powered vehicles, then it goes without saying that rally’s future will be too – although, those spectators who live for the thrill of getting really close to the action might not agree.