Inside Revolution: Electric Rally revolution

Thursday 19 October 2023

A quiet revolution began in the Scottish Borders earlier this year, when a fleet of EVs took to the hills in the UK’s first all-electric Road Rally.

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Electric cars are much more prevalent on the roads, and now the opportunity to use EVs in events has the potential to open up the sport to a new audience.

Electric motorsport is not new. Electric vehicles originally emerged alongside their early internal combustion counterparts, but were phased out as petrol engines dominated development. Examples of these pre-1905 cars can be seen on the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. The organisers of the Monte Carlo Rally have been running an electric equivalent in different guises, since 1995, while the FIA launched the ‘Alternative Energies Cup’ (AEC) in 2007. It is only now, though, that the technology has become accessible enough for it to start becoming mainstream.

Last year, the AEC was re-invented as the FIA ecoRally Cup, a new international Regularity Rally championship devoted to normal road-going electric vehicles – and a showcase round at a recent FIA conference was won by Motorsport UK’s Chairman David Richards and CEO Hugh Chambers. This season, there are seven rounds including the flagship E-Rallye Monte-Carlo and events in Spain, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Slovenia, and Italy.

Now, thanks in part to Le Mans legend, former F1 driver and all-round Scottish motorsport hero Allan McNish, Scotland is aiming to join that list in two years’ time. A trial, run in June, was a great success and plans are now underway for an FIA ‘candidate’ non-championship observation event next year, with the view to securing its place on the calendar in 2025.

Organiser Steve Burns, the Competitions Director for the Scottish Motor Racing Club, explains: “Allan is an honorary member and global ambassador for Scottish motorsport, and
he works closely with the FIA’s New Energies Commission. He and our club president Hugh McCaig came up with the idea of doing an ecoRally, because there are none in the UK and the format suits a tour in Scotland.”

This year’s event was deliberately small scale – only six cars entered and it ran over just a single day. The organising Club is more familiar with running circuit events but thanks to a familiar host venue and assistance from the Borders Vintage Automobile Club, they were able to deliver a stunning 100-mile route around some of southern Scotland’s  prettiest locations.

Next year will be more of the same, but super-sized, with two days of running and an ‘international’ permit. It will run to the FIA ecoRally Cup rules, which follow the traditional Regulatory Rally points system but also include points for efficient driving, with the amount of energy used measured by a special FIA box and counted towards the overall scores.

Scaling the event, however, brings added challenges. Burns explains: “When it comes to doing a Regulatory Rally for purely electric cars, you have to factor in recharging sites along the way because you have to ensure they can complete the distance. So, the ecoRally concept is based around a two-day event with an overnight recharging parc fermé.

“That means you have to get a big enough charging network to charge all the cars. In Monte Carlo, they use a big underground carpark with charging points. You can do it in shifts too, but the big challenge is finding venues that can cater for that number of cars.”

Currently, the fields in the ecoRally Cup scale between 20 and 30, sometimes even higher. Of those, around 8-10 travel around Europe to compete in all events and the rest is made up of local competitors. There are around 840,000 fully electric cars on UK roads, as of the end of July 2023, and that potential entry pool is growing at significant rate.

So, is this the future? Well, sort of. This new all-electric form of Road Rallying is not aiming to replace existing competitions.

Burns explains: “A lot of established motorsport participants are still more interested in using internal combustion engine cars, but I think the opportunity here is to get a new audience, new people into motorsport.

“When we did the event in June, the field was made up mainly of people who had not done motorsport before. It was promoted more as a driving tour for people to come and enjoy a nice couple of days in their electric car with like-minded people, but one that happens to have a competitive element to it, to give it a bit more interest.

“So, I see it as bringing new people into the sport and that fits in well with the Streetcar program too. Ultimately, the FIA is responsible for all matters automotive and, of course, there is a huge global drive towards fully EV cars. Motorsport has always been seen as a way of developing new technologies, so it all makes sense.

“It is logical that the FIA have got involved with electric propulsion, from the top-end in Formula E to this, which is designed for completely road legal cars. For us, this is a three-year project and if all goes well, in 2025, we will hopefully run a championship round. That will be exciting to see, and from there who knows what the future holds.”

Read more from this month’s edition of Revolution