First drive: STARD Ford Fiesta ERX electric rallycross review
Our first taste of battery-powered rallycross reveals what to expect from the new generation of EV off-road racing
This is the latest chapter in the continuing story of the electrification of motorsport, and potentially quite an important one. While Formula E and, latterly, Extreme E have been making all the headlines in their pursuit of bigging-up battery power on the circuits and in the stages, they have done so in an exclusively EV environment.
Not only that, their use of emerging tech and far-flung locations makes them expensive, limiting participation to well-backed factory squads or publicity-savvy grand prix world champs looking to offset their fossil fuel-burning F1 pasts. The STARD Ford Fiesta ERX takes a different approach.
Designed and developed by long-time WRC stalwart Manfred Stohl’s Austrian-based STARD operation (it stands for Stohl Advanced Research and Development, don’t you know), this all-electric rallycross car (there’s also a rally version, if you fancy bringing along a pace note-wielding passenger) is designed to be bought and run by privateer racers. It will also – and this is the interesting bit – be allowed to race head-to-head with ICE cars, giving fans the chance to experience just how much or little they’re likely to be missing if and when the petrol and diesel engines finally fall silent.
In fact, what’s really neat about the STARD’s powertrain (we’ll get to the technical niceties shortly) is that it is almost literally a plug-and-play solution. What you see here is a Fiesta, and Ford Performance has had a helping hand in the engineering, but it could just as easily be a Citroën or a Skoda. The compact motors and battery are able to fit in virtually any rally or rallycross machine - although for the purposes of keeping costs down, STARD currently favours R5 machinery, which is one rung below full-fat WRC cars.
So what have we got? Well, in the case of the Fiesta you see here, it’s full Supercar rallycross specification, which means a heady 603bhp and 739lb ft of instant torque supplied by three motors (one at the front and two at the back) that have been developed by STARD and Swiss company Brusa. These slot transversely onto either side of a modestly sized two-speed transmission (one at the front and one at the back, each of which is interchangeable for ease of manufacturing and servicing) that features a mechanical limited-slip diff. Excitingly, the modular layout means there’s room for another motor at the front, to give a mirror image to the set-up at the rear, meaning that, gulp, up to 1000bhp and 186mph is possible.
The battery is a 35kWh lithium ion pack that’s mounted on the floor next to the driver in an FIA-approved carbonfibre safety cell that can comfortably withstand a 50g impact. STARD doesn’t talk range in the accepted sense, but reckons it’s easily possible to compete in the semi-finals and the final of an event without the need to plug in. There’s a standard Type 2 CCS connector as standard, while with a DC rapid charger you can get 80% capacity in as little as 15 minutes.
Each of the motors is controlled by its own STARD-developed inverter, allowing for fine-tuning for torque delivery and throttle response using a few of the numerous dials on the steering wheel. Effectively, the rear axle can be actively torque vectored if that’s what you want, simply by twisting a controller this way or that depending on the balance you’re looking for.
The rest of the car is effectively an R5 Fiesta with some extra rallycross bits added on, including the STARD-engineered carbonfibre front and rear wings, gravel-grazing front bumper and large rear spoiler. Suspension is struts all round with four-way-adjustable Tein dampers, while the braking system is an AP set-up that on the rallycross car runs without the regenerative function due to the short races, but this is available and, according to Stohl, particularly useful on rally versions.
All in, it weighs about 1450kg, which is around 200kg more than its ICE counterpart, but the electric powertrain’s torque helps offset this and in a straight fight there’s little between the two. This is part of the reason STARD is allowed to compete alongside petrol-powered rivals; an impromptu drag race between the Fiesta and the petrol-powered Peugeot 208 T16 of British rallycross regular Andrew Scott suggested there was nothing in it off the line.
If you’ve watched top-tier rallycross before, then the silence is almost shocking. Sat on the start line at the Lydden Hill circuit, there’s no drama; instead, it’s eerily quiet and calm. Perched next to me is Stohl and I can easily hear every word as he talks me through the launch control protocol. Make no mistake, the excitement is coming, but without the head-rattling rat-a-tat of anti-lag or chainsaw buzz from a turbocharged four-cylinder straining at the leash to be fired off the line, it all seems a little humdrum.
Okay, so here we go. Prod the red button on the top-right of the steering wheel boss and we’re out of power-limited Paddock mode and into the full-on, show-me-the-circuit-setting. Now you pull the long, upright handbrake lever towards you, making sure to keep the yellow launch control button on top pressed down with your thumb. Then it's left foot on the brake while the right foot mashes the ‘throttle’ pedal to the floor. Still all is quiet and relaxed. Then Stohl gives you the signal, you throw the handbrake forward, lift your foot off the brakes and… hoooooly moly. Breathe, just breathe.
Nothing quite prepares you for the violence of the Fiesta leaving the line. The response is instantaneous and the traction absolute, the STARD turning every single kW of those motors into explosive forward motion. It claims the 0-62mph sprint takes about 1.8sec, but it feels even quicker inside the car, whose silence has now been shattered by the machine-gun fire of gravel against wheel arches, plenty of gearbox whine, the high-pitched hum of electric motors and, shamefully, the even higher-pitched scream of this tester.
It takes a moment or two for your brain to unscramble itself, which is potentially a problem as we’re bearing down on the first corner, which to add to the fun also combines the first switch from Tarmac to gravel. Fortunately the brakes are powerful and beautifully progressive, each little squeeze of your left foot delivering a directly proportional hit of retardation. We tiptoe through the gravel on this our sighting lap of a circuit we’ve never driven before, before hitting the Tarmac again as a surprisingly stoical Stohl gives the instruction to floor it again and unleash the full fury of all three motors once more.
We’ve only got three laps to sample the STARD, so discretion has to play the better part of valour, but it’s a ringing endorsement of the brilliant set-up (and shortness of the lap, with only four corners to remember) that halfway through the second lap you’re starting to exploit the car’s potential a little. The power never fails to shock, but so approachable and balanced is the handling that pretty soon you’re starting to feel like you might, just might, be able to do this rallycross thing.
You’re aided by the driving position, which is spot on. It helps when you’re a similar height and build (with, in this case, a similar hairstyle) to Stohl, as the restricted time means no opportunity to adjust the seats or pedal box (lanky BTCC legend Matt Neal was in after us, and he looked decidedly, erm, cramped), but the upright, close-to-the-wheel positioning is pure rally car rather than low-slung, centre-of-gravity-pleasing circuit racer, meaning you get a great view out that makes it a doddle to place the STARD just where you want it. Of course, the pedals are perfectly sited, while the figure-hugging carbonfibre shell seat and four-point harnesses keep you pinned in place.
It also helps that due to the short Lydden lap, we’re only using one gear, which means you only need to concentrate on accelerating, braking and steering. To call it a giant go-kart would be slightly disingenuous, but ease of the controls and layout meant it was far more straightforward than it would have been in an ICE car to get a genuine feel for the car in such a short amount of time.
As you’d expect, the electrohydraulic steering is quick, beautifully weighted and full of feedback, allowing you to place the car perfectly. Even on the gravel there’s surprising turn-in bite, with entry oversteer being the only thing you need to be wary of, yet so well-telegraphed is the transition from slip to grip that it feels totally natural to correct it and, when you’ve got some confidence, simply use all that power and traction to pull the car straight or even indulge in a little oversteer. The more powerful combined might of the rear motors means this sort of attitude is only a foot-flex away.
The gravelly right-hander of Pilgrims is viciously pot-holed and rutted, but such is the efficacy of those Tein springs and dampers that you’re convinced your eyes are playing tricks on you, because the STARD floats over the surface like it’s newly minted motorway. So you attack it harder than you dare (but probably a 10th as hard as the real rallycross crews), the cut-slick Cooper tyres finding uncanny purchase on the gravel and firing us towards the Tarmac left-hander of the Devil’s Elbow.
Squeeze the brake pedal and the STARD squirms a little, then rotates beautifully as we roll off the left pedal and turn in, picking up the perfectly responsive throttle and opening the steering as the car slides with just the merest hint of a four-wheel drift. Streaking up the hill towards the North Bend, we commit a little later on the brakes and a touch earlier on entry, the car pointing at the inside of the corner at 45deg and then gradually increasing that angle as we balance the torque against the grip for a slightly sideways exit that makes me feel almost like an actual rallycross driver. I’m laughing all the way down the short straight of Hairy Hill at the sheer brilliance of it all.
That’s the final lap and Stohl signals that we take a slow cool-down lap. We’ve only scratched the surface of this car’s ability (a point that’s vividly proved later when I stand trackside and watch Stohl manhandle the STARD around for a few blisteringly quick, very sideways hot laps), but the firm’s assertions that the car is user-friendly really do stack up. In fact, this could just be one of the best driving machines I’ve ever sampled, leaving me grinning from ear to ear and with my insides liberally doused in adrenaline for long after I’d forgotten it hasn’t even got an internal combustion engine.
At a whisker over £320,000 (or £170k-ish if you want the electric drivetrain for an existing car), the STARD isn’t cheap by any measure, but it’s not far off what you’d pay for a fully specced ICE WRX car, plus the engineering attention to detail is off the scale. Yet the real kicker is the fact the Fiesta will cost around 60% less to run. Yes, you read that right - 60%. Tyres and brakes will need frequent replacement, while the suspension will need the odd rebuild, but the motors and battery are virtually maintenance free.
Originally, the STARD competed in the Projekt-E (now ERX) electric rallycross championship, but this fully FIA sanctioned car is now eligible to compete against ICE cars in at least five national championships, including the the BRX Five Nations, which is essentially the British series. Previous outings have already shown it’s competitive, with Stohl himself winning on the car’s debut last year and no less a superstar than Ken Block taking to the wheel and triumphing.
From the inside, the STARD is staggeringly, excitingly brilliant, but crucially it looks spectacular outside. While other forms of electrified racing might leave diehard petrolheads fearful for the future, a few minutes watching Stohl and his battery-powered Fiesta should be enough to convince them that you don’t necessarily need fossil fuels to experience serious thrills in motorsport.
*How do you charge an electric rallycross car?*
Each STARD is supplied with Stohl’s own DC charger with a CCS Type 2 connector. Depending on the specification, this can be used to charge the car at 30, 45 or 60kW and requires an on-site connection to the mains. Preferably this will be a three-phase supply normally used in commercial premises, including sites such as Lydden Hill where the Fiesta’s charging unit could be hooked up to the 400V 32-amp circuit.
Inevitably this is how the cells of most EV motorsport racers will be replenished in the short term, but STARD is looking further ahead and is already in the process of developing sustainable charging systems. The favoured option is to use mobile chargers that make use of second-life batteries (those that have exceeded their useful life for powering cars) that are charged before an event using solar energy. This system will be particularly useful for stage rallies, where remote locations and service parks potentially place teams far away from a convenient source of mains power.
*STARD Ford Fiesta ERX specification*
*Price* £322,000 (est) *Engine* Three AC synchronous electric motors *Power* 603bhp *Torque* 739lb ft *Gearbox* 2-spd *Kerb weight* 1450kg (est) *0-62mph *1.8sec *Top speed* na *Battery* 35kWh *Range* na *Rivals* Volkswagen Polo R WRX, Peugeot 208 T16 WRX