FROM DIRTFISH: HOW NITRO RX PLANS TO MAKE ELECTRIC CARS COOL
Updated: Jul 11, 2022
By: Dominik Wilde via Dirtfish.com
Electric – it’s a word that makes some rallycross fans quiver with fear, but in 2022 there just might be a car that changes those firmly held beliefs.
It’s called the FC1-X, and it’s the quickest, most powerful rallycross car ever built. Or so the brains behind the machine say. The car will debut at this weekend’s Race of Champions before going on to race in Nitro Rallycross’ new headline ‘Group E’ class.
The new car was the result of a two-and-a-half-year study to build the “fastest and most capable rallycross car in the world, however that could be done,” Nitro Rallycross general manager Chip Pankow tells DirtFish. That meant coming up with a car that could not only handle Nitro RX’s dramatic courses, but the next evolution of them, all while outdoing any comparable machine that came before it.
“It was the culmination of two things, really,” Pankow says of the car’s development process. “Number one was a desire to reimagine the sport a bit and have tracks with bigger jumps and more things happening, and we really have gotten to the point where that’s surpassed current supercars a bit, from [a] suspension travel standpoint in particular.
“And then in addition to that, the world’s marching towards electric [vehicles] and we didn’t really want to go electric just for the sake of going electric."
“Electric looked like a really interesting pathway to go. Electric is very suitable for rallycross because short heats, you have enough time between heats to recharge time, we ended up going with a battery that you can do several heats on so you can always keep it in prime operating range.”
The dreaded ‘E word’ is all-too-often followed by accusations of pandering to the green lobby, or ‘greenwashing’, but Nitro’s decision to go down the electric route was rooted in having the most powerful, and efficient vehicle possible. That doesn’t mean it won’t have a wider positive impact too.
“From the get-go – and this is from Travis [Pastrana, Nitro RX founder] to me – we don’t want to greenwash this series,” Pankow says. “We want to think if we do this right we can have a much larger impact than some of the other series with actually changing prior perceptions.
“But it’s not just an all-in greenwashing scenario. It’s the Nitro solution, we chose the fastest car and if we show that it’s the right solution, it’ll change perceptions.
“What you see happening now with electric series is, they’ve really addressed that 5% of the audience that care deeply about the environment and going to be first adopters and there’s an electric vehicle, even if it doesn’t have great range, they’re going to get it, and that’s really a part of who they are. I feel like that audience has been addressed, perhaps even over-addressed.
“If we’re going to change the world and have a real impact with regards to global warming and other environmental concerns, you have to give the other 95% a vehicle that they want to drive, and that’s the idea behind what we’re trying to do here.”
Before the Supercar devotees head for the exit door though, fear not. They will be sticking around for as long as it’s deemed viable. But that in itself should help convince fans of the future, says Pankow.
“That’s why we’re running Supercars as well in their own class. You come out on the weekend, you see the Supercars which were, you used to watch them and you were like ‘that’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen!’ and then the Group E class is going to come out, and they’re going to be a lot faster. Even in testing right now, it’s a lot faster than an internal combustion supercar.
“If we can have people come out to events, and we can have millions of people around the world watch that and see that taking place, and then that translates into them saying ‘well maybe an electric car isn’t that bad, maybe it’s pretty cool’. Once you start seeing something is a lot faster and a lot more efficient and with rising gas prices, if it puts it on the consideration list, that’s how we’re going to make a big change.”
So that’s the ‘why’ taken care of, but what about the fun part? What actually is the FC1-X and what makes it so impressive?
Well, first of all, let’s look at the headline figures: peak power is 800 kW (that’s around 1070 bhp in old money, or nearly double an ICE supercar’s power output), all delivered through a three-speed transmission at the rear and single-speed transmission at the front, both supplied by Sadev and linked with a propshaft – there’s also a propshaft handbrake, a first for an electric race car, that’ll provide more feel than the typical method of merely cutting motor power to the rear wheels.
Top speed is estimated at 180 mph, while torque is rated at 811 lb-ft (1,100 Nm); there’s 350 millimeters of suspension travel, and the advertised 0-60 time is a mere 1.4 seconds – although we’re told the car is capable of doing that sprint in a single second under the right circumstances.
And despite early comparisons with crossovers and small SUVs, the FC1-X isn’t exactly a tank either, with Andreas Eriksson, CEO of Olsbergs MSE that has co-developed the car with QEV Technologies as part of the First Corner venture, describing it as “actually quite nimble. It’s bigger than the Fiesta, but smaller than the Honda” that his team has been running in recent seasons.
“There’s a lot of promises that we’ll need to show people,” Eriksson tells DirtFish. “There’s so many elements in the car that are better than anything built before."
“I don’t know where to start really, there’s so many things that are different and it’s hard to explain for people until they see it.”
Elaborating on more of the car’s trick features, Pankow explains how lessons learned from other electric motorsport categories influenced one of the car’s key components.
“The big thing, a big one for us, is [the] Silicon Carbide (SiC) converter rather than a conventional converter which really future-proofs it,” Pankow says of the FC1-X’s inverter, the electronics which converts the DC current from battery into usable AC current for the motor."
“SiC converters are about a tenth the size, so don’t have all the weight and all the fragility in them."
“Magelec has partnered with First Corner and we took the risk of going with SiC converters but it’s going to pay off in a big way. It’s a really good way to go. We have to go with SiC converters because everyone will in two years."
“So we’ll just do a production run of top-end inverters so that we get the performance, we get the durability, and we also have the messaging. It’s almost the ‘next generation EV platform’ so that makes them [teams and manufacturers] feel good about adopting.”
Eriksson and his OMSE squad have been around US rallycross since it began, and have experience running everything from the SuperCar Lites-centric support categories that have been around since 2013, right up to winning titles at the top level.
Last year it once again took on the challenge of the SuperCar class with a pair of Ford Fiesta ST and two Honda Civic Coupes. Now with a year of being challenged by Nitro RX in the books, Eriksson is using the FC1-X to turn the challenge onto the series organizers, pushing them to further develop rallycross as an entertainment sport.
“We had a blast, but obviously the boys like to drive,” he says. “I took my cars that I have today but you could see that clearly they’re not built for this."
“What Travis and NRX wants to do, the cars are not strong enough. This car is built for it. My challenge is, I will challenge them to make bigger jumps and longer flight times. Everything on this car is made to do all that. So everything is scaled up to do that, not only power. Arms, dampers, everything, and the benefits will be huge.”
Building a car for the rigors of Nitro RX requires more than just smart thinking, trick developments, and tough construction though. The car also needs to be tested thoroughly, and that’s exactly what Eriksson and the rest of the First Corner team have been doing, running the car pretty much constantly since November, having initially run in the summer of 2021.
“We’ve been running for weeks in Spain,” Eriksson says. “At first I tested all summer without the body on it, without the body connected so it was just the chassis. So I’d done a lot of pre-work because I was waiting for the batteries and all that stuff, and then we upgraded everything so we’ve been testing now November, December, January, and now we’re going into February.
“So it’s been [running], and with the full body on as well – so the body and the latest inverters and everything. But we still have work to test, but the hardware is ready, we’re just trying to get all the software [ready] because there’s a lot of new features in the car to show.”
Pankow adds: “We’ve had a luxury of testing. It’s going to be almost over-tested for a car; it tests just about every day down in Spain at Circuit Calafat and some other tracks. We’re at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya as well and learning a lot. From a technical standpoint, there are a few cool things that we’ve done.”
All this development and innovation must come at a cost for the customer at the end of the chain though, right? Well, it does, but the figures are nowhere near as high as you’d expect. “The car, when it went on sale was €375,500 (roughly $430,000 at current exchange rates) complete, with software, because that’s critical,” Pankow explains. “So we’re talking almost a third the cost of an ICE supercar, and that’s something we looked at.
“Then there was a price increase [after the first 10], it’s €445,000 (just over $500,000) with bodywork now.”
“It’s not an evolutionary car, it truly is a revolutionary car that way,” he added, also explaining that a €35,000 (roughly $40,000) rebuild of the car’s 51.27 kWh Newattek battery would be needed “once a season or once every two seasons” rather than multiple times a year for the turbocharged four-pot engines of today.
The figures may be eye-watering for mere mortals like us, but compared to the amounts people have been spending to compete in rallycross in the US in recent years, it represents a dramatic reduction in costs.
“Personally I think million-dollar Supercars really hurt the sport,” Pankow, who previously worked with the popular Global Rallycross series, said.
“GRC was running almost $10 million budgets for a two two-car team and it just wasn’t sustainable. And this series, everything we look at with the FC1-X, it’s going to be the fastest rallycross car in the world, but we’re always looking at cost containment as well, so we don’t have a huge meteoric rise and then everyone pulls out because of cost.
“You’ve seen that with some of the other electric series where they’ve lost control of the technical regulation a little bit, and we’re really watching that carefully and we don’t want to make those same mistakes.”
Part of that cost containment process involved getting teams and manufacturers – both current and perspective – around the table to make sure everyone has a voice as they look for the best possible solution to the cost v competition conundrum.
“There’s been a lot of input, both from teams and from manufacturers. [and] stakeholders. One thing we’re trying to do with Nitro is be really good listeners. Everyone has different agendas; manufacturers have one thing they’re trying to do and teams have another thing they want to do and drivers have another thing they want to do and we try to weigh all those things.
“Then we go back and we have an open dialogue and we say ‘ok here’s what we think we’re doing and here’s why we think we’re doing it’, and it’s amazing how that helps calm the waters a little bit. Rather than just saying ‘we’re doing this’ we give the rationale behind it, and it doesn’t please 100% of the people 100% of the time, but it really helps and that’s been the really fun thing about this project, is being able to get everyone together and we talk.
“Everybody’s really happy with the momentum and where we’re going and so that is one of the reasons we went with a spaceframe construction rather than a monocoque with an extensive cage in it, is out of conversations with manufacturers [and] knowing where this whole segment is going and that information we had right at the very beginning.”
Pankow also revealed that those conversations, which involved the previously acknowledged Ford, Volkswagen, and Subaru, among many others, also resulted in more than 20 different road-going EVs being scanned to use as potential bodyshell options for the FC1-X, opening up the door for it to be a substantial marketing platform for OEMs, despite its single-make nature.
“It’s pretty staggering, and those are all potential competitors within the series,” he said. “Even more so, what that means is there’s going to be a huge fight for market share, and we’d like to think that we can give them a really good platform to show what they’ve got.”
The Group E category will remain single make for the foreseeable future, with the series keen to avoid a repeat of what happened with the likes of Formula E in which budgets skyrocketed once the regulations opened up, only for the manufacturers that pushed for those changes to then leave when things got pricey. That being said, the series has already begun work on a “technical roadmap with manufacturers and teams” to see where the development and evolution of the car could go in the coming years.
“The cars are very configurable, you can parameterize a lot of different things on the car, but everything is closed – ECU is closed, inverters are closed, batteries are closed, motors are closed, and we’ll have that discussion, but we’ll have that discussion in the way where everybody has a voice and we talk through it, but – and we’ve told everyone this – we’re very very aware of the pitfalls and what’s happened in the past.”
To date, 14 FC1-Xs have been sold, with a total of 16 in production. Vermont SportsCar, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Grönholm RX, and Xite Energy Racing are among the first customers, with deliveries set to commence either later this month or early March, depending on component supply. It means that right away Groupe E will be able to hit the ground running as a well-stocked, competitive category alongside the established Supercars.
“Group E will be our top class and Supercar will be there,” Pankow says. As long as there’s a strong Supercar class, we’ll have a Supercar class. I think it’s important for people to be able to see both on that same weekend to get that dichotomy happening and so it gets it on their consideration list.
“And it’s not going to be for everyone, there’s going to be people out there that say ‘that sounds awesome, I don’t have to have the fastest car, but I want it to sound awesome and I’ve got gasoline running through my veins’. I get it.”
Travis Pastrana, the mind behind the Nitro RX concept was a little more up front in a recent social media post.
“Stop crying that it won’t blow out your eardrums, the FC1-X is faster and tougher than current supercars and it’s going to help Nitro Rallycross take it to the next level for 2022,” he said. “More racing, more classes, more support, more power. We lose nothing by introducing this new vehicle, but we gain a lot for the future of rallycross.”
Turning to Eriksson for the final word, he insists: “It’s fast. I can promise it’s fast. Very fast. So I think it will be great.”