Rallying is century-old motorsport, although the FIA-governed and organized World Rally Championship did not begin until 1973.
The more recent generation of world rally cars – the Ford Fiesta WRC, Volkswagen Polo R, Citroen C3, Skoda Fabia, Toyota Yaris WRC, and the Hyundai i20 WRC – are hatchbacks and the preferred vehicle type for rallying.
So, why do rally drivers use hatchbacks?
Why Are Hatchbacks Used in Rally?
Sedan rally cars were common before the hatchbacks ruled the rally scene.
Every possible performance advantage matters in racing, hence why most rally cars are hatchbacks.
1. FIA Regulations
Hatchbacks may have many qualities that make them ideal as rally cars, but the FIA’s regulations for the World Rally Championship are the overriding reason teams and drivers use hatchbacks.
The World Rally Car regulations succeeded Group A in 1997, and they require the cars to base their design on the manufacturer’s current production cars.
A fast rally car will always be small and powerful, although the regulations allow the adoption of a four-wheel-drive system.
Manufacturers’ smallest production cars are typically hatchbacks, so they became the defacto rally cars.
The following reasons for choosing hatchbacks as rally cars result from their conformance to this regulation.
2. Lower Weight
Large vehicles like a sedan are heavier and relatively more difficult to control than lighter hatchbacks.
The additional weight of a sedan’s elongated trunk is an unnecessary heft to haul when the primary goal of any motorsport is traveling between two points in the shortest time possible.
Hatchbacks are lighter and provide greater maneuverability around corners and on different surfaces. The latest World Rally Cars are hatchbacks and weigh 1,190 kg (2,624 lbs) min; the 2005 Subaru Impreza WRC (sedan) weighs 1,230 kg (2,712 lbs).
Aside from being the preferred type of machine, rallying will continue to pursue advancement in material technology for increased performance at less weight.
3. Shorter Wheelbase
A vehicle’s wheelbase is the distance between the centers of the front and rear wheels.
Rally courses combine tarmac (asphalt), gravel, snow surfaces, and various weather conditions. The hatchback’s short wheelbase is excellent for such off-roading purposes and enables a better turning radius.
The shorter distance between the front and rear wheels enables the car to have a tighter turning radius, which means less distance to complete a turn.
Further, rally cars do not need to carry rear passengers. The shorter wheelbase leading to a compromised rear passenger room does not affect a rally car’s performance.
Overall, the hatchback’s short wheelbase gains the upper hand over other body styles because of its nimbleness and higher agility around corners.
Outright horsepower helps in any form of motorsport, but a rally car spends more time cornering than going fast in a straight line shootout.
4. Tightly Packaged Vehicle
A hatchback is a car like any other, but its compact proportions mean that space within its diminutive frame is a premium, and practicality features prominently in the car’s design.
A rally car only carries the driver and co-driver. Performance over varying surfaces and weather conditions dictates that a compact car with its various structural features is the ideal type for rallying.
Further, rally cars are front-engined (because World Rally car designs must derive from a mass-produced model) without the need for rear passenger and cargo-carrying capacity, so the hatchback’s compactness works in its favor.
The same engine power within a smaller and lighter machine equals higher and more efficient performance.
5. Optimal Weight Distribution
Although hatchbacks and sedans have a comparable center of gravity heights, a hatchback’s reduced footprint gives it an optimal weight distribution over a smaller area than a sedan’s larger dimensions.
It reduces weight transfer during cornering and braking and minimizes the vehicle’s propensity to understeer.
The larger and heavier sedans also tend to suffer more from body roll.
The balanced feel of a hatchback inspires confidence for the driver when cornering and sliding at the limits of adhesion.
6. The Rear-End Design
Hatchbacks have a boxy and short rear-end design, but they provide more cargo room.
The upright rear end, the lack of a separator between the cargo and rear seats, and the large cargo opening mean a highly accessible utility space for the driver and co-driver to retrieve tools in a hurry when they need to repair damages.
Car damages can happen during a stage, so quick remedial work by the driver and co-driver to promptly return the car to action is part and parcel of rallying.
7. Enhanced Visibility
The hatchbacks’ boxier and more upright rear section means larger rear and rear side windows, translating into better overall visibility for the rally driver.
Rally drivers may not use these windows like daily commuters. Still, the enhanced outward visibility all-around the car lets the driver feel in control of the environment and conditions the car navigates.
The co-driver and pace notes benefit the racer behind the wheel, but greater visibility without parts of the vehicle encroaching on the field of vision helps.
8. Higher Fuel Efficiency
Sedans and hatchbacks generally offer excellent gas mileage.
Although fuel economy may not be the top priority in rallying, the hatchback’s excellent fuel efficiency, given its higher power over weight ratio, is handy for a racing class with varying-distance stages.
At approximately 1.3km/L or 3 mpg consumption of high octane racing gas, a more fuel-efficient engine at the same power output can mean carrying a lighter car throughout the stage.
9. Compact Shape for Safety
Rally cars have approved roll cage fitted as part of the safety regulations to protect the driver and co-driver in a crash.
The short, compact, and bubble shape of a hatchback allow for the construction of a strong monocoque and enhanced with a roll cage for added protection.
Safety is a crucial element in rallying as the cars often suffer rollover crashes or drive on narrow tracks or close to trees.
Sedans are generally more aerodynamic than hatchbacks due to their sloping tail-end design, but many factors can influence a car’s drag coefficient.
Hatchback rally cars use large rear spoilers to prevent lift at the vehicle’s back end and counter their less efficient aero performance at high speeds.
The aerodynamics of a hatchback isn’t why the hatchback is so prominent in rallying.
Why Are Rally Cars So Small?
Any form of motorsport values high useable power in a machine as light as engineering prowess can achieve – subject to available grip and the prevailing regulations of the racing class.
Rally cars are small and typically use hatchbacks to save weight and have a shorter wheelbase for enhanced handling characteristics when cornering over various surfaces.
Smaller cars are nimble and can maneuver around a sharp turn quicker.
Are Rally Cars Automatic or Manual?
Automatic gearboxes aren’t suitable for rallying as drivers need to constantly drive at high RPMs at select gears to induce specific car behaviors when maneuvering it.
Further, the driver requires the flexibility of engaging the same gear at varying RPM ranges, which effectively renders the fixed settings of an automatic transmission incompatible with rallying needs.
The types of manual gearboxes rally cars utilize can vary between classes or categories and national and international levels:
- H-pattern gearbox – the older stick shift type.
- Manual sequential transmission – gear shifts in order, one gear at a time, via a lever.
What about WRC cars?
WRC cars use the paddle shift system located at the wheel for quicker and more seamless input from the driver – it takes 50 milliseconds or less to change gear.
Racing technology continues to improve, and the transmission system is an area where engineers will persist in pursuing time gains.