Desert racing is one of the toughest forms of motorsport. Success requires exceptional mental and physical strength from the driver and navigator, as well as their equipment. Last year, Volkswagen entered a slightly modified version of its all-wheel-drive ID.4 electric vehicle in the Rebelle rally with journalist and Mercedes gear chief Lilienthal at the wheel and Emily Winslow in the passenger seat. The German automaker’s aim was to prove the courage and reliability of the ID.4 platform, which it did, finishing the race without mechanical problems.
This is not an easy task. Rebelle organizers call it “The Ultimate Proving Ground”. It’s an all-women’s event that covers 1,500 miles of breathtaking yet demanding terrain across the deserts of Nevada and California. Spread over eight days, the event covers everything from massive sand dunes to rocky climbs and descents.
The conditions and the race itself
Traditionally, rallies consist of going as fast as possible on a closed circuit. Rebelle offers a number of timed Enduro challenges – also known as Time-Speed-Distance (TSD) sections – during the rally which required navigating the course within a specified amount of time at a set average speed. Lilienthal mentioned that some Rebel teams got into trouble for going too fast.
Instead of completing a rally stage in the shortest amount of time, the Rebelle rewards teams for reaching the most checkpoints. The course is lined with checkpoints colored green, blue or black, in increasing order of difficulty in finding them. The greens, which teams must reach to complete the rally, are well marked with large flags, while the blues feature smaller posts and the blacks have no flags. At the end of the rally, the team with the most points wins.
When we talk about “navigating” the course, Winslow didn’t exactly have Google Maps available to him. Rebelle limits teams to using only hand-held orienteering equipment like a compass, odometer, and paper maps. GPS and other navigational aids are banned from the rally to add to the challenge. To complicate matters further, each team has a limited amount of time to plot their course since the maps were given to them on the morning of each stage.
Modifications transforming the road car into a racing car
Compared to the first ID.4 which competed in the NORRA 1000 rally last year, the latest project couldn’t have been more different. With Rebelle being much more focused on navigation skills and driving precision (meaning it’s easier on the parts), Volkswagen has gone with a very unique set of modifications to its latest ID.4 AWD Pro. While NORRA regulations essentially allowed teams to throw the kitchen sink on competition vehicles, Rebelle stipulated that the end product must always be street legal.
Volkswagen enlisted desert racing legend Rhys Millen to build the next-generation off-road ID.4. To offer some perspective on Millen’s off-road resume, he’s a multiple-time Baja 1000 winner in Class 7 and UTV. While Tanner Foust rode the first ID.4 desert machine at the 2021 NORRA 1000, Millen won the event in one of his custom-built Jackal Trophy Trucks. Outside of ID.4 projects, his shop is busy building million-dollar race trucks to compete in landmark desert events like the Baja 1000 and Mint 400.
While many of Rebelle’s vehicles are raised to make life easier, VW opted to keep the ID.4’s standard ride height, offering only a measly 6.7 inches of ground clearance. First, the team added a set of Kevlar and aluminum skid plates underneath. “It was about protecting the motors and the battery with skid plates to make sure that when they hit sand dunes, potentially centered, those key components were protected,” says Millen.
RMR also installed much stronger wheels and tires on all four corners. In favor of standard all-season tires designed to eliminate rolling resistance while maximizing efficiency, they installed a set of Yokohama Geolander all-terrain tires. The new rubber has been designed to maximize off-road traction while eliminating the risk of punctures. These tires were also wrapped around smaller diameter OZ-Racing wheels to make room for a thicker sidewall tire, adding air volume to further reduce the risk of a flat. These wheels were also much tougher to handle the off-road environment along the road that Rebelle blazes through the deserts of California and Nevada.
Millen also mentioned that at the start of the race Winslow and Lilienthal’s biggest worry was getting stuck in the dunes. It’s no surprise that EVs are quite heavy even at the best of times – the ID.4 AWD Pro is no exception, tipping the scales at just under 5,000 pounds. This extra weight makes it much more dangerous to navigate the sand dunes without getting bogged down and getting stuck. To counter the problem, Millen and Foust played with the traction control to see if they could extract more performance to get the ID.4 over the dunes. Surprisingly, the vehicle’s traction control system (which is designed strictly for on-road use) got the car much higher in the dunes than when it was off.
With the rest of the competition running on internal combustion, the ID.4 was inherently at a disadvantage in the range department. However, thanks to constant calculations and precise driving, the duo never ran out of charge. In addition to keeping the ID.4 pointed in the right direction, Winslow also had to track battery consumption to ensure it returned to base camp without running out of charge. “To add to that, we didn’t use fans, heaters or even air conditioning, because we needed to recover every kilowatt possible,” says Lilienthal.
One of the unique factors of the rally that came into play for ID.4 is the fact that the event allows teams complete freedom in choosing a route. Even with off-road tires fitted to the ID.4, the team realized they could maximize range on the highway. While they didn’t dive too far down the road, it was definitely a necessary strategy to get to the finish line without running out of juice. For a first effort, just finishing the rally without any noticeable issues was quite a result. That said, Lilienthal and Winslow said they would attack the rally “as planned” next time around in an ID.4 – without touching the asphalt during the race.
Lilienthal also shared how the ID.4’s different riding modes helped her recover energy and even get through some of the toughest sections of the course. While many hardcore off-roaders on sale today have hill descent control that will control vehicle speed, she said the ID.4’s Mode B, which maximizes regenerative braking, was a great substitute.
After the checkered flag fell on the 2021 edition of the Rebelle Rally, the ID.4 finished eighth out of ten vehicles in its class. Although eighth place might seem like a disappointing result, the goal was simply to finish. And the ID.4 has proven that it has the reliability and autonomy necessary to face an event like the Rebelle.
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