Tackling the Dakar Rally in an electric buggy

The Dakar Rally is among the most grueling events in all of motorsports, a 14-day sprint through the deserts and mountains of Argentina and Chile. It is a monumental challenge for any vehicle, and Alister McRae and Tim Coronel want to do it in an EV.

They're developing an electric version of the McRae ProDakar 4×2 buggy that Coronel campaigned in this year's Dakar, and they fully intend to be on the starting line in January.

We're seeing more of this as electric vehicles of all kinds slowly move into the mainstream. Electro-gearheads have been drag racing for years, the sport of electric motorcycle racing is growing quickly and we're seeing electrics enter Pike's Peak International Hill Climb.

But Dakar is something else entirely. It's a mad dash through 5,500 miles of remarkably forbidding terrain. Searing heat, towering dunes, gargantuan rocks and weather that would frighten a crab-boat captain are the norm.

So what are these guys thinking?

"[Tim] managed to finish the rally in a good place, [and] the next step was to try something more adventurous and daring," team spokesman Charly Rodriguez told Wired.com. "We wanted to do it for the challenge. Driving electric could be fun - imagine all that instant torque! The only thing we will miss will be the exhaust noise."

Tackling the Dakar Rally in an electric buggy

If the name McRae sounds familiar, its because Alister's brother was the late, great rally driver Colin McRae. Coronel is a seasoned race car driver who has been tearing up tracks throughout Europe since 1994.

The team is working with the Dutch firm All Green Vehicles and Technical University of Delft - which fields one hell of a solar-car team - to modify a McRae ProDakar buggy. It will feature a lithium-ion battery and a 200-kilowatt (268-horsepower) electric motor. That may not sound like much oomph, but it's almost twice what the gas-burning buggy gets out of its 1,100-cc, three-cylinder engine.

Rodriguez isn't saying anything about how big a battery the car will use, nor would he discuss range. But he concedes having the juice for each day's stage will be the biggest challenge.

"We will have a custom-made energy management system with three settings: eco, standard and full attack," he said. "That will help us [manage] the energy in the batteries."

Regenerative braking and energy-recovering shock absorbers will help extend the range. That and the relatively light weight of the vehicle - the gasoline version (pictured) weighs 700 kilos - should help maximize range.

"The design is very lean and effective," Rodriguez said.

Still, they're almost certainly going to need a monstrous battery. The 24-kilowatt-hour pack in the Nissan Leaf is good for 90 miles or so, while the 53-kilowatt-hour monster in the Tesla Roadster tops out at 240 miles or so. Granted, those packs are powering cars far heavier than a McRae buggy. But they're also being used under normal driving conditions. Dakar is anything but normal.

Maximizing range is only one of the challenges the team will face. Recharging the pack is the other. Every minute counts in a rally, and it isn't as if Coronel can sit around for several hours waiting for the battery to charge. The team is exploring two ideas: so-called Level 3 quick-charging at 400 volts, which would have them good to go within 30 minutes, or simply swapping the pack.

The team's got a lot of hurdles to clear even before it reaches the starting line. And then the challenge really starts. But the team is confident.

"We are convinced we can do this," Rodriguez said. "We have brought the ideal partners to prove a green concept in the most hostile and unknown racing environment known."

This video features footage of last year's cars in action, but it gives you an idea of the conditions under which the electric racer will compete.



Tackling the Dakar Rally in an electric buggy This story originally appeared on Wired.com's Autopia on May 10, 2011, and was republished with permission.

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