High-voltage: Hyundai’s electric touring car
Published on: Monday, February 03, 2020
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Thought electric cars were cute and cuddly? Time to meet the brooding Veloster eTCR

Racing cars usually have an aura about them. They sit all angry in their pit garage, intimidatingly slick tyres stacked up nearby, looking ready to bite the uninitiated. But this is different. The aura surrounding the Hyundai Veloster eTCR is palpable, not least because of the warning hangers and the actual cordon keeping people from touching it.

It’s charging, y’see. This is an electric racing car – Hyundai’s first – and all of the training for its mechanics has come from the company’s motorsport HQ in Germany. It’s strict, then.

As is my briefing about the dangers lurking beneath its baby blue surface. There’s a chart with the phrase ‘probability of death’ written on it, and an arrow indicating the Hyundai’s 800-volt power contained lives in its most scarlet-red section. I’m told electrocution “won’t actually hurt, you’ll just be gone”. And there we were all thinking EVs were cute, cuddly and ready to save the world.

There might be a warning rumble of thunder before lightning strikes, though: a strip of LEDs along the car’s roll cage indicate what state it’s in. Green means it’s safe to touch, allowing the driver to clamber inside and mechanics to work upon it. Blue signifies it’s charging and should be left alone. Red? Well, it’s never happened, say the engineers. But we suspect red is a reasonable distance from ideal.

The car itself is a development prototype for Hyundai’s entry into eTCR, a new global touring car series that sits parallel alongside TCR, just with a row of chargers in its pit lane and cleaner trackside air. In 2020, there’s a trial season, with half a dozen individual events while organisers and entrants (Hyundai, Cupra and an unofficial Alfa Romeo entry are so far confirmed) get their heads around how to make it a success. Unlike Formula E, which sits several rungs below Formula 1 in both speed and prestige, the idea is that eTCR and TCR live as equals. Bold, you might say.

 “I really don’t know how this automotive world is going to develop,” says Hyundai’s motorsport chief, Andrea Adamo. “We are facing a situation we have not seen before. For years it was clear the next car would be petrol or diesel, but it’s no longer clear to carmakers what to do. It’s like playing poker.”

The Veloster eTCR is one of numerous hands Hyundai’s playing, but it’s taking some getting used to. This sole Veloster (used rather than an i30 eTCR because it’s more recognisable globally) has been putting in development miles in Hungary and France as its team effectively morphs a front-driven, front-engined petrol racer into a rear-driver with its weight focused in the middle, while it’s the first time the company’s made a racecar with electric steering, too.

I find myself gatecrashing the tuning session of that very component, shivering in the wintry but oddly scenic pit lane of Pôle Mécanique circuit a couple of hours from Marseille. Never heard of it? Nor had I. It sits in a red stone quarry with numerous hills punctuating the skyline, not least a mock Mount Fuji that looms into view as you negotiate its tricky hairpin halfway through a lap. It’s actually a bit of an EV racecar proving ground, with numerous Formula E teams testing here as well as Volkswagen’s all-conquering ID.R, its team’s motivational images and slogans still emblazoning one of the garage walls. I wonder how risk averse their charging procedure was…

Speaking of which, the Veloster’s 63kWh battery takes around an hour to power up from 30 to 95 per cent – the typical procedure during testing – which is enough for around 15 laps or 25 minutes at full pace with 300kW (402bhp). The car has a number of power maps, ranging from 100kW (which we’ll use for low-speed photography laps) and 500kW (left well alone today, as it’s only likely to be used in competition for super pole qualification or a ‘push to pass’ system).

To match petrol TCR cars, 300kW is where it’s at. The powertrain itself comes courtesy of Williams Engineering and Magelec, and will be sent in a crate from the organisers in eTCR’s inaugural seasons, with no room for tampering. Individuality will come from how drivers interact with their car and how the chassis behaves beneath them, in eTCR’s early years at least.

Roll cage LEDs on green, the plug’s pulled out and the car snaps down from its pneumatic axle stands with a sound that shakes me into life. I’m bundled into the car, and thanks to the slight build of all the best racers – including Hyundai’s tame test driver – I don’t even need extra padding so I can reach the pedals. Always a relief.

Trundling around for photography is just as welcome on days like this. The race team have earmarked five fast laps for me, but a session beforehand at deliberately low speed both doubles my time in the car and gives me some low-risk driving to get my head around the controls.

My quietly intense nervousness is shattered as soon as I shift out of neutral to manoeuvre out of the garage. See, the internet is already awash with videos of mechanics knocked asunder like skittles as they linger in the direction of pitting racecars. Fearing a quieter world of motorsport could call for a whole new bank of servers at YouTube, rulemakers have called for cars to chirrup on their pit limiters, and this Veloster’s is as comically piercing as the tropical bird enclosure at a zoo. It’s an absurd noise that, in a moment, takes the entire edge off driving a one-off car on an ice-cold circuit.

The controls are reassuringly simple, too. The pedals feel heavily biased towards left-foot braking – a skill I’m yet to hone – but it doesn’t take too much ankle twisting to use my right foot for everything. Further relief.

The steering wheel is awash with buttons, but all I’ll need today are Pit (to unshackle the speed limiter and silence the pandemonium of parrots once I’m clear of the garages) and Upshift and Downshift (to toggle between Drive, Neutral and Reverse), while the team can remotely follow all the readouts on the data screen to save me wasting my thinly spread brain cells trying to process it all.

So moments later, when the LEDs all illuminate red, they see it from afar. Erk. This hasn’t happened in the entirety of the Veloster’s development thus far, yet I’ve achieved full danger within one minute behind the wheel. I freeze, suspecting I’m not meant to touch anything, as a blue’n’orange liveried engineer comes sprinting towards the car to peek through the window at the error code. The solution? Turn it off and on again… –TopGear

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