The Rallye des Gazelles driving a ZOE… They did it!
Crossing the desert in an electric car at the wheel of a ZOE, in the same conditions as a classic 4x4 vehicle? Two Groupe Renault employees, Solen Kerleroux and Carine Poisson, took on this crazy challenge at the 28th Rallye des Gazelles. Thanks to the help of a small team of passionate employees who assisted them in the preparation of the vehicle and the Z.E. "flying doctors", who followed them throughout the race, they achieved an incredible performance by ranking second on the podium in the "crossover" category. We met them on their return from Morocco to share with us the story of their tremendous journey in word and pictures.
What were your motivations on this rally?
Solen and Carine – We have been engineers at Renault for over 15 years. We already did the rally a few years ago with a 4×4. But getting behind the wheel of a ZOE in the “crossover” (SUV) category is the culmination of an extraordinary project, led by a team of passionate colleagues! We do have to remember that ZOE is the first 100% electric car in the history of the Rallye des Gazelles to enter this category. And it was with a minimum of preparation that the car was hired to meet this incredible challenge. We were all guided by the same dream to see our little electric city car criss-cross the wadis (riverbeds), overcome obstacles, and challenge the camel grass to get it out of its “city car” image and show its potential in “off-road” driving conditions, especially thanks to its high torque at low speed.
What modifications have been made to the production car?
Solen and Carine – They are really minimal! The only modifications were to raise the vehicle, fit large 4×4 tyres, install under-engine and rear axle guards. But all the important elements were rigorously standard: the battery, the engine, no reinforcement added and especially no modification at the level of traction. ZOE remained in two wheel drive.
The tracks used were the same as for the Crossovers in the same category, and often common with the 4x4s of the Rally. Imagine ZOE driving non-stop for ten days on totally deformed tracks, in the fesh-fesh (a kind of soft sand) or in the dunes of Merzouga, on stones of all sizes, where it becomes almost impossible to hold a map or watch the cape… But ZOE was much better adapted to the desert and much more comfortable than we thought. Especially on rocky terrain where, its flexibility, its immediate torque and the lack of gear change, allowed it to fly over the ground literally smoothly, compared to 4x4s which sinned by their rigidity. And what silence! At the finish the balance goes beyond our hopes: impacts on the skis under the floor and only a shock absorber and its shock stop changed as a precaution.
What are the main difficulties you have encountered and overcome?
Solen et Carine – They are of three orders. First, the fact that ZOE is a two-wheel drive vehicle. We encountered quite a few obstacles in the sand from the start and experienced a great moment of solitude from the prologue, where we needed no less than an hour to clear our sand while we were only two kilometres from the starting bivouac. But that disappointment taught us to tame ZOE and understand how she behaved. For example, we did not dare to deflate the tires to less than 0.8 bar at the start, which penalized us a lot. But as soon as we understood that we had to lower the pressure to 0.6 bar, we were able to pass the dunes.
Second challenge… autonomy! We were not allowed to recharge on the first step. That played tricks on us because, to press too much on the pedal, we fell down ! We took penalty points from the first stage. The next day, we played it safe and made the choice to return to the bivouac by the tracks while we had very little autonomy by driving slowly at 30 km/h… And there, surprise! We still had enough autonomy to get the last two beacons by driving “on course” (i.e. following the shortest trajectory identified on the map). The strategy to be adopted with ZOE therefore goes a little against the logic of the rally, which is to “cover as few kilometers as possible between a point A and a point B” (with priority given to “heading for the cape”). In ZOE, it is better to cover more kilometers on a more favorable ground (by borrowing the tracks) and to save energy to finish the test!
Last but not least, the third challenge… Recharge in race. A Master 4X4 was waiting for us at some meeting points defined by the race direction according to the length of the stages. It allowed us to recharge our batteries, thanks to a system specifically designed by the Z.E. experts, with a battery of ZOE embedded and recharged beforehand. But, between the accessibility of the tags to a utility such as a Master and the recharging time of up to two hours, we again had to adapt.
Om THE “RALLYE DES GAZELLES”
The Rally consists of one prologue and six legs, all entirely off-road, two of which are marathon legs lasting two days. A total of 2,500 kilometers through dried-out river beds, shock absorber-busting stony plains and the sandy dunes of the western Sahara desert have to be covered by the teams with only a compass and a 1:100,000 scale map to plot their route between checkpoints. GPS, and any kind of binoculars and cell phones are forbidden items. The winner is not the fastest team but the one which has traveled the least number of kilometers on the onboard odometer between checkpoints within a given time frame (distance driven minus straight-line distance). Penalty kilometers are allocated for missed checkpoints and requests for technical assistance. For safety reasons, a satellite tracking system constantly monitors the teams.
- Learn more on the rallye des gazelles, visit the website: www.rallyeaichadesgazelles.com