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Alexandre Stricher, rally driver: “The refueling time of FCEVs is a revolution for electric…

As a longtime motorsport enthusiast, Alexandre Stricher has worked for several years as a publicist in the rally world. But since 2015, Stricher has strapped on a rally helmet to take part in the Monte Carlo eRallye (formerly the New Energies Rallye). In existence for nearly 25 years, the race features zero-emission cars competing in a regularity race stretching from Fontainebleau to Monte Carlo. After racing in a battery-powered electric car in 2015 and 2016, this year Alexandre Stricher competed in a hydrogen fuel cell electric car. Let’s meet the man behind the wheel.

What made you want to participate in a race like the Monte Carlo eRallye?

Alexandre Stricher posing next to the Mirai car before starting the race

I’ve spent over fifteen years immersed in the world of rallying. My job allowed me to travel the world and follow the World Rally Championship. But — and this may seem surprising since we’re talking about rallying — I never got behind the wheel. I experienced some of the world’s most spectacular rally routes from the press room and the pitlane. I keep a close eye on the sport today, because I’m writing a book on the fifty greatest races in the history of rallying. But I never wanted to be a driver. I like rallies and I like driving, but I’m not willing to take the same risks as professional drivers. For me, eRallye events have it all. They are regularity races, which are different than speed races. They pack all the fundamental elements of a good rally: precision at the wheel, calculating the best time, finding the best route…

How did you get the chance to participate in this race?

I’m a big fan of rallying, as well as the future of mobility. I had my eye on this rally in particular, wanting to take part in it for about ten years. I had the chance to enter the race behind the wheel of a Renault ZOE in 2015 and 2016. This year I had the opportunity to drive a Toyota Mirai. It was such a thrill for me to complete this challenge in a car that symbolizes the future!

Did you notice any differences between your experience with the Renault ZOE and the Toyota Mirai, a car equipped with a hydrogen fuel cell engine?

The ZOE is a more compact city car. For a long race like this rally, where the route traverses all of France, it’s much more comfortable to drive in a large sedan like the Mirai. My co-driver brought a lot of luggage with him, and he was still able to stretch out and relax in the car (laughs).

The eRallye started in Fontainebleau, France

Under the hood, hydrogen cars run on an electric engine. So the driving experience feels very similar between hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and battery-powered cars. Both engine types offer a very comfortable experience at the wheel: you get all the engine torque as soon as you press down on the gas pedal, with no need to shift gears. Unlike cars with manual transmissions, electric cars shift gears seamlessly, with no jolts or torque interruption. As far as I’m concerned, electric engines deliver the best driving feel, hands down. I mean that purely in terms of mobility: not sports driving, where you might be looking for a more turbulent feel.

What do you think is the main difference between electric-battery cars and hydrogen cars?

Refueling is the critical difference. When my co-driver and I were prepping for the rally, we stopped at the hydrogen station at Orly Airport. It took us about 3 minutes to charge the tank. That’s revolutionary for an electric car. It really frees you up and changes everything compared with a battery-powered car: no need to park the car and wait for several hours! By contrast, I once plugged a Tesla Model S into my 220-volt outlet at home: it would have taken 30 hours to reach full charge!

“Three or four minutes later, your tank is full and you’re ready to roll.”

That inconvenience makes a big difference on the rally course. Depending on their battery life, electric cars need to stop once or twice during each stage. But remember that there may be 40 electric cars along the same route. So the first car gets to plug in at the best-positioned station, and maybe the second car can plug into the other outlet if there is one. But all the other cars will have to find their own station. Twenty cars will fill up all the stations, so everyone else has to wait for a competitor to finish charging before they can plug in, and that process can take up to several hours. It’s a tough nut to crack!

What is the process for refueling a hydrogen car?

Presicion is of the essence in this regularity race

It’s just like filling a gas tank: you insert your credit card, remove the fuel nozzle from the pump and insert it into your gas tank. You hear a “click” meaning that the system is locked in place and charging can begin. The only difference from a gas-powered engine is that you don’t have to squeeze the pump handle while you refuel. So it’s hands-free, which means your fingers won’t freeze in winter! Three or four minutes later, your tank is full and you’re ready to roll. It’s also a much cleaner area in general. How many times have you had to step over a puddle of gasoline while filling up your tank?

What kind of mileage do these cars offer?

That was one of our biggest questions during the rally. Neither my co-driver nor I were familiar with the Mirai, so we had no idea how far we could go on one tank — especially since mileage can vary widely. All electric cars, whether they run on a battery or fuel cell, share the same constraints: the faster you drive, the less mileage you get. Driving at 150 km/h for 10 kilometers can cost you 50 kilometers of mileage.

“If the network of stations can grow, and if all the different stakeholders in society work together to integrate this molecule into our gas tanks, then hydrogen may emerge as THE solution for tomorrow’s mobility.”

We were told we could count on getting 400 kilometers from the Mirai, with a homologation cycle at 500 kilometers… But I realized that one of the race stages, between Onet-le-Château and Aix-en-Provence, totaled 420 kilometers. Not only that, but the segment also called for some more aggressive driving through the regularity zones… I crunched the numbers all night long, and I was still worried about how things would turn out once we got to the starting line. But in the end we managed to complete the stage! We even had 90 kilometers left on the mileage counter. That might be explained by the fact I do my best to drive fuel-efficiently. Now I would head out on a 500-kilometer trip in a Mirai without a second thought.

Do you have any stories you would like to tell us about driving an FCEV?

Hydrogen cars produce water as you drive. And the more aggressively you drive, the more water you produce. So during one of the stops on the eRallye, I collected a few drops from the Mirai’s exhaust system, and… I drank it, just to try (laughs). It was clear, odorless and a bit warm. I assure you it never crossed my mind to taste anything from any other exhaust system. But I recommend you all try a glass of water from an engine!

Based on your experience, do FCEV offer a strong alternative to gas-powered vehicles in the transition to cleaner energies?

My answer is a resounding yes. The only setback right now is the price of a fuel cell.. But if it emerges as the technology of the future, the cost will surely come way down. It’s hard to say whether or not we will all drive hydrogen cars in the medium-term. But what other clean technology is available? The other challenge faced by this model is infrastructure. It’s still in its infancy in France, with a station at the Pont de l’Alma bridge in Paris, another at Orly Airport, and soon a third at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport. If the network of stations can grow, and if all the different stakeholders in society work together to integrate this molecule into our gas tanks, then hydrogen may emerge as THE solution for tomorrow’s mobility.

© Max Boettinger, Ehningen, Germany

What will happen in 2030 if cities ban gasoline-powered vehicles and battery-powered cars come up against tough problems we can’t solve, whether in terms of production, recycling or storage? Hydrogen is one solution. That’s why so many carmakers are investing in fuel cell technology: Toyota, Hyundai, Honda, Mercedes, Audi, Great Wall Motors, SAIC, BMW, Ford, General Motors… Manufacturers who overlook this technology run the risk of getting left behind tomorrow, just like we are seeing now with companies that failed to invest in battery-powered cars.

How does a regularity rally work?

- Goal: maintaining a given regular speed during all of the rally
- Contestants: teams of 2 people, a driver and a co-pilot 
- Roadmap: each team may choose their itinerary freely, but they must make sure to go through specific zones
- Time check: GPS tracking is enabled in a series of secret locations, in order to check each vehicle’s average speed
- Scoring: Whenever the time check shows a vehicle is not following the specified ideal time, the team receives points (the larger the difference, the more points it gets)
- Penalties: Failing to pass through the mandatory checkpoints results in penalties — those are added to the points
- Winning the rally: the winning team is not the first one to finish, but the one with the less points
- Did you know? Most rallyes from the creation of this sport in 1910 to the 60’s were based on regularity

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