Baja Blast: Running the Electric Volkswagen ID 4 in the NORRA Mexican 1000 Rally
Champion driver Tanner Foust missed the start line of the 2021 National Off Road Racing Association Mexican 1000 off-road rally. To be honest, it wasn’t his fault. He drove the electricand the traffic manager did not hear him coming. This quiet SUV didn’t seem like it could survive the nearly 1,000 miles of grueling terrain, but five days later it crossed the finish line without any problems, even entering on the same set of Yokohama Geolander A / T tires on which he had started.
Similar to the Baja 1000, the Mexican 1000 takes runners through some of the most desolate areas of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Spanning five days, this year’s rally kicked off in Ensenada, moved south to San Felipe and the Los Angeles Bay before returning north for one more night in San Felipe, followed by the line. arrival at Ensenada. The teams were not able to pre-start the course, but everyone had a GPS track and a roadbook that indicated the dangers.
Prepared by veteran manufacturer Rhys Millen and owner of the Baja Racing Team, the ID 4 has been upgraded with a set of rally shocks, skid plates and 18 inch wheels wrapped in these Geolanders, size 255 / 70. A cage was added for safety, as were the Sparco racing seats and five point harnesses. An additional screen with battery information kept the team informed about remaining runtime, battery capacity and temperatures.
VW doesn’t offer an all-wheel-drive ID 4 yet, so the # 134 car reduced power only through the rear wheels, a risky proposition in Baja for reasons that will soon become clear. The 82-kilowatt-hour battery is good for around 250 miles of range under best conditions, while the electric motor can produce 201 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque.
Volkswagen wasn’t sure how far the ID 4 would go with a load in Baja. The car range estimator takes the last days of driving into account when making its calculations, and since every rally day is so different, it really is a game of craps. Instead, driver Tanner Foust and Volkswagen engineer and co-driver Aldrich To tracked consumption, trying to keep it at an average of 1.6 miles per kWh. Too much speed and that number would drop – although that doesn’t stop Foust from reaching 107 mph on a dry lake bottom – but the average could be bounced back up on the flatter dirt roads.
Charging was carried out using a trailer with a 50 kW charger powered by a biofuel generator. Using a generator to charge isn’t exactly the optimal procedure, but the team had to work with the infrastructure they had. Mexico has a lot of gas stations these days, but not so many charging stations. During the road passages of the race, the ID 4 got into its trailer, simultaneously making the trip to the next stage while recharging the battery.
Day 1 marked the biggest mechanical failure of the ID 4. On the first stage, the spare rear shocks broke. Foust was able to complete the stage where the team swapped out these aftermarket rally shocks with the stock setup, which resulted in a fairly bouncy rear for the rest of the rally, slowing the car down a bit. Then again, it’s not like ID 4 has never been fast. You can only go that fast with around 7 inches of ground clearance and not much more wheel travel than what comes stock.
Day 2 was when the physical limitations of the ID 4 came into play, and of course that was when I was behind the wheel. The ID 4 had its own LS motor buggy acting as a sweeper car. The idea was that if the ID 4 got stuck, the buggy could pull it out and we wouldn’t have to wait for the official NORRA recovery vehicle. The buggy, however, had some wiring issues causing it to overheat, so it wasn’t always directly behind the ID 4.
The other thing you should know is that the ID 4 did not carry any recovery gear. If you’ve read any of my off-road stories you’ll know that I, but the team assumed that the buggy would still be with ID 4, so self-recovery would not be necessary.
This all came into play as we – Foust in the right seat and I in the wheel – turned a corner and encountered soft, deep sand with 2 foot deep ruts, leading to a slight uphill climb. It is possible to drive a rear-wheel drive vehicle through soft sand, but it requires momentum. To keep the momentum going you need clearance and travel, and we had neither. We managed to get off the course but got stuck. Our recovery buggy? Behind us somewhere with an overheating engine.
Foust and I did our best, trying to dig with flip flops he had stored in the car for after the race. We put rocks in front and behind the tires, ventilated, saw a few snakes … the ID 4 rear-wheel drive wasn’t going anywhere without a tow or a Maxtrax.
When the recovery buggy finally got to us, it too got stuck in the sand, and then the official NORRA recovery vehicle suffered the same fate. Eventually our big chase truck found a dirt access road and came up with some salvage boards, and we were back on the move in 15 minutes. Unfortunately, we lost too much time and the stage closed before we could reach the finish line that day.
The rest of the rally, however, went off without a hitch. The ID 4 needed a tow load to complete a 167 mile stage; towing it behind the sweeping buggy resulted in a regenerative energy charge of 20 kW. And no, there is nothing in the regulations that says a vehicle cannot refuel during an individual stage. In fact, many gasoline racing cars had to refuel on the longer stages. They did it with a can of gasoline. The Volkswagen did it with a tow.
I took over driving duties for one more step, relying on the ID 4’s regenerative braking system to never have to touch the mechanical brakes. Driving the ID 4 was a bit like– use regenerative braking as much as possible, going slowly on the accelerator, finding the best lines and trying not to ruin everything. With a rally champion shotgun you can bet I was nervous, but Foust was courteous, offering a free driving lesson as we guided the ID 4 through Baja.
In the end, the longest stage the ID 4 could complete was 113 miles, and the car averaged 1.6 miles per kWh over the entire week. If you want to think of that number as an overall range on dirt, the Volkswagen has averaged 125 miles on a charge, which is about half the 250-mile range you should get on paved roads with normal driving.
The ID 4 did not win the NORRA Mexican 1000. In fact, he came in 61st out of 64 finalists, with 26 runners not finishing at all. However, the ID 4 was the only electric vehicle to be completed; the fact that it is production-based is just the icing on the cake. Lordstown Motors recently attempted to run their Endurance pickup truck in the San Felipe 250, but only covered 38 miles. Through careful planning and logistics, the Volkswagen ID 4 completed 840 miles of punitive dirt races. Now it’s up to the other manufacturers,, to descend to Baja and beat him.