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Can the hardcore Hyundai Ioniq 5 N eN1 make electric racing... fun?

The standard Ioniq 5 N sweeps the hot hatch title, and now there's an even racier version. Can it convince us e-motorsport isn't a total waste of time?

Published: 03 Jul 2024

When I span a Formula E car off a Swedish racetrack last summer and messily biffed the front wing into the gravel, the people from Formula E weren’t overly bothered.

When I later wrote about the experience and remarked the car was an impressive piece of engineering for a sport no one gave a flying wotsit over, they were quite cross. And promptly emailed me lots of METRICS and FEEDBACK that demonstrated I was, in fact, WRONG. Formula E is a worldwide household name. A phenomenon. Bigger than Jesus, with more evangelical followers. Apparently. Walk down any high street in the land and you can’t move for kids in full Formula E team kit and queues outside bookies taking punts on the next ePrix.

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And whoodathunkit, turns out Extreme E – the off-roading identity crisis world championship designed to “raise awareness of ecological disaster” – is also growing faster than crypto. “A global audience of more than 144 million viewers” crowed a recent statement. “A total of 36,334 social media posts were published about the 2023 Extreme E campaign, resulting in 2.1 billion ‘potential’ impressions and 109.8 million engagements.” Funny that. I had a look on its YouTube channel to save you the bother and the last few race highlights videos have amassed a mighty total of some 6,500 views each.

Electric motorsport is rubbish. The cars themselves are clever bits of kit but something – whether it’s the lack of noise, any inherent danger or the whiff of environmental virtue signalling – hasn’t captured the viewing public’s imagination.

Photography: Olgun Kordal 

Who’s going to change that? Hyundai reckons it’s got the minerals. And why not – the Ioniq 5 is one of the most roundly desirable electric cars on sale today and its 642bhp N version is among the most intriguing performance cars in the world right now. What it lacks is competition pedigree. Enter the Hyundai eN1 Cup car. Is this the moment electric motorsport becomes worthwhile?

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We’re not talking about a silhouette racer which only shares headlights with the road-going Ioniq here. This is 90 per cent of a showroom Ioniq 5 N. You could probably build your own, if you don’t mind binning all the soundproofing and most of the seats.

Same batteries. Same front and rear motors combining for a total of 648bhp. Same basic body, albeit inflated with 160mm of wheelarch extensions. Even the dash remains, as do the climate control and USB sockets. First racing car I’ve ever come across that has Apple CarPlay, this.

Hyundai’s effervescent N Division boss Joon Woo Park explains that they could’ve pushed the envelope harder with the eN1. They could’ve reclothed it entirely in carbon panels. Ramped up the motors to north of 700bhp, or 3D-printed a bespoke featherweight cockpit. But that would’ve ratcheted up the cost. Like Jaguar did with its doomed I-Pace ‘support’ series for Formula E which spluttered along for two seasons of ponderous looking £400k SUVs shattering each other’s carbon fibre coachwork.

8 minutes 20 seconds

The eN1 is extremely affordable for a proper, pukka, factory backed slicked, caged and winged racecar. It’ll be priced at less than £85k when it goes on sale later this year, in South Korea only at first. Even Hyundai’s own Elantra touring car is £124,000, and that’s before you fork out for the pricey engine or gearbox spares and the race fuel an eN1 obviously doesn’t require.

Immediately then, an advantage to e-motorsport is being tapped. It’s cheaper. And that makes it more accessible to more budding racing drivers.

But how to solve the problem of nonplussed audiences? This is purely hypothetical of course, as we know in actual fact electric motorsports have a gigantic global audience of faithful ultras and have completely captured the zeitgeist. But just pretend for a moment that this isn’t true and battery powered racing needs all the help it can get. Imagine.

Flushed with the positivity towards the heavily augmented Ioniq 5 N, with its synthetic gearshifts, coded-in drift mode and faux engine noise, Hyundai’s N bods have applied the same thinking to a one-make race series for the eN1, which will kick off in South Korea with a 10-event championship later this year. And cribbed a few ideas from the world of gaming, where the pool of current and future racing drivers spend most of their waking hours. Like the road car, the eN1 features an NGB or ‘N Grin Boost’ button on the wheel. The name still grates, but the principle is sound: adding play value by allowing momentary horsepower surges.

In a race each eN1 will only be allowed five deployments, and never more than once a lap. So tactics come into play – use them early to build a lead, space them throughout the race or save all your boosts until five laps from the flag and try to win it at the death?

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Power can be given and taken away. Each car will be connected wirelessly to the stewards’ office at race control. Exceed track limits or get a bit bolshy with your paint swapping and a motor sapping penalty can be applied to the car live, mid-race. Sod drive-through penalties – just turn down the motor by a few hundred horsepower for a lap or two. Genius. Why hasn’t F1 thought of that? “Sorry Max, you’re too far in the lead and you keep being rude to your engineer so the Red Bull now has half the poke of a Haas. Best of luck.”

And then the big one: noise. The eN1’s speaker isn’t just louder than a 5 N’s – the soundtrack it’ll emit will be bespoke. One of the great joys of a multi-class endurance race like Le Mans is hearing the different engines compete for ear time: rumbling Astons or Corvettes, shrieking Ferraris and exotic prototypes. A gridful of eN1s should sound like a Star Wars dogfight.

Today I’ve got one to play with at the helter-skelter Inje Speedium circuit in the hills of Gangwon-do, about 25 miles as the intercontinental ballistic missile flies from the North Korean border. Bleeping phone alerts warn us of poisonous smog blowing in from China along with the drizzle. Stay indoors. Keep all windows closed. Don’t go outside. Definitely don’t tackle an unfamiliar, sopping wet racetrack in an early build racing car.

 

But we didn’t come this far just to admire the eN1, which looks fabulously squat, hunkered down with its new muscles on 18in rims instead of the road car’s fussy 21s. So Hyundai’s pit crew dig out some wet tyres and I splash out onto the circuit to see what I can learn. Is it fast enough? For a touring car, absolutely. Even with most of the cabin stripped out to save 265kg, this remains a two-tonne car, but 650bhp is more than enough. The tyres keep catching on the insides of the arches in the scary dips – more compression needed in the new adjustable dampers.

But that’s part of the fun of setting up your own racecar, and critical in a one-make series where everyone’s going to have identical oomph. The steering’s much faster than the street car, and I leave the shift paddles alone. They’re a giggle in a 5 N, but why would you interrupt your power delivery in a competition car? There’s no drift mode as such any more, but the power delivery is rear biased and three-stage ESP remains fully on, a little bit off, or zero-nanny hero mode. Grip is massive even in the wet, so you’d soon learn to do without the assistance. The main learning curve is leaving your braking later: the eN1’s AP racing stoppers are ruthlessly powerful. And clever – it’ll keep on harvesting regen during a 0.6g deceleration.

Did I have as much fun as I did driving a 5 N road car? Honestly, no. But the road car is designed to be an entertainer foremost, that’s what makes it so refreshing in a world of physics headbutting, one trick pony EVs.

Naturally the eN1 is more serious, because the entertainment here will come from having 19 other lunatics in identical equipment chasing you for glory. If the Korea series is a success, Hyundai will take it global. Such a pity literally everyone in the world is busy watching the Extreme Formula E eTrophy instead.

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