It doesn’t get much wilder than this – Rally Cross is an archaic version of motorsport. Huge engines, lightweight vehicles, transverse driving, and dirt and dust galore. This is exactly where an Austrian high-tech company that focuses on e-mobility feels at home. Crazy Austria?
Philipp Thonet doesn’t look at all like a leather-tanned petrolhead or weather-beaten rally driver. The likeable Chief Technical Officer could easily work in any start-up. That makes him an excellent fit for STARD. This is namely the latest offshoot of the Stohl Group and a pacesetter when it comes to electric drives not only in rally vehicles.
The story of the Stohl family business began at the end of the 1960s when Rudi Stohl, then still in training as a car mechanic, came into contact with racing. A former military airfield near Vienna, plenty of burnt rubber, screaming engines – the artisan apprentice became one of Austria’s most successful racing drivers, darting around the curves with greats like Walter Röhrl or Michele Mouton. Incidentally, with his own cars and not in one of the financially strong factory teams.
Anyone who knows how expensive racing is will have an idea of the difficulties the young Rudi Stohl had to contend with during his active career. Stohl was always his own mechanic as well, which is why he also took a back seat to racing series that required both driving and wrenching skills. Argentina, the Himalayas, China, Africa – the multiple Motor Sportsman of the Year and runner-up in the 1986 Group A World Championship was always the David in the fight against the Goliaths in the form of the factory teams.
The father’s passion was passed on to son Manfred, who also entered racing as a works foreman in 1990. Today, the Stohl Group is a household name in the racing scene, and Manfred Stohl is an active racing driver at the top of the world: Group N Rally World Champion in 2000, and in the 2006 World Rally Championship (WRC) with four podium finishes. But Stohl is not only an internationally renowned figure behind the wheel, he has also demonstrated entrepreneurial qualities. In 2001, he founded the company Stohl Racing. The main field of activity is not only the company’s own operations, but above all the development and construction of customer motorsport vehicles and their support.
Blazing fast with alternatives
Stohl became aware of alternative drive technologies at an early stage. One of the main sponsors was the Austrian Mineral Oil Association (OMV), which gave Stohl the idea of also using natural gas as a fuel in a racing series. As early as 2006, the innovative racing team realized a racer that was fueled monovalently with highly compressed natural gas (CNG). This laid the foundation for a whole new form of experimentation. Then, in 2014, a genuine e-flitzer saw the light of day. And not just as a cherished, highly polished one-off, but as a genuine competition car, a speeding slingshot and dirt-slinger.
In 2015, this energy achievement resulted in the founding of STARD by Manfred Stohl and the current Managing Director Michael Sakowicz. STARD stands for Stohl Advanced Research and Development. While Stohl Racing focuses on the racing activities of the company owner and the construction and use of various customer vehicles, STARD is the think tank of the Austrians. Philipp Thonet has been with the company since 2014, initially starting as an engineer and project manager and now as CTO responsible for the technological side of the racing innovator.
The Austrians are not only active when it comes to the high-performance battery systems developed in-house, where STARD certainly competes with industry giants such as Williams Advanced Engineering. The experts also design suspensions and chassis, test aerodynamics in the wind tunnel and conduct research in the battery and vehicle dynamics control sector, including composite fiber materials. In doing so, the Austrians work closely with leading technology partners. STARD aims to emancipate itself from pure motorsport.
“The electric drive had been around for years until we were able to develop it for a rally vehicle for the first time in 2015. Today, e-drive is the number one topic for us. We are now known for this and are in demand from both factory teams and private drivers. We have built a test bench for electric motors and have our own test benches for the batteries, where we test the individual cells. We construct and design high-voltage batteries from the cell level up, in different sizes and voltage classes,” explains the 34-year-old engineer.
Almost inevitably, the contact with Phoenix Contact came about here, because when it comes to fast charging, the company from East Westphalia leads the industry like Stohl once led the Monte Carlo Rally. “We were looking for a suitable vehicle inlet CCS Type 2, i.e. for fast charging. The cooperation with Phoenix Contact, which for us is always also a piece of development work for our special requirements, works excellently, both with the Austrian team and the headquarters in Schieder. We are already developing projects together that go well beyond the mere use of inlets.”
Small team with a lot of power
The number of highly qualified employees is manageable: “We have 15 employees in development. Our racing team comprises up to 30 employees during World Championship events.” When asked, Thonet confirms, “The cars are completely designed and built here at the site, and they are also used from here.” The crew must truly be handpicked, because the quality and diversity of the tasks is enormous, and the demands on a rallycross vehicle are extreme. “One more floor down is our lab area with test benches and the battery department. We are a very compact team, have very short decision-making paths, that’s our strength, so we gain clout and can keep up with the latest technologies in the extremely dynamic EV industry.”
With a smile, Philipp Thonet adds, “There are still so many new things we can discover and develop. The playground is almost endless for an engineer.” That’s what unites the Austrian racers and the innovative East Westphalians. Also in the future.