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The greening of motorsport

Do low emission technologies herald a new era for the motorsport industry? Jon Excell reports

AS Formula 1 (F1), motorsport’s flagship event, lurches from crisis to crisis, perceptions are growing that a business once viewed as a wellspring of road-car technology is increasingly irrelevant to the wider automotive industry. In recent years, however, a new breed of racing competitions has emerged that could, according to the idealistic entrepreneurs driving them, point the way for a more relevant motorsport industry — one that stimulates the development of low-emissions technology, reinvigorates the flow of ideas from race to road and, critically, delivers sufficient thrills and spills to keep the fans interested.

Spectators at last year’s Isle of Man TT received a glimpse of this new vanguard of motorsport when the electric bikes of the TTxGP — the world’s first zero-emission motorcycle race — took their turn on the track. A year on, as organiser Azhar Hussain prepares to launch a production version of the winning electric bike, it is hard to disagree with his assertion that green racing can have immediate benefits for consumers. Meanwhile, the Dutch entrepreneurs behind the Formula Zero hydrogen-fuel-cell racing competition harbour bold ambitions that a race currently featuring fuel-cell-powered Go-Karts will evolve in just a few years to a full-scale Formula racing competition.

So what is the outlook for sustainable motor racing? Do those at the top of the sport have an appetite for change? Or will they be overtaken by a new breed of young climate-savvy engineers? And could green motorsport drive innovation on the road?

One person who believes motorsport has to change is Warwick University’s Dr Steve Maggs, one of the engineers behind the WorldFirst F3 car, a 125mph (201kph) racer built from plant-based materials and configured to run on chocolate-derived biodiesel.

Designed by a team from Warwick University, the WorldFirst F3 car is powered by chocolate derived biodiesel and constructed from materials derived from plants

Although actual emissions from motorsport pale next to mainstream automotive, Maggs believes that, against a global backdrop of escalating climate and energy concerns, the only way motor racing can survive is through innovation. ‘When you look at a grown man hurtling round a racing track in a fast car burning lots of fuel, it becomes difficult to justify,’ he said. ‘I don’t think anybody’s going to throw any money at this unless they can see it giving wider benefit to society.’

Sustainable motor racing, added Maggs, offers the industry a chance to deliver these benefits. ‘Motorsport could be a driving force for future innovation, but it has really become irrelevant in terms of driving technology forward for other industries,’ he said. ‘I would defy anybody to prove that at the moment motorsport is providing any technological driving force, because all the people that are doing innovation hold their cards very close to their chest. It’s not in their interest to share their IP.’

While Maggs admits that his academic perspective affords him a certain amount of freedom, he is not entirely out of tune with those more firmly wedded to the traditional end of the industry.

Dave Morrison from Ricardo Motorsport — a firm that straddles the worlds of race and road — confirmed Maggs’ assessment that the flow of technology from race cars to production vehicles has slowed to a trickle. ‘There aren’t any technology flows from F1 into road cars,’ he said. ‘But let’s not just think of F1. Take NASCAR; they’re using v8 push rod engines, which is 1950s technology, with no spin-off into road cars. And what about Moto-GP? What technology is coming into road bikes? I would argue none.’

Morrison also said that motorsport should be concerned about how it is perceived. ‘There’s a fear that motorsport needs to protect its image,’ he said. ‘It needs to be protected from potential snipers that are going to say you can’t afford to do this, burn all this fuel and spend all this money on exotic cars.’

Nevertheless, largely thanks to the efforts of the sport’s governing body, the FIA, which has been pushing cost cutting, improved efficiency and road relevance, Morrison claimed that, from the kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS) introduced to F1 to the growing use of biofuels in competitions such as Le Mans (which is not sanctioned by the FIA), there are already examples of top-flight motorsport championing sustainable technology. ‘The motorsport fraternity has really grasped the energy-efficiency bit,’ he said. ‘There are already lots of different series running on things such as biofuels — some high-profile series such as Le Mans where the Audis and Peugeots this year ran on a biomass-to-liquid-fuel biodiesel. This is really setting a benchmark of technology on sustainable fuels.’

Alongside this steady adoption of greener technologies, Morrison added that the big competitions could also play a role in championing some of the more exotic low-emission solutions by hosting one-off low-emission races alongside the major event. But this appealing formula has one big stumbling block that gets to the heart of why so little game-shifting technology emerges from the sport. ‘Finding equality in mixed-grid racing is a major headache for the regulating bodies,’ said Morrison. In other words, unless your low-emission race features identically powered vehicles, it’s hard to get an immediate result. But insist that identically powered vehicles line up on the starting block and you hamper innovation.

There are a number of possible ways around this. One idea, which could help different powertrains compete on the same terms and provide race-goers with gratification of a close finish, is to give competitors a fixed energy allowance per car. Morrison said that this concept is of great interest to F1. ‘I think, in future, that sort of concept might come in,’ he said. ‘It allows you the freedom downstream to design any sort of engine you want… providing you monitor that energy flow, which is capped to a certain limit.’

Motorsport is not the unreconstructed dinosaur that some critics claim it is, but does it, as some within the FIA have suggested, have a responsibility to go a step further and actively develop sustainable technology with the road in mind? According to the world’s biggest industry body for the sport, the answer is no. ‘People incorrectly believe motorsport is part of automotive. It isn’t. It’s an innovative sports entertainment programme,’ said Chris Aylett, chief executive of the Motorsport Industry Association (MIA). ‘Motorsport services the requirements of our sponsors and partners. We’re responsible for making sure we supply what they need to help them make sales; we won’t go out and champion because that’s not servicing our customers.’

This may sound a bit negative, but Aylett believes the commercial forces driving motorsport could have a positive effect in the area of low emissions. ‘I’m not sure we can take a pioneering approach,’ he said. ‘We don’t necessarily dream up the new technologies and lead them but, by golly, we take them, develop them fast, expose them quickly and popularise them. Time has real value in motorsport and, in this particular world of low carbon, the pressure from government is: “Can we get these solutions there fast?” If speed is necessary, the mix of motorsport definitely accelerates the delivery.’

Aylett disputes the suggestion that motorsport has ceased to be relevant to road cars. From improvements in aerodynamics to the development of lightweight materials and telematics, he points to what he describes ‘an endless flow’ of technology from the competitive test bed of motorsport to the road. ‘If I were talking nonsense, you simply wouldn’t get intelligent people in the research-and-development [R&D] departments of the auto makers pouring money into motorsport. They’re not fans; they’re investors in R&D and motorsport wouldn’t be able to exist if it didn’t give a return on R&D.’

Both Aylett and Morrison paint a picture of a motorsport industry that, shaped by commercial and regulatory forces, will continue to steadily evolve. Others however, such as TTxGP’s Hussain and Formula Zero founder Godert van Hardenbroek, believe they can build an entirely new, entirely relevant branch of motorsport from scratch.

Talking to The Engineer, Hussain said that, by kicking off a competition guided from the start by a low-carbon approach, the potential spin-offs are greater and the development curve is much faster than is the case in other areas of motorsport. ‘There’s a much shorter road to travel if you’re building motorsport for zero carbon and building a vehicle for the road for zero carbon,’ he said.

One of the attractions of the electric drivetrain technology used on the TTxGP bikes, added Hussain, is that it can be developed on a race bike and then rapidly reconfigured on different vehicles in a way that is not possible with conventional technologies. ‘Take motorcycles: a combustion-engined motorcycle is a fundamentally different beast to a combustion-engined car,’ he said. ‘But when it comes to electric, the drivetrain is basically your batteries, your controller and your motors and, whether you have a car, boat or bike, it’s always the same.’

A motorcycle is also a particularly good development platform. ‘With bikes, you get an incredible bang for your buck in terms of R&D,’ said Hussein. ‘The problems are the same but the cost of developing bikes is far less. Once you crack the problem, moving from there to any other transport is direct, real and very, very short.’

Hussain believes TTxGP, which will next year run a standalone UK championship and return to the Isle of Man, could stimulate some vital breakthroughs in electric powertrain technology that will push the wider industry forward. ‘It’s incredible how much technology doesn’t exist,’ he said. ‘This is a really green area for IP. There isn’t really an effective battery management or control system; the motors could do with a lot more efficiency; and the batteries could do with improvement. On every single measure, there’s huge scope for improvement. On cars today, if you get a one to two per cent improvement you are the toast of the industry, but we are looking at a 30-40 per cent improvement year on year; we’re on a very different trajectory.’

This enthusiasm for the game-changing potential of low-emission racing is echoed by Formula Zero’s Hardenbroek. ‘Low-emission racing will both drive forward technology and convey brand values in a way top-flight motorsport no longer does,’ he said. ‘In the end, I think it’s inevitable. There are some big drivers — climate change, oil independence, air quality — pushing the world of mobility that way and as the market for those vehicles grows, so will there be more racing.’

Aylett believes that TTxGP could be onto something big. ‘The bikes at last year’s event did 115mph,’ he said. ‘The average lap speed is 88-90mph. That was the 50cc lap record of the Isle of Man TT. The biggest marketplace for bikes is at 50-125cc in India and China, so squillions of them will be turned on by going at that speed on electric bikes: that is called opportunity.’

Aylett admits he was sceptical about the idea of electric bikes being presented as an alternative to the more traditional motorcycle, but actually seeing the bikes in the flesh made him re-evaluate the proposition. ‘When they turned up at the Isle of Man TT, they made the rest of the TT bikes look like dinosaurs,’ he said. ‘The atmosphere was most strange. I was thinking of a journey from an IC combustion engine to a weird thing called zero emissions. I was completely amazed. They said: “Chris, you’re a dinosaur, most of our consumers are born with an iPod; they’re looking at what comes after the iPod”.’

It’s certainly plausible that the tastes and sensibilities of the next generation of engineers, fans and consumers will shape racing in ways that simply can’t be predicted. ‘We will still want to see exciting racing,’ said Morrison. ‘We don’t want to see electric Fiestas going round at 30mph, but the next generation might see electric motorbikes and zero-emission cars as being very cool. The current generation of kids, when they grow up, will be much more concerned about motorsport being green.’

Whatever happens, an uncertain future, said Aylett, is a good thing for the sport. ‘Each one of these directions is likely at some point to have someone in it saying “how about a competition?” And we will race anything. All this change of consumer interest is outstandingly good for motorsport. The more confusion there is as to the eventual solution, the better for us. Frankly, long may confusion reign.’

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