Economy drive

In F1’s never-ending race to win, fuel efficiency has moved into pole position. Steve Bunkhall, head of a clean motorsport project, hopes this will re-establish links from racing to road cars.

Motorsport is all about speed: slashing a tenth of a second off a lap time, squeezing out a couple of extra brake-horsepower, paring off a few grams of weight and hoping it all adds up to the merest competitive advantage. But fuel efficiency? Not a high priority, you’d think.

As Michael Schumacher powers around Silverstone this weekend he is unlikely to worry about how many miles to the gallon his Ferrari is getting. He may not – but someone in his team will. Energy efficiency is moving up the motorsport agenda.

‘Efficiency and performance go together,’ said motorsport consultant Steve Bunkhall. ‘Race cars burn a lot of fuel. But I’d like to feel they burn it in an efficient way.’ This is a pressing concern for Bunkhall, because he has recently been appointed to an initial six-month contract as project leader of the Energy Efficient Motorsport Initiative (EEMS).

‘If you’re energy efficient you can go faster,’ said Bunkhall. ‘If you burn less fuel you carry less weight, and that give you a performance advantage. Even in Formula One everyone talks about how long they spend in the pits. But 10kg of fuel equates to about 0.3 seconds a lap. In a 70-lap race that’s 20 seconds.’

Bunkhall said this is even more important in events like the Le Mans 24-hour race. ‘It’s very clear that one of the main reasons for the competitiveness of the Audi R8, which won this year’s race again, is fuel efficiency. And at Le Mans there’s always a car near the front unexpectedly, simply because it has spent less time in the pits.’

The idea of promoting energy efficiency in motorsport has surfaced periodically for at least 30 years. In the 1970s Keith Duckworth of Cosworth proposed a fuel-restricted formula for grand prix racing and even designed a valve to make it possible, but the idea didn’t catch on.

The current initiative can be traced back to 1998 when the issue was picked up by the Motorsport Industry Association with the support of ‘Motorsport Valley’, the geographically loose term for the swathe of hi-tech specialist firms that stretches from the south coast of Britain to East Anglia. Pim van Baarsen took up the theme and produced a well-received feasibility study on the subject.

The numerous regional development agencies in Motorsport Valley started to take an interest, and last year a major conference was held on the subject of clean motorsport. ‘There was a feeling that there had been a lot of talk and now we needed to do something,’ said Bunkhall.

With the formation last year of the DTI-backed Motorsport Development Board – which brought together influential figures from the industry with £16m of government money to support racing projects – responsibility for EEMS passed from the industry association to the board. Bunkhall was appointed in February to review progress and recommend an action plan. He works closely with George Lendrum of Pi Technology, the MDB member responsible for EEMS. Bunkhall pinpointed reasons why the project seems to have taken root this time.

‘There’s a different climate now in which motorsport perhaps has to justify itself. It’s good for the UK motorsport industry to address the concerns of the automotive industry in general. The whole reason for getting involved with EEMS is to recapture that link between the automotive industry and motorsport as a technical proving ground – like Le Mans in the 1920s and 1930s.’

Plus, energy efficiency and emissions are among mainstream car makers’ biggest current headaches.

EEMS aims to recreate that link via four main avenues. First, three existing programmes have received marketing and a small amount of financial support. One is Team Nasamax, which finished seventh in its class and 17th overall at Le Mans running on bioethanol derived from biomass – the first-ever renewably fuelled car to finish the race.

Another is Taurus Sports, which entered a diesel this year, the first in the modern history of Le Mans, with backing from Caterpillar through its subsidiary Perkins at Peterborough. The car failed to finish mainly due to a transmission failure: one of the issues facing the team is finding a racing gearbox capable of handling the engine’s torque.

Finally, the Mardi Gras Motorsport team has been competing in the British Touring Car Championship, initially with an LPG-powered Honda Civic Type R and now a Peugeot 406. It is receiving assistance to produce a lightweight fuel tank – currently it uses one from a fork-lift truck which obviously carries a weight penalty.

Bunkhall said the idea was to avoid speculative start-ups, but to identify ‘programmes that have got up and done something, where with a small amount of money we can help them a lot’.

The second main theme – and arguably the most important – is to look into writing engine regulations based around peak fuel flow.

Engine power is normally limited by an air restrictor in the induction system. ‘This forces you in the opposite direction, by trying to burn as much fuel as you can with the air you can get into the engine,’ said Bunkhall. Other race formulae impose a rev limit electronically, which neither encourages nor discourages fuel efficiency.

‘If the fuel flow is limited, then you have to burn it in the most efficient way possible,’ said Bunkhall. However, restricting the flow is not straightforward. Common-rail diesels in particular need a high fuel flow rate back to the tank to keep the fuel cool, so it is not just a question of fitting a simple restrictor on flow out of the tank. Ricardo has been commissioned to look into the feasibility of a number of solutions.

If one can be found, though, it would provide a simple way of imposing equivalence between cars running on different fuels: the allowable fuel flow for each would be set to provide the same energy flow into the engine. Long term this could encourage the uptake of alternative fuels.

‘It would open up the competition to LPG, ethanol, diesel and two-stroke in a simple way without making existing engines obsolete,’ said Bunkhall. But the approach would have to be adopted by a national race formula to interest car makers, he added. The third theme is record-breaking – in particular, encouraging the use of record-breaking to demonstrate green technology. ‘This was once an important part of marketing cars,’ said Bunkhall. ‘When I was a schoolboy you knew who held the land speed record.’

Opel has been marketing performance diesel cars using its record-breaking diesel EcoSpeedster sports car. Bunkhall believes interest could be generated by creating records and events with a fuel efficiency bias – for example, a challenge in which the winner is the entrant who records the maximum average speed over four hours at a minimum of 100 miles per gallon.

‘You could create an event at, say, Rockingham Oval and invite people to participate. You could invite Opel to come back to break its own record in public.’ Another study is underway into this subject.

The final theme is to create a single-make race series in the UK using alternative fuels, in a bid to engage the fuel companies. Entrants would use identical cars with the same chassis and transmission, but would be free to put in their choice of engine. Again a fuel flow restriction formula would be needed to put different fuels on an equal footing.

Bunkhall is obviously relishing the challenges of the project. He came into motorsport by a roundabout route. Always a fan, he said that as a young man he allowed himself to be convinced it wasn’t a proper job. He seemed to be heading for an academic career in chemistry and was doing postdoctoral research at Cambridge until, almost on a whim, he answered an advertisement for a project manager for Lola.

He didn’t get that job, but a few weeks later he was offered another at the firm. He had some IT experience; Lola was working with Pi Technology to develop the first ‘black box’ data acquisition system for motorsport using the latest solid state technology; the project was behind schedule and over budget -could Bunkhall turn it around?

He did, and spent five years at Lola before becoming a freelance motorsport consultant, working with numerous teams but particularly Opel. At present his main preoccupation outside EEMS is the British GT Championship Gruppe M Porsche GT3 RSR, with drivers Jonathan Cocker and Tim Sugden.

After the EEMS report is presented later this year Bunkhall hopes to follow it through to an implementation phase. He believes a restricted fuel formula could be introduced within two years, and could be hugely significant.

‘It’s a way of harnessing the combined engineering creative talent of Motorsport Valley in thinking about energy-efficient engines. If you can put that at the heart of their being competitive they’re going to think pretty hard about it. If that could then spin off back into the mainstream automotive industry we’ll have achieved something.’