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.

/e/h/t/TTxGPCMS.jpg
Electric bikes at the first TTxGP on the Isle of Man in 2009

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?

/v/m/v/Williams_Red_Bull_F1_Silverstone_.jpg
The UK is also home to eight Formula One teams including Williams and Red Bull.

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.

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.’

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.’