Electrification of Motorsports
Electrification of Motorsport – The 2000s was firmly the decade of I-pods, I-phones, and I-pads, the 2020s is already dominated by all things E. The relentless pursuit of electrification covers our headlines and gathers pace with little resistance, if you will excuse the pun.
Is this the direction we want to take or one we feel socially pressured to be a part of? If you do not buy electric, do you not believe in climate change? Whatever your opinion of climate change, there is overwhelming pressure to play your part. But looking at whole life or full-cycle emissions is far more important than just buying electric.
Development of Electric Cars
Motorsport has always led the development of road-going motorcars with many racing innovations being transferred for road use. Think disc brakes, double wishbone suspension, aerodynamics, carbon fibre, DSG transmissions – the list goes on. Where motorsport has been slow on the uptake, is the adoption of electrification. Until recently, the only e-tech witnessed in motorsport was a small amount of hybrid technology, first seen at Le Mans and more recently Formula One. This technology, while advanced and extremely capable, was mostly a gesture towards going green. In reality, it did little to reduce emissions or develop road car products.
All-electric road cars have only been commonplace since 2010 when they became affordable and practical. Motorsport was slower on the uptake with the first mainstream series coming in 2014 with Formula E.
The Current Platform
Formula E is a PR platform for manufacturers to sell electric cars. It does little to further the electrification of road cars, offset fossil-fuelled sports or develop real-world cars. It has now at least moved on from the farcical mid-race car swap when they ran out of juice. However, this international championship still requires 500 tonnes of cars and equipment to be flown globally, into city centres where vast yet temporary infrastructures are built for a race weekend. And the cars are still charged by diesel generators at each race. The reality is the world would be cleaner without Formula E at all but we must start somewhere.
It has taken another 7 years for other mainstream series to launch, most recently Extreme-E and E-GTs. Extreme-E has gone some way to reducing the overall emission of the sport, by using sea freight to move the championship between international rounds rather than planes. A multi-million-pound refit of an ex-passenger ship was needed first. Unlikely that team personnel, technicians and drivers will go sea freight too. A ship and a few planes then? Bizarrely, Extreme-E has no spectators and the cars race in fragile environments.
Future of Electric Motorsports
The FIA has announced that its newly sanctioned electric GT series was gathering pace along with more technical details. “The new electric GT category has been devised to create cars in the same performance window as existing GT3 machinery.” The comparison with petrol-powered GT3 cars seems irrelevant as the two will never meet on track, not any time soon at least. Just think about pit stop times… Maybe this is a championship this is relevant to manufacturers and road cars however, despite ‘keen interest’ no manufacturer has committed to the championship and there is no suggestion of when this championship will start.
Motorsport at the top levels is funded and supported by manufacturers and they must be seen to be responsible and making gestures towards going green. This we have seen with Hybrid technology but not the adoption of full electric. Sure, it would be in everyone’s interest to push for electric cars on track to support their road car operations. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday, right? Is motorsport stuck in the fossilised dark ages, slow to react, or does it know better? It would be commercial suicide for manufacturers to ignore the electric revolution or dismiss it entirely as the social and economic pressures are too high. But is this really where they see their future?
Porsche’s synthetic fuel program has been quietly gathering pace and speaks volumes on how they see the future of motoring. From 2022, a plant in Chile will be producing 55 million litres of synthetic fuel by 2024. By 2026, roughly ten times that amount. That is just one plant.
The aim for many is to revolutionise motorsport with electrification however the industry is global and takes many forms from club racing to international championships. Perhaps we should look at evolution rather than revolution. The cars on track are in the spotlight however they are contributing a minor share of the total emissions produced by motorsport. Looking at the whole picture, diesel trucks, transporters and thousands of fans travelling to and from circuits have far more impact than 20-30 cars lapping for 90 minutes.
We do not need to highlight the appeals of motorsport, namely smells and noises. One cannot help think a greater achievement would be to tackle the whole carbon footprint of motorsport, not the racecars.
Big gestures and bigger ideas are important to create vision and direction however in the case of motorsport, it would seem smaller changes amount to a bigger one. It is easy to calculate the footprint of the grid – harder to calculate the full picture and the full picture however carries a far greater footprint. Formula One recently calculated that cars on track account for only 0.7% of the sports emissions. That calculation does not even include fan transport.
Is electric motorsport the future? It is present, but not yet the future.
Published for Historic Motor Racing News, June 2021