The next big step?

The motor sport of the future, or a gimmick? Roborace gets serious

The start was inauspicious: a Ginetta-based mule crashed on its public debut. Since then things have certainly progressed for Roborace. It’s easy to dismiss the project out of hand. It is, after all, a group of robots racing around a small pre-programmed street circuit. It is staged, some say – no better than wrestling. Or it’s just life-size radio-controlled racing. But this is no theatrical gimmick. There’s genuine engineering know-how here – and in time it should benefit all of us.

Autonomous cars are the future, and we’ll all use them. In many ways we already do with parking assist, lane assist, cruise control, automatic braking and so on. Even hardy petrolheads will accept them because they can look after dull queues, dreary motorway commutes and tedious stop-start city traffic. The technology improved, perfected and developed within the confines of Roborace will therefore make our own lives easier. It’s what Audi did so well at Le Mans, and what every other manufacturer wants to prove: that its racing directly benefits its road cars.

For Roborace that’s less easy, for it’s not a manufacturer series. Teams will code the car to win races without a driver and its role is to show technological progress on the support bill of racing’s most progressive series: Formula E. ‘Proper’ race teams are interested, too, and Lucas di Grassi is now CEO. The current Formula E champion wants driver aids to be stripped from traditional racing and reserved for Roborace. He hopes it will make motor sport pure again.

Initially the tracks will be programmed in to the cars so they know where they’re going. But like Formula E it’s a long game and this will be phased out so the cars can drop onto any circuit and be expected simply to race. The road relevance is obvious.

One of the most interesting elements, from a racing point of view, is that this is making stars out of those normally deemed to be the extras. The men and women behind the scenes, the brains, who will be developing the cars’ artificial intelligence. How much risk will it consider acceptable? How much of a racer will it be? The set-up can’t be changed to get any kind of edge. It’s purely a matter of building the racer within.

Many will ignore the series because the human element is ‘missing’, but it’s there if you know where to find it. It’s the racers behind the computer screens, and the computer-generated one behind the wheel. If, of course, it had one…