Purists may scoff, but electric racing is spreading to all areas of motor sport
Rarely a month goes by without some kind of announcement concerning the brave new world of electric motor sport. The Electric GT Championship has finally been given the green light by the FIA, the World Rallycross Championship has announced that its top division will be for electric vehicles only in 2020 and from as early as 2019 there is going to be a series for TCR touring cars that won’t require a drop of petrol.
There is no doubt that when the new decade arrives, EV racing is going to be an important part of the motor sport landscape. And it is going to be taking place at a racing circuit near you, and not just on the temporary city-centre street circuits that have been the calling card of Formula E.
The electrification of motor sport became inevitable once the world’s major manufacturers began to sign up for an electric future. Why has World RX been able to lure Volkswagen and Peugeot in as full-house manufacturer entries for 2018? Because the prospect of all-electric racing was on very much on the agenda.
Marcello Lotti (above), the architect of the TCR class, admits that he is following a trend by announcing an electric spin-off of a category, that came to prominence as an affordable alternative to the World Touring Car Championship, and has now merged with the WTCC. It has proved extremely popular in its conventionally powered form and has attracted more than a dozen manufacturers in little more than three years. Lotti insists there is an element of altruism to his motives, too.
“I’ve spent the majority of my life looking after touring car racing,” says the Italian, who helped launch the World Touring Car Championship in 2004. “It is my responsibility to consider alternative technologies.”
Lotti says that he wants to restore the link between the manufacturers’ racing departments, some of which are churning out TCR cars by the dozen, and the research and development engineers working on future road car projects.
“When I was helping to run BMW’s touring car programmes in the 1990s, we played a part in developing anti-lock braking systems for road cars,” he says. “That link with road car development has disappeared over the past 20 years – road cars today have more technology than the race cars.”
E-TCR, of which a few details were announced when SEAT unveiled a concept car at the Geneva motor show in March, will eventually allow technological competition, but not from the get-go. The inaugural E-TCR next year will be fought out by cars with both a spec motor and a common battery.
Formula E budgets are going through the roof as manufacturers flock in and World RX is increasingly becoming the domain of factory teams. But is EV racing suited to customer motor sport? TCR, after all, has hung its hat on its cost-effectiveness. Lotti thinks so.
“We’re not talking about costs at the moment, nor the price of the cars, but you will be surprised,” says Lotti. “The budgets for a season could be lower, because there are fewer mechanical parts.”
Electric GT, which will start as one-make series with a race version of the Tesla 3 model developed by the QEV Technologies offshoot of the Spanish Campos Racing team, is also promising a cost-effective platform.
“We are talking about €285,000 ready to go for a car with 800bhp and a 0-60mph time below two seconds,” says Electric GT co-founder Mark Gemmell. “If you compare that to a combustion car of a similar level of performance, you would typically be looking at half a million upwards. The car (above) is actually tremendously simple; you haven’t got a complex maintenance routine.”
He points out that the most expensive component that can go wrong is the battery and a replacement costs €35,000. He adds that a blown engine would be much more expensive to replace on a GT3 car.
Electric powerplants could also find a home in the junior formula ranks, suggests Dallara’s Jos Claes. The Italian constructor is part of a consortium that is developing an electric single-seater based on its Formulino entry-level car, though it has yet to map out a racing future for a machine that has been up and running since last year.
“If we can use the Formulino car as our basis, and we have been told by the FIA that it does comply with the safety criteria for an electric car, it could be workable even though it would be expensive,” says Claes. “But if we have to develop a new car to the latest safety specifications, then it would be overpriced.”
WHEN WILL AN ELECTRIC CAR RACE AT LE MANS?
The Le Mans 24 Hours can be regarded as electric motor sport’s sound barrier. E-TCR and Electric GT will have races of no more than half an hour, while World RX with its short, sharp format is tailor-made for battery-powered vehicles. But how long will it be before an electric car races in the world’s toughest endurance race?
It could actually be as early as next year, though with a proviso. The Green4U Panoz Racing GT-EV that is a strong contender for the ‘Garage 56’ grid spot for experimental cars willundergo a change of battery at every pitstop.
Brian Willis, technical boss of the latest out-there programme to emerge from the imagination of motor sport pioneer Don Panoz, reckons it is still relevant. “People can pooh-pooh our plan, but that begs the question, ‘What else can you do if you don’t want to change the battery?’ If you want to recharge the batteries, you can do your stint and sit in the pits for four hours. We are trying to use the available technology to show that we can replicate what a GTE car can do at Le Mans. Our simulations say it is feasible.”
Should the Green4U Panoz make it to Le Mans in 2019, the next target for the EV movement would be do the race without changing batteries. Developments in the lithium-ion technology that the Panoz will use – and employed in the batteries in the Toyota, Porsche and Audi LMP1 hybrids – won’t allow that to happen. It will have to wait until a new generation of batteries comes along.
Willis is pessimistic about the timescale involved, suggesting it could be 10 years before the technology is available to allow an EV racer to recharged in the pits in the same time it takes to put a tankful of fuel into a conventional car.
Nicolas Perrin, a former Williams F1 race and design engineer, believes it will happen much sooner than that. He is working on an electric LMP demonstrator powered by three FE motors as a lead-in to a ‘Garage 56’ project within five years.
“Lithium-ion has got limitations,” he says. “But new solid-state battery technology is coming that doesn’t have the same issues with temperature build-up as you have with the present technology. We already know that they can charge 10 times faster, and I’m also hearing that they are lighter for the same level of energy.
“The solution is there. It is just a matter of waiting until the technology is both accessible and economically viable.”
There is going to be a proliferation of EVs racing in many different forms, but don’t expect to see a wholesale electrification of motor sport. That’s not what the FIA wants, according to the president of its electric and new energies commission, Burkard Göschel. “We can’t make everything electric,” he says. “Electrification is about important series having a message.”