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All set for a charge?

Are we about to see electric racing become a permanent fixture on the professional motorsport calendar?

Charles Armstrong-Wilson


Electric racing cars; why would you bother? Well, there is a logical argument that while IC engines have dominated road cars, racing cars have also been IC powered. Therefore, as electric cars begin to emerge as a viable alternative, there should also be an electric race series.

However, one might equally argue that the arrival of electric road cars currently has as much to do with favorable legislation as their technical competitiveness. If you were to remove fuel duty and road fund licence for IC cars, electric vehicles would struggle to get a look in.

But the FIA believes that if EV activity on the racetrack is to survive, it has to have a beneficial input into road cars. This is why the governing body has invited tenders for the supply of a grid of electric racing cars to the new Formula E championship planned for 2013. The successful bid is due to be decided very soon and announced in April 2012. Of course, creating a championship is one thing; selling it is another altogether.

What, then, are the technical and commercial challenges in making an electric race series a success? The first question should perhaps be, can a credible electric racing car be built? 

Eric Barbaroux, the man behind Formulec, certainly seems to think so. This is a project that began in 2009, long before the FIA proposal was announced. Segula Technologies was engaged to develop a prototype called the EF01, and what was then Brawn GP worked on the aerodynamics. An area of concern was the airflow around the battery packs and how to ensure they stay cool, and CFD was a way of tackling this.

By 2010, the EF01 was testing in the hands of Jules Bianchi and Alexandre Prémat to develop the final specification for a production race car and to promote the concept. The results of these tests were very credible and the aim now is to launch a 10-race series late in 2012.

Barbaroux says the biggest challenge has been power density. Hydrocarbons can produce an enviable amount of energy for a given weight and volume compared with other alternatives. “It struck me that, although chemically there was a lot more energy in one liter of petrol than in one liter of electrolyte, there are huge areas of electrical energy that have not been researched,” he says. “At the same time, the petrol engine is still not very efficient, despite 100 years of constant development. As an engineer, I believe that the electric motor has just as much or even more potential.”

Another company to have dabbled in electric motorsport is Zytek. It was one of the partners behind the successful Mercedes-Benz High Performance Engines (HPE) KERS system, but its involvement in electric racing cars goes back a lot further. There was the Panoz Q9 hybrid often nicknamed ‘Sparky’ in 1998, but the company also built an electric F3000 car in the 1980s.

Zytek’s core business is electronics and electromechanical drivetrains for EVs and HEVs. It also happens to be a racing car manufacturer, so is very well placed to take on the FIA’s Formula E challenge.

“Energy density really is the problem,” says Pete May, senior engineer for motorsport applications at Zytek. “You can build a car that matches the performance of an IC-engined car, but the limitation is race distance.” He cites the developments in battery technology that have been driven by KERS in Formula 1. “However, compared to motors and controllers, the rate of progress is steady,” he says. “For example, if an engine delivers 13kWh of energy per kilogram of liquid fuel, suitable batteries are capable of supplying 0.25kWh per kilogram.

“However, only about a quarter of that energy from the IC engine is turned into mechanical power – say about 3.5kWh/kg. In contrast, the electric motor is more efficient, around 90%, and an electric car can harvest power under braking.

“So the reality is about a six-to-one ratio between the two energy sources per kilogram. That means that for a 10 to 15-minute race you could match the performance of a Formula BMW or a GP3 car.”

Italian constructor Fondtech is taking the Formula E challenge very seriously, having a design already running in the wind tunnel. It has a distinctive high driving position forced by placing the batteries under the driver. This looks a little odd but designer Jean-Claude Migeot explains that this is for safety reasons, feeling that keeping the batteries deep within the car reduces the risk of them being damaged and rapidly discharging in a crash.

Another company that is serious about the future of electric racing is race car manufacturer Lola. It has recently collaborated with Drayson Racing on an electric version of the team’s LMP1. The plan, however, is not to race, but to demonstrate the technology through setting circuit records for an electric car over a single lap. They say their main aim is “to prove that an electric powered LMP car can lap as fast, if not faster, than a conventionally powered car and to show how exciting an 850bhp, 200mph-plus electric car is on track.”

The electric LMP1 is also planned to be a testbed for electric car technologies. The Lithium Nanophosphate batteries have been sourced from A123 Systems, which also supplies Mercedes-Benz HPE for its KERS, and Drayson is also working with HaloIPT to develop a wireless induction charging system for race cars.

Another electric race series about to launch is the EV Cup, which is planning two classes. The premier division will be for an electric Westfield sports car. Based on a derivative of the company’s road car chassis, the electric racing version has been under development for around three years. Various layouts have been explored, including putting the motor up front and in the rear. It now has a pair of 60kW Oxford YASA motors in the rear of the car driving the wheels independently. Race director Grahame Butterworth says that this allows the control unit to be programmed with limited slip diff and stability control models that aid traction and handling.

Currently, the car is projected to deliver 260bhp and up to 660Nm of torque, although the latter has to be limited at low speeds to maintain driveability. The other class is for near-standard Think City road cars.

Yet none of these series can claim to be the first as there have already been a couple of contenders for that title. The Trophée Andros ice racing series has been running races for electric cars since 2009. Formula Zero has also been there and done it. The brainchild of Godert van Hardenbroek, it challenged students to produce fuel cell-powered electric karts and compete in time attack events.

Unfortunately the series closed in 2011, but not without making an impact. Students who took part in the series revealed that the experience they acquired made them hot properties with the manufacturers.

But while there seem to be plenty of people keen to start electric race series, are they what the public want? Time and again the question of the sound – or lack of it – is raised.

“The public is smart and demanding of fresh, relevant experiences, aligned with the values of a sustainable future,” says Timothy Collins, president of KleenSpeed, another Formula E hopeful. “New technology is fascinating and the performance of electric race cars is electrifying. Speed, sound, passing and pit stops are the traditional interest points of motorsport, and will continue to be so. In addition, the performance characteristic of the electric race car, with its instantaneous torque and burst of speed out of a corner, will capture the next generation of motorsports enthusiasts.”.


18 May 2012


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