Motorsport goes electric. A good thing?
Sustainable, more affordable and road-car relevant – like it or not, electric power is the future of motorsport, even Formula 1. By Ben Miller.
New power generation. From left: Porsche’s Formula E racer, BMW’s new LMDh Le Mans concept and F1’s 2023- spec car
F1: NO ELECTRIFICATION, NO FUTURE
Formula 1 remains clear of the pack. For all its flaws, no other form of motor racing comes close to its reach and influence. ‘If you look at PR values, fan base and advertising value, Formula 1 is extremely good compared to other series – no question about it,’ explains Porsche’s new motorsport boss Thomas Laudenbach. He takes charge just as Porsche is plotting its top-flight return to Le Mans in the hypercar class (from 2023), increased commitment to pure-electric racing (via Formula E and its customer-racing Mission R project), and a potential assault on the big one: F1. Electric power is key to all three.
F1’s powertrains have been turbo V6 hybrids since 2014. Outputs hover around the 1000bhp mark, with the powertrain recovering energy under deceleration (via the MGU-K) and from the exhaust (via the MGU-H) to deliver epic levels of thermal efficiency – over 50 per cent, versus 20-35 per cent for road cars. The current powertrains go largely unchanged until the end of the 2024 season. Come 2025, new rules will mean big changes. What these power units will look, sound and feel like is being hammered out right now by the sport’s organisers, the teams and a number of potential participants – including Porsche. The MGU-H units will likely go, given they’re expensive, troublesome and muffle the noise of the combustion engine doing its thing. To compensate, the battery and e-motor will likely become a far more potent part of the powertrain.
‘If you look at what car manufacturers are announcing concerning the share of electric vehicles they are going to sell in the future, it is very important F1 shifts towards electrification,’ says Laudenbach. Honda’s withdrawal at the end of 2021 backs up his point, with the Japanese firm announcing it was leaving to pursue ‘carbon neutrality’ – and implying F1 was of little use in this regard.
‘It is clear you cannot do a format like F1 with a pure battery-electric vehicle, but the electric part of the powertrain needs to be a higher priority,’ continues Laudenbach. ‘As an OEM you want to show yourself in motorsport and it needs to be road-relevant. As I understand it, the FIA has made a huge step in this direction.’ In turn, this means Porsche is a step closer to committing.
Increasing the extent to which F1 is electrified will also help the sport buff its sustainability credentials, particularly when paired with a switch to sustainable fuels. Renault CEO Luca de Meo: ‘With Alpine we have the possibility to create a whole range of electric cars, which we are planning to do, with Formula 1 at the heart of the project – a Formula 1 that projects itself in the future, zero emission maybe, and with strong hybridisation and synthetic fuels.’
The 2025 reset is also key to bringing in new blood like Porsche simply because static rules favour established players. Laudenbach: ‘As a new competitor or a new power unit manufacturer your life is very hard if you enter under a set of rules that has been in place for years,’ he explains. ‘You want to combine your entry with a change in the rules so that everybody must make a step.’
FORMULA E: A TRAILBLAZER ON THE ROPES?
Alejandro Agag’s electric race series was conceived a decade ago, with the inaugural season running 2014-2015. Its timing was immaculate. OEMs tripped over themselves to underline their commitment to the electric future. Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Nissan, DS and, later, Mercedes and Porsche all rushed in, but there’s since been a gentle exodus, with Audi and BMW cancelling their programmes in late 2020 and Mercedes questioning its commitment beyond Season 8. Just as Formula 1 chases the sweet spot of thrilling racing, OEM-relevant tech and the affordability that yields big, healthy grids, so Formula E is doing the same.
Jaguar remains committed. ‘Formula E is becoming an increasingly relevant platform for blue-chip multinational brands, especially those related to sustainability,’ argues team principal James Barclay. He’s also convinced of the sport’s R&D value. ‘We achieved an extra 12 miles of range in the i-Pace through Formula E-informed tweaks to the software.’ Porsche’s Thomas Laudenbach is more circumspect. ‘Is the value of Formula E diminishing? The fact that three premier manufacturers have stepped out, or will step out, has made us think, no question. Audi and BMW have been in the championship a long time but I think there are some weak points.
‘The qualifying format, for example, isn’t random but that is the impression you can get from the outside. The punishment if somebody is good is too harsh.’ (To that end, Formula E is adopting a new knockout qualifying system for Season 8). ‘Also, for cost reasons they didn’t want to open up the battery [as an area for development]. But we can imagine opening up certain areas. Perhaps a standard cell but the rest is free, or certain boundary conditions for the cell and some other things are fixed. But I’m not blaming Formula E because it [balancing technical freedom and costs] is a tricky thing to do. We are talking.’
LE MANS: BIG GRIDS, CLOSE RACING… NO R&D BENEFIT
The top tier of endurance racing reliably cycles between boom and bust. Back in 2015 its technically ambitious LMP1 regulations opened the door to a wonder-grid of big OEMs with markedly different cars: V8 Toyotas, Nissan’s front-engined mutant, Porsche’s neat V4 hybrid. In time the others died away, leaving Porsche and Toyota to battle it out. Then Porsche too withdrew – and Le Mans dropped off everyone’s must-do list.
But 2022/2023 will see the dawn of a new golden age. New hybrid rules have reduced the cost of entry while retaining that crucial road-car relevance. Peugeot, for instance, is back because it wants to promote its Sport Engineered hybrid road cars – and it can now afford to take part. Also, 2023 offers a shot at immortality – it’s the 100th anniversary of the first 24 Hours of Le Mans. Peugeot, Porsche, Toyota and Ferrari are all in, and the less complex cars will open up the flagship class to privateer teams and the promise of vast grids. The trade-off? The new rules are, from an engineering standpoint, dumbed down compared to the thrilling tech arms race of the LMP1 era. They almost certainly won’t yield genuine R&D value of the kind the 919 delivered (like direct oil-cooling of the battery cells).
‘The technical freedom, the technological development of the LMP1 era – that was totally different,’ admits Laudenbach. ‘That’s just a fact. And talking as an engineer, I’d love to go back to the LMP1s. But the budgets were extremely high, making it difficult to argue the case to continue within the company. We can’t have everything. With the new route technical freedom is less, no question, but the cars will be much closer together. ‘And with the prototypes there was no way you could give them to a customer. It was not affordable and, on the other side, there was no chance that they could handle the car. So, I think this is a great opportunity to bring back top-tier customer teams. From an OEM perspective, if we struggle just a little bit [in a race] they will be there. So, we can’t compare the new rules to the 919. But it is still interesting for us, and it’s still the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Plus, we’ll be fighting for our 20th victory.’
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