Electrifying Racing

Alternative powertrains are gaining ground in motorsport. Formula 1 cars and the endurance machines used in the WEC now rely on hybrid technology, whilst Formula E forgoes the combustion engine entirely. We got the inside track.

WEC: Petrol 2 liter V4 turbo hybrid (Porsche) Petrol 2.4 liter V6 turbo hybrid (Toyota) Diesel 4 liter V6 turbo hybrid (Audi) System power: 1,000 HP Top speed: 340 km/h, 0–100: 2.2 secs

WEC: Petrol 2 liter V4 turbo hybrid (Porsche) Petrol 2.4 liter V6 turbo hybrid (Toyota) Diesel 4 liter V6 turbo hybrid (Audi) System power: 1,000 HP Top speed: 340 km/h, 0–100: 2.2 secs; Photo: Porsche

Until now, Formula E could be regarded as a somewhat brief pleasure. After 25 minutes, the drivers must return to the pits and swap to their second cars – the first having run out of battery. Within two years, batteries that can endure an hour of racing are envisaged, making the vehicle change go the way of the monotonous whirr of the electric motors that assailed our eardrums from the first race in Peking in 2014 up until the start of last season. Now, each new development to the powertrain brings with it a more pleasing soundtrack, causing even motorsport purists such as Niki Lauda to tone down their often harsh criticism. The legend was even cited as saying: “I’ve already seen such high caliber racing, that the sound becomes almost irrelevant.” The third season of Formula E will commence in October, with races in Hong Kong and New York guaranteeing spectacular scenery.

One of the championship’s singularity is the ‘FanBoost’ – a system by which fans can vote online to give their favorite driver some extra pep. Voting takes place up until the sixth minute of the race, with the additional 100 kilojoules then ‘activated’ for the replacement car. This initiative gets the audience more involved in the happenings of the race. The pioneering electric motorsport championship is also benefiting from the faltering of Formula 1; a sport in which viewer and spectator figures are nosediving; regulations are constantly attacked by both drivers and team bosses alike; and the technology is astronomically expensive. There are, therefore, good omens for this successful, green and approachable racing series. Yet Formula E chief Alejandro Agag – a former Spanish Member of European Parliament and, since 2007, owner of a GP2 junior team – has announced diplomatically that “to make Formula 1 our competitor would be the wrong approach”.

Yet this could well be the direction that it takes, even if FIA Chief Jean Todt regards the battery-powered racers as a ‘supplement’ to Formula 1, rather than a rival series. The old establishment continues to have many reservations. Four-time Formula 1 champion Sebastian Vettel believes the sustainability offensive in Formula 1 has already gone too far – the shrunken, six-cylinder engines now sound “like lawnmowers” to his ears. Clunky acronyms such as ERS (Energy Recovery System), MGU-K (Motor Generator Unit – Kinetic) and MGU-H (Motor Generator Unit – Heat) have also led to Formula 1 being described as “far too complicated” this year.

“The TDI tech we use in our production cars has benefited considerably from its usage in the WEC.”

Member of the Board of Management of AUDI AG for Technical Development.

Motorsport as an innovation leader

Agag has cleverly positioned Formula E as a pioneering racing series. “For us, Formula E is a testing ground to trial systems in a tough environment,” explains Paul McNamara, Head of Technology for Williams, who provide the high performance batteries for all teams. “We were able to thoroughly test and validate our cooling systems, charging times and module designs for applications in other projects outside of motorsport.” Motorsport and space entrepreneur Richard Branson believes Formula E may become FIA’s number one racing series in the not too distant future. The entrepreneur himself is involved with the team Virgin Racing. BMW provides the safety cars for the event, and is even entertaining the idea of competing itself, having seemingly recognized the series’ ‘green’ credentials. It’s worth bearing in mind that BMW turned its back on Formula 1 back in 2009.

Another example of top-tier motorsport adopting alternative powertrains can be found in the long-distance racing of the World Endurance Championship. However, whilst in Formula E there is an open transfer of technology between teams, the WEC is a power struggle between Porsche, Audi and Toyota. Works teams have been showing off their technological might since the first 24 Hours of Le Mans back in 1923. Since the establishment of hybrid systems, the significance of the additional electric drive has increased with each passing year. For the 2016 season, competition has stepped up a notch, with the fuel consumption limit for Le Mans being drastically reduced. The WEC is another testing ground for systems that may make an appearance in series production. “The result is a racing car that is even more frugal with its energy usage – a goal that we are also pursuing with our cars for road usage,” announces Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich.

Formula E: Electric powertrain with 272 HP, 28 kWh battery capacity, three-speed gearbox, rearwheel drive, weight incl. driver: 888 kilograms, Top speed: 225 km/h, 0–100: 2.9 secsFormula E: Electric powertrain with 272 HP, 28 kWh battery capacity, three-speed gearbox, rearwheel drive, weight incl. driver: 888 kilograms, Top speed: 225 km/h, 0–100: 2.9 secs; Photo: Graham Murdoch

The effort undertaken by the brand with the four rings is enormous. Nothing of the previous year’s car has survived the complete overhaul of the redesigned Audi R18: the flywheel energy storage system of the hybrid drive has been replaced by a high-voltage battery, whilst both the four-liter V6 TDI engine and braking energy recovery system have been overhauled. The car generates over 1,000 HP of system power, something that can also be said for the Porsche 919 hybrid. As last season’s top dog, the Porsche has merely been refined for 2016. Toyota has followed in Audi’s footsteps, unveiling an entirely new car for the 2016 season, yet one that is strongly inspired by the title-defending Porsche.

The Japanese brand will now rely on a six cylinder biturbo engine with battery storage, rather than its old V8 with supercapacitors. The Toyota collects energy during braking from both the front and rear axles. Porsche uses braking energy from the front wheels, with a second hybrid system collecting heat from the exhaust. Energy efficiency is the difference between winning and losing in Formula E too. “The challenge is to go as fast as possible whilst using as little energy as possible,” explains team owner Hans-Jürgen Abt. The crux? “If you use too much energy going fast, but you may end up running out of juice. But drive too slowly, and you’ll be left behind.”

 

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