Arguably it was motor racing that set the world on the path to internal combustion petrol power.
On July 22, 1894, 21 cars lined up for a race from Paris to Rouen, 126km away. After an 8am start, a generous 90-minute lunch break en route and numerous other stops, the first car rolled into Rouen at close to 6pm.
No official timekeeping was done, but first place was awarded to a Panhard & Levassor and a Peugeot, both powered by the petrol engine Karl Benz patented in 1888. A steampowered vehicle built, driven and owned by Count Albert de Dion of France was demoted to second place, despite finishing first because it needed a mechanic and driver to run.
Steam power had been beaten and petrol was set to rule the motoring world for more than a century. Those with any concern for the environment may have been aghast at that result. However, had the coal-powered De Dion, Bouton & Trépardoux company steam tractor won, things would have been much worse.
Racing indeed improves the breed.
Since that first race in 1894, innovation on the world’s racetracks has led to increased performance and safety technology in road cars. Technologies we now take for granted, such as rear-view mirrors, turbocharging, ABS and disc brakes, all-wheel-drive, and double overhead camshafts, all migrated to road cars after being tested in competition.
Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche claimed that “the extreme demands we face on the racetrack very quickly highlight any weak points and encourage engineers to look for new 01 and better solutions”. And while Ettore Bugatti famously quipped that his cars were “made to go, not stop!” after a customer complained about the appalling cable-operated brakes on his pre-WWII racing car, today’s road-worthy Bugattis are equipped with composite rotors developed from racing.
But motor racing is not immune to the environmental impacts of burning fossil fuel. The premier racing classes are now dominated by hybrid vehicles.
In endurance racing such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the lead LMP1 prototype cars are can use hybrid or standard internal combustion engines, but because of the time saved during refuelling and the power characteristics of hybrids, every Le Mans 24-hour race since 2010 has been won with hybrid power.
Formula 1 mandates hybrid engines and regulates maximum fuel flow and consumption in increasingly tight regulations. Teams are being forced to be more efficient and they’re constant development – being used in conjunction with electric power in a hybrid arrangement has further improved its efficiency – the pressure is on to reduce emissions, even on the racetrack.
“It’s our ambition to lead the way to carbon-neutral, sustainable mobility,” says Markus Schäfer, a member of Daimler AG’s board of management. “Our F1 works team will achieve a net-zero carbon footprint in 2020 and we actively encourage F1 to take more ambitious steps towards CO2 neutrality for the entire sport and to race towards a sustainable future.” The keywords are “net zero”, meaning the team will achieve this partially through carbon offsetting.
As countries around the world announced plans to end the sale of petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles entirely, the writing is on the wall for internal combustion engines. Norway is setting the tightest timetable, limiting new car sales to electric vehicles from 2025. Last year alone, electric vehicle sales in Norway represented 42.4 per cent of the new car market. Other nations are also following its lead, with bans on the sale of new fossil fuel-powered cars announced in at least 13 other countries with varying timetables, but many starting this decade.
Naturally, car companies are reacting. Audi will be offering 20 all electric models by 2025. Meanwhile, BMW reckons it will have more than a million electric or plug-in hybrids on the road by the end of 2021, plus five all-electric models available at that stage. Jaguar says all new models from this year will be electrified, whether all-electric or hybrid. Mercedes-Benz aims for half its sales to be plug-in hybrid or all-electric by 2030. Nissan – whose Leaf is the world’s first mass-produced electric car and its bestseller – wants to sell a million electric or hybrid vehicles a year by mid-2023. And Porsche, which launched the Taycan, its first full-electric sports car last year, is aiming to have half its product range full-electric or plug-in hybrid by the middle of this decade.
Not coincidentally, the car companies listed above are involved in the electric race series: Formula E.
If history’s first car race is any lesson, human nature has changed little in the intervening 126 years: people still like to see competition. Jean Todt, former Ferrari F1 team principal and president of motorsports’ governing body, Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) as well as Spanish businessman Alejandro Agag conceived an international race series for single-seater electric cars over dinner in a Paris restaurant in 2011. By September 2014 the first Formula E race took place in Beijing.
Now into its sixth season (truncated because of the Covid-19 pandemic), and its second generation of race cars, Formula E looks to have addressed some of Formula 1’s perceived mistakes.
To the casual observer, Formula E cars may not look vastly different from their Formula 1 cousins, but even without considering the all-electric powertrain, there are important differences. “The battery, chassis, front suspension, and bodywork are the same for all competitors,” says Amiel Lindesday, Formula E head of operations at Porsche. “All powertrain components, however, are Porsche developments. This enables us to find bespoke solutions for key technologies such as the electric motor, inverter, transmission, differential, driveshafts and the cooling system.”
These solutions are the sort of things that are likely to find their way into road cars in the future, while standardised bodywork reduces the need to spend millions of dollars on wind tunnels developing aerodynamic advantages, as is the case with Formula 1. The standard aerodynamic package is designed to allow cars to follow more closely without losing downforce. This means that overtaking is far easier than in F1. Of course, you could surmise this detail was learned from Todt’s F1 experience.
“This is not a competition between Formula 1 and Formula E,” says Allan McNish, team principal of the Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler Formula E team. “One is an established motorsport series and has its fans, even in countries like Singapore and Monaco, where its races are run in the city. In its sixth season, Formula E is like a start-up becoming more fantastic with purely electric propulsion, with races in the middle of the world’s metropolises and many other unique features.”
Also, because the cars are quieter than even the most subdued hybrid-era Formula 1 cars, Formula E is scheduled in such a way that it minimises disruption on the host city’s streets. A standard race meeting runs over a single day, with practice sessions, qualifying sessions, and the race held the same day.
Compared with the standard three-day Formula 1 schedule, this does result in less disruption and makes life easier for fans. While hardcore F1 fans spend all three days of a race weekend at the circuit, anyone who has ever been to a Friday session will know that grandstands tend to be empty. Race day is the main attraction for most racegoers.
Formula E also gets fans involved with Fanboost. This online and app-based system allows them to vote for their favourite drivers up to 15 minutes into a race, and the five most popular drivers get an extra burst of power that can be used for five seconds in the second half.
While a popularity poll that influences race results may horrify traditional motorsports fans, Formula E is courting new fans for a new motorsport, and in this social-media age, engaging the audience is a clever way of doing so.
It also doesn’t hurt that the racing is genuinely close. No driver or team dominates. Of the five races held in the 2019-2020 season, five different drivers from four teams won. In the full 13-race 2018-2019 season, nine from eight different teams stood at the top of the podium.
“The concentration of manufacturers in Formula E is higher than in any other race series. Overall, 10 manufacturers are fighting for the championship,” says Porsche’s Lindesday. “The competitiveness makes for a great challenge.”
Currently in its first season in Formula E, the TAG Heuer Porsche team has exceeded expectations. “The goal for our rookie season was always to achieve a podium by the end of the season. The fact that we achieved second place in the first race, as well as a pole position during the Mexico City E-Prix, proves that the Porsche 99X Electric is a competitive car,” says Lindesday.
Audi, on the other hand, has been in Formula E since its inception and has finished in the top three every year, taking the championship in 2017 and 2018. “Formula E has shown fabulous development. A new project, which many initially smiled at, has become a series with an extremely strong driver line-up, great races and many innovative ideas,” says McNish. “Formula E now has to keep this spirit and develop further in all challenges. Electric motorsports are the future and Formula E is a pioneer and trendsetter at the same time.”
Show us the money
Starting a new international racing series from scratch has hardly been a walk in the park, however. For the 2018-2019 season, the ABB FIA Formula E Championship saw revenues increase by 50 per cent to 200 million euros (S$309 million), turning a profit for the first time.
It claims its cumulative television audience has also grown by 24 per cent over the previous year to 411 million viewers and has helped to bring in more sponsors. Approximately 72 per cent of fans on social media are younger than 35.
“By reaching new young fans, the excitement of Formula E is helping to inspire future generations to embrace clean energy and bring them one step closer to buying an electric car,” says Formula E CEO Agag. “This ties in with Formula E’s vision of moving towards a cleaner future, faster.” And therein lies its appeal.
While manufacturers can and do develop their electric technologies on the racetrack, they also generate buyer interest. There’s another axiom from motorsport that is as true as it ever was: “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday”.