Embracing the Electric Revolution in Pursuit of Speed

In the future, traditional combustion engines could be supplanted by electric motors. But regardless of where the power's coming from, the end goal will remain unchanged: to develop ever-faster cars.

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22 December 2015, 10:08am

This article is part of the e-Generation series, produced in partnership with Renault.

How do you win a motor race? Think about it for a second. For all of the complexities of motorsport, it's actually pretty simple at the end of the day.

In a sprint race, like Formula 1 or Formula E, you need to get from A to B quicker than everyone else. In endurance racing like the World Endurance Championship (with its 24 Hours of Le Mans showpiece) you need to get from A to B more times than anyone else within the time limit. See, it's all pretty straight forward. The devil is in the detail, and actually achieving those goals.

The drivers do their bit, but it's not exactly down to them. Sure, they're the rock stars of motorsport, but no matter how gifted a driver is they can't make a car go faster than its physical limit. The only people who can increase the ultimate performance of a car and get further, faster, are the engineers behind the scenes. Thanks to them, racing cars have evolved beyond recognition from what they once were.

80 years ago, the quickest racing car in Britain was the Napier-Railton. Commissioned by driver John Webb and designed by Reid Railton, the car was powered by an almost unbelievably massive 24-litre engine—the size of 15 current F1 engines combined. It was quick, achieving a lap record at the old Brooklands track, with an average speed of 143.44mph, back in 1936. Needless to say, though, the thing could charitably be described as 'inefficient'; alongside the fact that the car's braking was drastically improved by the attachment of a retractable parachute, it only mustered a miserly 5 miles per gallon and needed a mammoth 65 gallon tank. The less said about the emissions kicked out by this kind of beast, the better.

The Napier-Railton.

To put that in comparison, Formula E cars—powered by a 200kw engine—can reach those speeds using nothing more than clean electricity. Not to mention the improvements in braking, accelerating, turning, and the distinct lack of need for a parachute to control them.

It's a bit of a moot comparison: the Napier-Railton was built for speed runs, whereas Formula E power units are built to be raced wheel-to-wheel on tight street circuits. But still, in a few generations, what was once a custom-built engineering marvel that required a 12V, 24-litre engine to propel itself at great speed, has been totally eclipsed by efficient, battery-driven racing cars.

It's progress, driven by those questions that keep engineers up at night: do we need a 24-litre engine? Can it be done with less? Can it be made lighter? How can we revise it, make it simpler, better faster?

Put a Formula E car and the Napier-Railton next to one another and the progress is astounding. You're strangely proud of it; one of those examples of what the human race is capable of doing. In shorter bursts, though, people aren't as happy with the progress and evolution of their beloved racing cars.

In a compact timeframe fans are reluctant to let go of what they love in motorsport, namely fat engines with the big, guttural sounds. Look at Formula 1 since they did away with their old V8 engines in favour of the compact, turbocharged, hybrid technology-ridden current V6 units. Political issues with the power units aside, they've got one major complaint from the grandstands: they're quieter than a Kimi Raikkonen interview.

There is no denying that traditionally the sound of motor racing is a part of the sensory overload of the whole show. The aesthetic of the cars, from design to livery, and the speed they travel at are accentuated by the growls they make. When the new 1.6L V6 turbo engines came in, F1 cars were so quiet their tyre squeals were picked up on TV for the first time. Fans complained that the change had been made to placate environmental concerns in the sport. At the most extreme end, some F1 circuits were so upset at the noise that they banded together and threatened to walk away from the sport, claiming that the lack of noise would make fans stay at home.

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The switch was the culmination, though, of years of evolution in motorsport's marquee division. Since the first grands prix were contested, engines have been shrinking. From the time the rules were first standardised in 1989 with the banning of turbocharging, engines have been on a diet. First from 3.5L V12 engines, then to 3.0L V10s by the early 2000s, and finally running as 2.4L V8 units before the current iteration.

Each time a switch has been made it's been the biggest disaster to befoul F1, and each time it's worked out to be okay. Who'd have thought there'd be corners of F1 actively calling out for the 3.0L V10 engines of the early 00s, which were maligned at the time for sounding like trumped up electric screwdrivers?

For several years now, Formula 1 teams have been developing hybrid power units that can recover energy from brake discs via an electric motor-generator unit, before using it to charge a battery. McLaren recently unveiled the hybrid-powered MP4-X concept car, which embodies its vision of F1's future. Ardent supporters or the combustion engine shouldn't worry too much though, as this will not happen overnight.

Let's get back to the original question: how do you win a motor race? While it is a shame to some that the noises we love have changed, sentimentality does not get you to the chequered flag faster. People bemoan the current movement towards 'green' technology in motorsport as something done for marketing, not performance, reasons; a form of political correctness to neuter the pornographic, petrol guzzling, halcyon days of V10s and 5L engine blocks. That couldn't be further from the truth.

Sure, being in the grandstands for the Monaco Grand Prix might not be the same without 18,000rpm vibrating the fillings out of your teeth. It's strange having to look out for the LMP1 cars at Le Mans, as they're so quiet you don't know they're coming until they've sped past. But the current evolution of technology is so much more than a marketing ploy.

This is an era where the DeltaWing concept has captured the imagination of racing fans everywhere. Not only do we have 100% electric cars lighting up city centres with Formula E, but soon they'll be joined by driverless cars. Even the bulky, administrative dinosaur of Formula 1 has gone against the short-term wishes of most to claim its own area of internal engineering, alongside the aerodynamics it's most renowned for.

The fact that motorsport can lead the entire motoring industry away from simply burning petrol to get performance, increasing efficiency and cutting emissions, is just a nice bonus. Watching technology go from theoretical, to racing cars, and then eventually onto the cars that us mere mortals can go to the showroom and buy is exciting. But it's not why motorsport is falling out of love with old-school petrol.

True motoring fans know that by adopting this new technology, motorsport is answering the questions it's always asked: how can I get from A to B faster?