Starting from Pole Position? Alternative Powertrains in Motorsports

Formula 1 from the power socket: Motorsport for electric cars is booming. The thrill remains, even if the blue haze and earplugs are missing. Because the electric racing cars are just as loud as a lawnmower.

Bernie Ecclestone once said that electric motors would be for hair dryers. One cannot say that the former CEO of Formula One was a big fan of the concept when the Formula E was founded in 2012. Motorsport stands for roaring engines, fueled by emotions, adrenaline and sweat. For purists, it lives off of daring overtaking manoeuvres and spectacular races. And for people such as Bernie Ecclestone, replacing the traditional engine with en e-engine was an attack on the sport itself.

Meanwhile, the tide has turned. Formula E stands for top-class racing. Amongst others, experienced Formula 1 drivers such as the former Ferrari driver Felipe Massa, Sebastian Buemi and Pascal Wehrlein or the multiple DTM champion Gary Paffet now race for glory in electric cars. And according to Forbes, the racing series even attracted 300 million television viewers in the 2017/2018 season.

Recently, the founder, CEO of the Formula E – and Speaker at this year's IAA Conference – Alejandro Agag announced a huge marketing push for the series in an interview with  E-Racing 365: "[...] We will be present everywhere in the fifth season.” Even Bernie Ecclestone admitted to Reuters that the race series now has become a serious competitor for the Formula One as it is a “different form of entertainment but Formula E will begin to get much, much bigger and better, which is slowly what they are doing anyway.”

The “Tokai Challenger” – Winner of the World Solar Challenge in 2009; Photo by Hideki Kimura, Kouhei Sagawa

Alternatives in the Race for Pole Position


The Formula E is currently stealing the show from its competitors. However, another racing series has been hunting for its own pole position for more than 30 years: The World Solar Challenge, the toughest rally for solar vehicles in the world. After Hans Tholstrup and Larry Perkins first crossed Australia from West to East in The Quiet Achiever powered solely by solar energy, in 1982, Tholstrup and sponsors drove the rally format forward. In 1987, the first official race took place.

The race covers a distance of 3021 kilometres, from Darwin to Adelaide. In three classes (Challenge, Cruiser and Adventure) the pilots traverse the desert. The current record is from 2005 and held by a team from the University of Delft, who completed the route in 29 hours and eleven minutes at an average speed of 102.75 km/h.

3021 kilometres from North to South, the track of the World Solar Challenge. Source: Bridgestone World Solar Challenge

Other rally formats have adapted alternative drives to their series as well. The prime example: The Rally Monte Carlo – the largest rally classic in the world – and its edition for alternative powertrains. Here the Tesla Model S and Roadster, as well as the Toyota Prius or the Opel Ampera get to race. The who’s-who of alternative drive technologies show up, with a wide array of drivers consisting of former Formula 1 drivers, rally champions or drivers of the prestigious 24-hour races. The cars approved for the rally have to run onalternative fuels such as biodiesel, ethanol and LPG, or cars with electric, hybrid and fuel cell drives. In addition to the fastest race time, fuel and energy consumption are also taken into account for the classification.

But back to Formula E. For the season 2016/2017, the racing series took another format into its accompanying programme: The Roborace. After a few test races and seasons, the first full season should start in 2021. Equipped with four electric motors, self-driving cars with an output of 1,341 horsepower hunt down the track. But the human factor comes not too short. "We changed our minds, first we wanted to do it with the Robocar. But the idea of it being controlled by a driver who then gets out clearly illustrates the difference between human and autonomous driving," explained the CEO and multiple Formula E-champion Lucas di Grassi to the portal

Motorsports as a Playground for Alternative Powertrains and Technologies?


Alternative drive technologies are already – partially – on their way into the big racing series. The Formula One started using KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) in 2009. In 2014, KERS was replaced by ERS – a combination of kinetic energy recovery systems (ERS-K) and a heat energy recovery system (ERS-H). In Formula One, this system gives the drivers more power over a short amount of time. And the same recuperation technology is also used in numerous hybrid and electric motors in today's regular road traffic.

The German Motorsport Association (DMSB) has even described motorsport as an “ideal testing ground for new developments”. Nowhere else could the practical skills of new technologies be shown at such a fast pace as in racing “where extremely harsh test conditions and a unique competition for the best ideas prevail”. Former Porsche sports chief Hartmut Kristen also confirmed in an interview from 2011 with the Handelsblatt: “Motorsport is currently offering a unique opportunity to do something that is relevant to the series on alternative powertrains and efficiency”. According to Kristen, long-distance races, in particular, would provide ideal insights for mass production.

And so in 2019, a hydrogen-powered car of the team Green GT will start its first official race at the notorious 24-hour race at Le Mans. Alternative drives are no longer a rarity in motorsport. On the contrary – they are increasingly stealing the spotlight.


Title Picture: The GreenGT LMP2HG; Source: Green GT