Where next for electric motorsport tech? - The Race
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Where next for electric motorsport tech?

May 21 2021
By Sam Smith

Some Formula E team principals have told me that they want to see, from the FIA, a dedicated and detailed road map for where electric motorsport is heading in the next few years.

This is a key point for manufacturers in particular as they will likely be faced with crucial evidence gathering to present to board members on where to take their brands from a marketing point of view over the next decade in motorsport.

This article is the first in our Inspired by You series – where we take suggestions from The Race Members’ Club – and was requested by member Petri Simonen, who asked us for something on the future development of electric motorsport.

If you’re part of The Race Members’ Club and would like to submit your own content suggestions for us to bring to life, send them to [email protected]

Presently Formula E clearly leads the way. It has a clear road map and will next year enter its third epoch (Gen3) from a technical and sporting point of view.

Yet it is now very much not the only EV game in town. Pure ETCR, electric rallycross, Extreme E, Dakar and FIA Electric GT are very much viable alternatives for manufacturer, teams and drivers.

Extreme E

Gen3 feels like it will be a major step forward with lighter and more powerful cars, and the races will very likely have a fast charging pitstop built into the sporting framework.

All very exciting, but the actual structure of the cars in terms of spec battery, spec chassis and spec tyres remains. Formula E is clearly not ready to open up battery technology just yet, or rather perhaps the political and commercial world is not quite ready yet.

Advancements in battery capability are expected to sky-rocket in the next decade and it is here that many see the major escalation in technical capability in storage, deployment and efficiency.

“As much as we’re all playing with motors and controllers and efficiency and software, I think battery development will be the key development in the coming years,” says former McLaren senior designer and Team Aguri Formula E founder and technical director Peter McCool.

“It hasn’t quite plateaued out yet, but if you look at Formula E everybody’s pretty much converged on a really efficient powertrain.

“At the moment batteries are spec so restricted but the moment it is opened up there is huge potential.

“There is more potential because people don’t know where the theoretical ceiling is, whereas we do with motors no matter how many rare earth metals you use, and how many windings you put around a rotor or a stator, people are pretty much converging on a solution.

“You’re not going to make a 10 or 20% gain in motor efficiency easily in the next couple of years. You might over 10 years.

“But batteries will be huge because there is so much more potential for development.”

Formula E Monaco E Prix 2021

McCool also believes that specifically energy storage and how that is deployed will have a big effect on racing and the automotive sector in the coming years.

“With batteries you’re limited in size and weight, because they’re not very energy density efficient,” he explains.

“But with motors, you can put them anywhere, you can put them in the front of the car or put them in the back, and they’re really efficient to package.”

In terms of trying to predict the trajectory of where motorsport is going, you have to factor in where the automotive industry is heading too. This is because, although it’s not vital, manufacturers still get so excited when the two converge. At present they very much are synchronised and that’s good for manufacturers.

“If manufacturers were asked to produce diesel engines and go racing with diesel engines to be compliant with motorsport regulations now, they wouldn’t do it would they?” says McCool.

“But fast charging is linked to the battery so imagine doing the 24 hours of Le Mans and being able to fast charge, which is going to happen one day and the more you fast charge then the more you can really open things up.”

When fast charging happens the trickle-down effect in motorsport could be interesting to behold because even the smaller categories of racing can then have smaller batteries due to not having to carry all the energy for all of the race.

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Range anxiety is one of the key hurdles that future electric car consumers will wrestle with to a certain degree, whether in genuine practical terms or anecdotal hyped-up concerns.

“I don’t think it [fast-charging] will cause any problem for racing, because currently fans watch a car coming in and all four tyres being changed, and if you think about that it’s absolutely bizarre,” says McCool.

“You wouldn’t dream of driving a road car and changing your tyres every 100 miles would you? It’s just got no relevance to road cars, and yet it becomes accepted.”

It’s also not sustainable, which has to be factored in to what manufacturers are selling to consumers because sustainability is vitally relevant in today’s and tomorrow’s marketplaces.

Formula E Monaco E Prix 2021

Motorsport fans are really quite compliant as to what they’ll enjoy from a sporting point of view, and fast charging will be just part of the new landscape.

“It can be a sprint race and you have different race formats, it brings great sustainable flexibility,” says McCool of fast charging.

“The fast charging of the battery will be key, and for motorsport opening up to a variety of racing, endurance competition is just a brilliant test bed with much more efficient batteries.

“You could potentially see getting a 20-fold increase in battery performance in the next 10 years.

“There are significant gains possible in energy density for energy storage systems, but there isn’t that much scope for improvement with electrical motors.”

This though has to be managed correctly and is essentially what we are seeing with a slightly conservative outlook from the FIA in terms of road mapping Formula E – which is often described by FIA president Jean Todt – one of its founders and instigators – as an ‘EV racing laboratory’.

Stard Ford Fiesta Erx

More adventurous possibilities exist, particularly in rallycross and Electric GTs where more spacious and permanent racing infrastructures can be used.

Four wheel drive and fully vectored drive has been called for by some EV ‘racing radicals’ such as 2016-17 Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi.

But practically motorsport isn’t quite ready for that level of power and handling performance just yet, not on city streets anyway.

“Racing might be slightly different if you open everything up because the possibilities are rather spectacular, because you’re able to control the handling and the stability of the car differently and have so much more power,” opines McCool.

“So you can have really quick cars, because you’ve got all four wheels driving really effectively, but you also have to realise that these things will be potent and will need some open expanses.”

So the future looks exciting for EV motorsport. With Formula E now a world championship it is the main electric racing shop window, meaning that Gen3 is critical to get right for the FIA.

However, the next step could well be opening up the battery technology should economic conditions allow. That won’t happen until 2026 at the earliest but within the corridors of the FIA and Formula E’s technical working groups it is already being considered.

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