As the dust settles on the UK’s first ever Formula E race, now is as good a time as any to reflect on what electric racing cars might mean for us as consumers. The reality will probably be more significant than we think.
Conceived in 2012, Formula E is the highest class of competition for electrically powered, single-seater racing cars in the world. The most recent race, the last in a 10-stop series which has travelled from Monte Carlo to Miami and Beijing to Berlin, saw a fleet of lean, green electric machines scudding around the Battersea Park circuit at up to 140mph.
However, for local residents (myself included), you wouldn’t have known. The sound emitted by such vehicles is only 80 decibels (dB) – compared with 70 dB for a normal car, 90 dB for a bus and 130 dB for an old V10 Formula One car.
Of course, for those who hanker after the searing falsetto of petrol-powered Formula One cars, it is this deafening lack of noise which only confirms their decision to shun Formula E. They view it as a watered-down form of motorsport, one that will never be able to compete with the success of Formula 1, a series which accrued $1.7 billion in revenue in 2014.
However, examples of progression in other motorsport events indicate that such a view may well be short-lived. The Isle of Man TT is one such example, a motorcycle road race founded at the start of the 20th century, widely regarded as the most dangerous and exciting festival of speed on the planet.
The TT is judged on the highest average speed a rider can hit during a lap of the 37.3 mile course – in 1920, this was 56 mph; in 2015, it was 132 mph. However, at this event, where the cause of the petrolhead is stronger than anywhere else, a storm has been brewing (quietly) in the form of the TT Zero race, first introduced back in 2010.
Not at all dissimilar to the concept of Formula E which seeks to achieve zero-emission racing, the Zero race has catalysed the development of pioneering technology which before long will be available to consumers.
Colin Whittamore, the UK General Manager for Team Mugen – a company who started competing in 2012 with an average in the high 80s mph, before setting a new Zero lap record of 119.3 mph in 2015 – believes the progress made in electric motorsport will be revolutionary. “It’s just a matter of when. Electric vehicles, cars, bikes will be the future,” he said recently.
Sir Richard Branson agrees. Speaking at the Battersea Park event last Sunday he said, “I think four or five years from now you’ll find Formula E overtaking Formula One in terms of number of people [watching] and more and more, as time goes on, clean energy businesses are going to power ahead of other businesses.”
At this point (when most readers are probably wondering if this has turned into a dedicated motorsport blog) it is important to highlight the impact Formula 1 has had on the world outside the racetrack.
Firstly, that the modern cars ordinary people purchase today feature anti-lock brakes, traction control and multi-function steering wheels, all hand-me-downs from Formula One. What’s more, the race series has also inspired progress above and beyond the automotive industry. Mercedes, for example, shares information on aerodynamics with NASA and BAE. While McLaren is known to offer its data analysis techniques to oil and gas firms to assist their search for new global energy resources.
With Formula E, however, the potential for technical crossover is larger still.
Emission-free charging of the race cars has already been established thanks to British company Aquafuel Research Ltd, via portable generators that run on glycerine as an alternative to bio-diesel.
To charge all twenty cars simultaneously over an hour, these generators produce roughly 850kW – about the same amount of electricity that would be used by 2000 UK households over the same period. In a few years’ time, these same generators could well appear on the streets of green cities around the world, powering electric bikes, vehicles and public utilities.
In essence, these changes are occurring everywhere.
While the media may quite rightly try to convince us otherwise, there are positive steps being taken to reduce humanity’s footprint on the planet. Formula E is just one small part of the puzzle, but a very welcome part indeed.