Can technology transfer drive automotive evolution?

6 min read

Motorsport is the progenitor of so many key innovations in mainstream car design that one might assume that the mechanism whereby this process of 'trickle-down' technology takes place are well-established.

In this assumption, however, one would be mistaken. Motorsport technology transfers to the automotive industry less often and less effectively than many might think. Says Bernard Niclot, technical director of the FIA: "People don't really understand the link between motorsport and mainstream cars very well... but motorsport drove many of the powertrain developments at the beginning of the 20th Century – including gasoline engines – and will do so again." One doesn't have to look hard to find more modern examples of motorsport driving automotive developments. Says Steve Sapsford, Ricardo's director for high-performance vehicles and motorsport: "F1 has pioneered energy recovery systems and that was down to the regulations around advanced battery packs and cell technology. It's driven e-machines and electric motor technologies in a way that not only other forms of motorsport, but mainstream automotive technology, can benefit from." However, Lawrence Davies, deputy chief executive of the recently appointed Automotive Investment Organisation (UKTI), makes clear just how big the innovation gap between mainstream automotive companies and motorsport has been in the past. He says: "A few years ago, when I was [director UK purchasing/logistics] at General Motors, we had virtually no links [with motorsport]. It was sad in many ways, but that was how it was. So I, for one, am delighted to see links between motorsport and automotive being developed." And being developed they most definitely are. In July last year, the UK Government officially recognised the link between motorsport and automotive development, while the Technology Strategy Board introduced a specifically motorsport-based funding package. Of course, the main focus for this development at the moment is in the area of energy efficiency, which is a Holy Grail for designers in mainstream automotive and motorsport alike. Steve Sapsford says: "We face a massive challenge in that we're trying to reduce costs and make things more road relevant, improve fuel efficiency and incorporate lots of new technology – all while making sure we don't give anyone an unfair advantage." Nowhere is this made clearer than in the advent of Formula E racing, which brings together electric cars and racing and is due to have its first race in September. Says Davies: "Energy efficiency and low emissions are bringing motorsport and mainstream automotive back together." Beyond the entertainment value of these races, there is an explicit and avowed intention on the part of the organisers to use the sport both to drive the technological development and to enhance the public image of electric cars. As Steve Sapsford puts it: "We can drive the development of the technology we need in mainstream automotive much harder and faster if motorsport is leading the way." This, of course, involves regulation, which is where Bernard Niclot and the FIA come in. He sees the fact that electric drive technology is still in its relative infancy as a huge opportunity for the sport in terms of its popularity and its capacity to deliver innovation. He says: "After 100 years of development, internal combustion engine-driven cars are highly optimised, but electric cars are different. We obviously want Formula E to help the development of electric vehicle technologies. At the moment, though, it's like a small baby. You need to put it in the nursery first and let it grow and develop." Mark Preston, team principal of the Super Aguri Formula E team, concurs about the excitement inherent to working in this new discipline, saying: "One of things that's exciting for me in Formula E is that in F1 we were always limited by the internal combustion engine. .. F1 now is just process innovation, but Formula E still has many big leaps to take such as hopefully getting to four-wheel drive." Equally, it is hoped that the fact Formula E will take place on street circuits will attract a new and different audience to current motorsport. Says Preston: "I'm interested in the experience change because that's going to change the perceptions of what people want in road cars. This is urban racing and I believe that change in experience will create a new interest." Steve Sapsford, however, is emphatic in his insistence that the role of the regulatory authorities will be vital in allowing the technology developed for Formula E to make its way into mainstream automotive. "Governing bodies will have a massive impact on how motorsport develops," he says. "If we can get that aligned with how mainstream automotive is developing as well, there is a massive amount of power and efficiency in that technology... As engineers, we're all developing to the regulations – that is the rulebook. If that is aligned, it becomes easier to develop technology." Lord Drayson (left), whose Drayson Racing team will compete in the new Formula is evangelical about the transformational nature of Formula E and the role it will play going forward. He says: "Increasingly, the advantages of electric powertrain – particularly in relation to air pollution – are becoming clear. Things are happening faster than even we expected and I believe electric is the future and that the development of it will accelerate." Bernard Niclot, however, is more circumspect. "What we do in the FIA is not to say that the future will be this or that, but instead to let the automotive market decide and filter out all the possibilities. We try to manage uncertainty because we don't know what the winner will be – in fact we don't even necessarily think there will be a winner. I think the future of automotive will be very diverse. There will be a portfolio of different technical solutions. We simply try to give manufacturers the opportunity to try the various alternatives – as long as they are competitive and energy efficient." Steve Sapsford agrees to some extent, saying: "Despite the fact that there's lots of electrification, we are going to be living with the internal combustion engine for a long time to come." However, when it comes to questions of whether hydrogen is a viable alternative technology, there is no great enthusiasm. Thomas Laudenbach of Audi Motorsport, for instance, says: "Hydrogen is there, but at the moment it is too far away. It takes too much energy to gather hydrogen and burn it – to provide it and still provide a positive energy equation is just too far away." However, Mark Preston offers some more comfort to advocates of hydrogen, saying: "The power unit can still be hydrogen and the drivetrain electric – those technologies could work together." The extent to which electric racing has already advanced the technology is a theme that Lord Drayson is keen to emphasise. He says: "We didn't know even if it was going to be possible to develop this car and doing so has already answered a lot of questions about what you can do with an electric drive. We can discover the real engineering challenges of this car and now we can actually solve them." The different nature of electric drive technology, he believes, also attracts new technologies and otherwise unfamiliar companies into the market. "Using electric drives brings in new technology," he says. "Take Qualcomm for instance,its wireless technology allows wireless charging. They simply wouldn't necessarily have entered motorsport but for the electric drive. What's happening in electric drivetrain is transformational and that's why you're getting these IT companies getting interested because they see how steep the pace of technology is." Thomas Laudenbach reinforces this point, saying: "Motorsport can be a driver for technology because you develop solutions and apply them immediately. That is why Audi is interested in motorsport – because we can drive it." Bright Spark At the heart of the FIA Formula E Championship is the stunning new fully-electric Formula E car – the Spark-Renault SRT_01E. Representing the future of motorsport, the ground-breaking new single-seater is capable of reaching 0-100kph in less than 3 seconds and has a limited top speed of 225kph. Yet, the car produces zero emissions. Using the very latest technology, the SRT_01E aims to push the boundaries of what is currently achievable in electric motorsport, whilst ensuring a balance between cost-effectiveness and sustainability, in addition to coping with the demands of racing entirely on street circuits. It has been built by new French company Spark Racing Technology, led by the renowned Frédéric Vasseur, together with a consortium of some of the leading companies in motorsport. Italian firm Dallara, who boast more than 40 years' motorsport experience, has constructed the monocoque chassis, aerodynamically designed to aid overtaking. Made from carbon fibre and aluminium, the chassis is both super lightweight and incredibly strong and fully complies with the 2014 FIA crash tests - the same used to regulate Formula One. Providing the electric powertrain and electronics is McLaren Electronics Systems, the world leader in high-performance technology for motorsport. Meanwhile, Williams Advanced Engineering, part of the Williams group of companies that includes the world famous Williams F1 Team, will supply the batteries producing 200kw, the equivalent of 270bhp. This will be linked to a paddle shift sequential gearbox, supplied by Hewland, with fixed ratios to help reduce costs further. Overseeing all the systems integration will be the championship's technical partner Renault, a leader of electric vehicles and an expert in motorsport thanks to its Renault Sport Technologies and Renault Sport F1 programmes. Specially designed 18-inch durable tyres will be supplied by Official Tyre Partner Michelin, with just one tread pattern available and three sets per driver per weekend in order to cap costs. To ensure availability for the first season, all 10 teams will compete with identical SRT_01E cars. However, Formula E is very much an 'open championship', encouraging manufacturers and constructors to design and build their own cars to the technical specifications set out by the FIA.