McLaren backing 'electric F1'
THE SOUND OF RACING SILENCE: McLaren hopes to back a new electric series that could see "silent" race cars compete around the world in 2014.
Author: Alan Baldwin
LONDON - Formula 1 McLaren is keen to be involved in a new global electric motor racing series set to start in 2014, according to team principal Martin Whitmarsh.
The Formula E series, to be promoted by a Hong Kong-based consortium led by Spanish businessmen, will be sanctioned by the governing International Automobile Federation with plans for a grid of 10 teams and 20 drivers.
'WE MIGHT POP UP'
The plan is for one-hour city-centre races in at least 10 different locations - one of them in South Africa - around the world with drivers having to change cars at pit stops due to the batteries lasting only 15-20 minutes.
The world of F1, a series known for the ear-splitting scream of V8 engines, is keeping a close watch on what promises to be a silent revolution. Whitmarsh said: "I think there's quite a lot of interest... it's something McLaren would be delighted to be involved with, so we're looking at it. Who knows, we might pop up in it."
McLaren is far more than just a F1, having diversified into a range of applied technologies and manufacturing their own sports cars in the UK. The brand is also the supplier of electronic control units to F1 and Nascar and has developed a 120KW electric motor for hybrid and electric vehicles.
Would McLaren consider entering a team in the series? Whitmarsh replied: "At some point, yes. We're looking at the technology challenge and how we can contribute but I think the sport has to evolve and I think there are good technical challenges - things McLaren enjoys and flourishes in."
F1 already uses kinetic energy recovery systems and will take another technology leap in 2014 when a new 1.6 turbo V6 engine is introduced. The cars will be expected to run in battery mode only in the pits lane.
The lack of noise has been singled out as a possible danger as well as a turn-off for fans but others see the silence as another potential benefit even if the technology is already available to create synthetic engine sounds.
Whitmarsh said he had driven an electric Nissan Leaf with his family and, while he found it an eerie experience, his children loved it. "What we've got to appeal to isn't old buggers like us. We've got to be looking to the future and the sport has to be socially relevant. We are going to get more silent cars and I think in the coming short order you will see a number of very exciting things from McLaren which are resonating with some of these challenges."
Drivers were sceptical about there ever being a silent F1 with electric cars, although seven-times champion Michael Schumacher was intrigued by the idea of drivers hearing the crowd rather than the other way around.
Many teams doubt they will see a circuit-based electric formula similar to F1 in their careers but Mercedes GP chief executive Nick Fry was less sure. "I think it's inevitable that it will become an electric series but the question is, 'is that 10 years away or 20 years away?'. Just as more and more electricity is being generated by wind and other natural sources I'm sure racing and road cars will all go in that direction. But it's not going to happen overnight."
BATTERY BIKES ALREADY RACING
F1 could be the perfect test-bed for many of the electrical innovations of interest to the automobile industry. Fry added: "The beauty of motorsport and F1 in general is that we can try out things very quickly and we apply huge amounts of engineering intellect to a problem to move it on more quickly than it would do in automotive or defence or aerospace.
Motorcycle racing had tested electric bikes, notably in the Isle of Man TT, and battery technology was no longer a limiting factor. "The technology is there to put an electric circuit underneath the tarmac and for the car above it to be charged as it goes along - sort of a giant Scalextric (slot car) set."
Mercedes has worked on the aerodynamics of the 240km/h Formula E prototype under their former incarnation as Brawn GP.
Fry said: "As sure as eggs are eggs someone is going to do that and enable these cars to run a normal length race. To start with it will be on an experimental level but sooner or later someone is going to be doing it on a proper circuit."
F1 is heading to Monza for the September 9 Italian GP. For some residents and environmentalists, who have complained in the past about the decibel levels from the wooded royal park, the dawn of an electric era cannot come soon enough.