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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

McLaren ready to embrace electric race series

Formula One giants McLaren are keen to be involved in a new global electric motor racing series set to start in 2014 and could even enter a team at some stage, according to 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 (FIA) with plans for a grid of 10 teams and 20 drivers.

The plan is for hour-long city-centre races in at least 10 different landmark locations around the world with drivers having to change cars at pitstops due to the batteries lasting only 15-20 minutes.

The world of Formula One, a series on the cutting-edge of technology but still one where the ear-splitting roar of a V8 engine is a key attraction for 'petrolhead' fans, is keeping a close watch on what promises to be a silent revolution.

"I think there's quite a lot of interest... it's something that McLaren would be delighted to be involved with so we're obviously looking at it at the moment. Who knows, we might pop up in it," Whitmarsh told Reuters.

"I think we're looking at all sorts of things. I think it's a good initiative and we'd be delighted in whatever form to be involved with it."

McLaren are far more than just a Formula One team these days, having diversified into a range of applied technologies and manufacturing their own sportscar at their Woking headquarters.

They are also the official suppliers of electronic control units to Formula One and NASCAR and have developed a 120KW E-Motor for hybrid and electric vehicles.

Asked whether McLaren might consider entering a team in the series, Whitmarsh replied: "At some point, yes. But that's not at the moment.

"We are looking at the technology challenge and how we can contribute there. But I think the sport has to evolve and change and I personally think they are good technical challenges and those are the things McLaren enjoys and flourishes at."


Formula One already uses KERS kinetic energy recovery systems and will take another technology leap in 2014 when a new 1.6 litre turbo-charged V6 engine is due to be introduced.

The cars will be expected to run in electric mode only in the pitlane.

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 all-electric Nissan Leaf with his family recently 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," he smiled. "We've got to be looking to the future and the sport has to be socially relevant.

"We are increasingly going to get 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."

Racers appearing in a regular FIA news conference in Belgium at the weekend 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.

Most of those currently in the sport 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," Fry, who recalled writing a strategy paper for Ford in the 1970s on electric vehicles, told Reuters.

"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 motor racing and road cars will all go in that direction. But it will be a long process, it's not going to happen overnight."


Formula One could be the perfect test-bed for many of the electrical innovations of interest to the automobile industry.

"The beauty of motorsport and Formula One in general is that we can try out things very quickly and we apply huge amounts of engineering intellect to a problem which tends to move it on more quickly than it would do in automotive or defence or aerospace," said Fry.

"When you are up in the sky, there's a limit to the risks you can take."

Motorcycle racing has already tried out electric bikes, notably in Isle of Man TT, and battery technology is no longer the limiting factor that it was in the past.

"The technology is there today to put an electric circuit underneath the tarmac and for the car above it to be charged as the car goes along, sort of a giant Scalextric (slot car racing set," said Fry, whose team worked on the aerodynamics of the 240kph Formulec Formula E prototype under their former incarnation as Brawn GP.

"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."

Formula One heads to Monza, the temple of Italian motorsport where Ferrari fans worship at the altar of the internal combustion engine, for a grand prix on Sunday that is a festival of noise and colour.

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.

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