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Motorsport leads the drive to greener cars

The idea of “environmentally friendly racing” might sound oxymoronic, but “greener” motorsport isn’t something that’s on its way — it’s already here.

Lord Paul Drayson, one of the movement’s major proponents, very nearly won the British GT3 Championship outright in a bioethanol-fueled Aston Martin DBRS9 last year. And the level of competitiveness demonstrated across a range of other motorsport categories (a bioethanol-fueled Volvo won a round of the Swedish Touring Car Championship against strong competition from gasoline-powered cars) in 2007 shows that “green” racing is no ecofriendly gimmick. Some people believe the future of car racing itself depends on it as the audience is becoming increasingly eco-savvy.

Lord Drayson and teammate Jonathan Cocker drive for Barwell Motorsport, one of the oldest racing teams in Britain. Having competed successfully since the 1960s, Barwell in 2007 became the first team in British GTs to embrace the use of alternative fuels. Last year, Lord Drayson and Cocker took two wins between them, three seconds, and two third finishes from seven races. The pair were also on pole on three occasions.

Lord Drayson, 47, took up racing in 2003, and he resigned his post as U.K. Minister for Defense Procurement last November to go racing full time. His ultimate goal is to compete in — and win — the Le Mans 24 Hours. First, though, he heads to the United States this year to race his Aston Martin against a host of new rivals in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS).

While British industry leads the way in greener racing technology, its counterparts in Germany and across the Atlantic are well aware of the appeal — and importance — of this new trend. Just a few seasons ago, you’d have been hard pressed to find full-fledged programs tackling the issues of carbon emissions and energy efficiency in motorsport; now, however, the industry and governments realize racing’s potency as a platform on which to promote cleaner technology for cars generally.

To some members of the public, motorsport has long been regarded as the evil twin of the auto industry. In truth, however, race-engine use worldwide accounts for only a trickle of the resources consumed by vehicular traffic. Race engines also need to be hyper-efficient to be competitive, so motorsport is a major focal point for automobile manufacturers, oil companies, race series organizers, teams and competitors to find solutions and lead research into new technologies.

In January, the ALMS, America’s top endurance series, announced a landmark partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aimed at adopting green racing principles from the start of the 2008 season. Since last weekend’s season-opening (and 56th annual) Sebring 12 Hours event in Florida, all cars are now required to run completely on biofuel. The manufacturers involved in the ALMS (Audi, Peugeot, Porsche, Acura, Chevrolet, Aston Martin, Panoz, Ferrari and BMW) will have to develop a whole range of new energy-efficient solutions in the future. Not only biofuel but also fuel-cell, and hybrid and energy-retrieval technologies will be developed — all of which are then set to come into the series. (Audi’s entries run on biodiesel; Peugeot’s are also diesel-powered, though the maker is not entered for the full season.)

In motorsport’s quest to become greener, there are two main areas of focus: alternative fuels and energy-recovery systems.

Alternative fuels include biofuels such as E85 (85 percent ethanol/15 percent gasoline), the most common biofuel used in racing. It and other fuels whose sources compete with food crops such as corn and maize are termed first-generation biofuels. Second-generation biofuels come from nonfood sources, generally agricultural and forestry residues — straw and wood chips being the most common sources.

Energy recovery is a huge buzzword in the industry at the moment, and its most well-known technology, KERS, or Kenetic Energy Recovery System, will be mandated on all Formula 1 cars from 2009. This system is designed to recover and store kenetic energy during braking, and make it available to propel the car forward. When a combustion engine fires, not all of its energy is used to propel the vehicle; the figure, in terms of efficiency, is about 33 percent (a road car’s figures are much lower than that — unless it’s a Prius). One third is lost as exhaust gas, a further 24 percent goes to keeping the engine at an operable temperature (cooling), and then there’s friction and radiated heat, leaving only 33 percent for mobility.

The technological challenge with KERS is massive. Powertrain engineers will have to oversee an extremely complex combination of electric generators, motors and storage units in conjunction with the already complex combustion engine itself.

In addition to adopting KERS, Formula 1 is also getting on the biofuel bandwagon. From the start of the 2008 season — also last weekend — 5.75 percent of the fuel used in competing machines will be from biological sources. The first series in the world to be completely biofueled is A1GP, the “World Cup of Motorsport.” Its 22 nation-based teams adopted the technology this January. Also this season, the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) will be the first motorsport series in the world to place a limit on carbon-dioxide emissions.

It stands to reason that motorsport’s popularity can be an effective catalyst in getting the public to understand the need for more environmentally efficient cars — both on the track and on regular roads. So the next time you see a racing car, it may well be carrying onboard the very environmentally friendly technology that you’ll be using — and praising — in just a few years to come.

Photojournalist Len Clarke specializes in Japanese racing. He can be contacted at racenow@mac.com

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