E-Racing: Electric Race Cars Near the Starting Line0

Steven Ashley | Thu Mar 22 2012 |

“Race on Sunday, sell on Monday” goes the old auto industry mantra. And for decades, Formula 1, NASCAR, IndyCar and other top car-racing series have served as testing grounds for novel technologies that eventually found their way into mass-produced automobiles available to the public.

Today’s automakers could do the same for electric cars by bringing them to the track, advises Lord Paul Drayson, managing partner at U.K.-based Drayson Racing Technologies. The company recently unveiled a 200-plus-mph (322-plus-kph) electric race car built to demonstrate systems that are intended for use in the forthcoming Formula E Championship, a new EV-racing series that the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) plans for next year (pdf).

“Electric racing will provide a new opportunity to get the general public to appreciate and understand the benefits of electric cars,” Drayson, the former U.K. minister of science and innovation and British peer, says. “It can change people’s perceptions about what an electric car can do.”

Although U.S. sales of electric vehicles have so far surpassed last year’s pace, EV purchases still lag behind conventional cars. But before the nation’s roads and highways can go even partway electric, American motorists must get comfortable with the idea of owning and operating an EV – racing could do that.

The FIA plans to hold the Formula E events close to city centers, promoting EV technology to urban dwellers, which marketers consider the initial customers for electric cars. The Formula E format will run four 15-minute heats with a half-hour period in between for battery-recharging or battery swaps. The short heats will accommodate for the continuing limitations of battery technology.

As Drayson noted, “it seems certain that electric cars are going to be an important part of the car business, so if motor racing wants to remain relevant it needs to go electric.”

EV race series struggle to gain traction

Other motorsports organizations are getting into the act as well. The American Le Mans Series (ALMS), a North American sports car racing series, and its sanctioning body, the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) are planning to introduce a global electric-racing championship in 2013. “The most important race in the world is the race among automobile manufacturers to develop new sustainable transportation solutions,” ALMS president and CEO Scott Atherton says frequently.

The abortive EVCUP, which this year was to have been the world’s first electric car race series, had to postpone its operations due to a lack of suitable vehicles, but other motorsports bodies have been mounting EV races for years, including the National Electric Drag Racing Association and three electric motorcycle road-racing series, the most visible of which is the TTXGP.

Building EV racers

All of the vehicle teams involved with these efforts are pushing the state of the art in electric drive train technology, but significant obstacles remain.

Some idea of the technical complexities can be gleaned from examining Drayson’s new B12/69EV race car. The new e-racer showcases several innovative technologies including active aerodynamics, wireless charging, electrical regenerative damping and perhaps structural battery technology “making it one of the most innovative clean-tech motorsport projects in the world,” he says.

The electric power train, which comprises four ‘pancake’ motors attached to the rear axle, produces 850 horsepower (633 kW). The motors, which were supplied by U.K.-based startup, YASA Motors, provide sufficient impetus to send the car from zero to 60 mph (97 kph) in 3 seconds and 100 mph (161 kph) in 5.1 sec. Lithium-ion nanophosphate cells from A123 Systems of Waltham, Mass. provide motive power.

The Drayson e-racer project began at the start of last year in collaboration with Lola Cars International, a leading chassis designer based in Huntingdon, U.K. Cooperation with Lola is important, Drayson notes, because the company brings its extensive experience in high-performance chassis technology and its recent developments in active aerodynamics. “What that means is that the surfaces of the car change as you approach higher speeds to improve downforce” and so, tire traction. Electric actuators under the driver’s control adjust the position of the surfaces to boost down force or shed drag as needed.

Innovative electrical systems

The team is also experimenting with a more speculative technology that could both save weight and extend power storage capacity. Structural composite battery technology from BAE Systems would incorporate the batteries into the car body—in this case, the rear wing. “The layers of the carbon fiber composites not only provide load-bearing structure but operate as an energy storage device,” he says..

Charging of the B12/69E’s batteries is accomplished using coils in the car floor that are activated wirelessly and inductively by charge pads below. The system is made by Qualcomm Halo IPT of New Zealand. The engineers hope that recharging units in the pit garages will be able to top off the batteries in less than a half hour. Inductive charging in the road beds could eventually charge up the batteries on the move.

Electrical regenerative damping technology from Multimatic of Canada, that is, dampers that generate energy when driving over bumps in the road, should produce enough energy to power the car’s active suspension system, making them in effect ‘energy neutral.’

Other E-Racers

Meanwhile, Paris-based Formulec France spent the past two years designing, developing and testing its EF01, an F3-type open-wheel category EV racer that features a 390-hp (300-kW) power plant.

Other all-electric race cars have been developed as well. Barcelona-based Quimera has constructed an all-electric GT prototype, a 700-hp (525 kW) electric supercar that reportedly has a top speed of 186 mph. A version of the car is expected to debut in demonstration runs at selected ALMS races this year. “For Quimera, this project is not simply confined to developing environmentally friendly cars that will offer an insight into the future of motorsport,” Javier de Rocafort, chairman of the Quimera board, said in a statement. “It also concerns encouraging the dramatic shift soon to occur in the way the industry has operated up until now.”

Top image: Courtesy Drayson Racing