OPINION | Motorsport is already heading for the electric avenue - whether you like it or not

Image: Formula E
Image: Formula E

Motorsport has always been something that caused fierce debates between fans worldwide.

Be it about specific manufacturers, favourite drivers, old vs new style circuits; the fans are passionate about their views.

Motorsport is also known for new or future automotive developments regularly being tested on track.

Just look at the things found standard in most road cars these days like active suspension and traction control; those used to be quite innovative and somewhat controversial developments in Formula 1 back in the early nineties.

The latest big debate is indeed about something ground-breaking that is taking the sport by storm: The electric car. 

On the one side, you have those who would like to call themselves the motorsport purists. To them, it’s about the smell of fuel and the sound of thundering V8 engines. They are generally not really in favour of innovations like Push-to-Pass or Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems and would ideally like their cars to be less computerised.

In the other camp, you have those who want to be environmentally friendly. They love motorsport but are also well aware of the impact made by the internal combustion engine on the environment. To them racing is about the action on-track without over-romanticizing fuel fumes or engine roars, the latter especially becoming a huge concern for most racetracks at the centre of urban areas.


                       Image: Jaguar Racing

Different series

The future may well not be decided by any argument made in the Old School vs. Tree-Hugger debate; the shift to electric motorsport is already well on the way. Be it full factory teams or privateers, competitors rely heavily on the manufacturers. These manufacturers are all however looking at shifting their resources in the electric automobile market.

Volkswagen is perhaps the best-known example in recent years. After withdrawing from the World RallyCross Championship in 2018, they announced the end of their remaining traditional motorsport programmes at the end of 2019. They are not the only ones to have put pressure on WRX either; some other former and prospective manufacturers have also said that they’ll only consider future involvement should the championship become fully electric. A move that sparked the development of ProjektE; an all-electric RallyCross format. 

And this is not the only place where the proverbial electric shock has been felt. Look at TCR and the World Endurance Championship in the last decade. Don’t discount F1; At present, there are only four-engine manufacturers involved in the sport and except for Ferrari, the others are already involved in some form of electric racing or developments for the future. 

On the other hand, a category that is seeing more manufacturer support is Formula E.

The FIA recently announced that the fully-electric series will be given world championship status for their 2020/21 season. Jaguar, Audi, Nissan, Mahindra, and BMW already have a strong presence in the championship with Mercedes-Benz and Porsche having joined for the 2019/20 season.

The "45 minute plus 1 Lap" races are predominantly held on compact street circuit layouts. From very humble beginnings and a haven for those who could not quite cut it in F1, the series has grown in popularity with a host of skilled and respected drivers participating. Some even directly to Formula E form other feeder categories like reigning Formula 2 Champion Nyck de Vries. 

Jaguar’s electric commitment also does not stop with Formula E, but they have also introduced the official support series for the championship; the Jaguar I-PACE eTrophy. This world’s first all-electric saloon car championship now finds itself in its second season. Some may ask if this is really motorsport or just some fancy life-size Scalextric showdown.

Big engined cars

I too have grown up with the era of V10 F1 cars, Australian V8 Supercars, and Super Touring Cars, but I am always open to new ideas and innovations. In 2018 I started giving Formula E a go and presently it is one of my favourite championships to watch from an entertainment point of view. And if I may be quite honest, I think the 2018/19 Formula E season was one of the more exciting championships to watch in the last decade. 

Apart from manufacturer and fan support, there are other, and probably more important, factors to look at which could see the growth of electric racing accelerating even further.

We all know motorsport is expensive and can not be sustained by anyone without corporate or political funding. Another thing we all know is that every major industry and city is firmly focused on their green footprints these days. Something that is already well known, especially in South Africa, is the noise limitation imposed on circuits. Although they are mostly built on privately-owned properties, circuit owners have to comply with noise rules imposed by their local city councils, regardless of the residential developments built around it only coming to existence after the circuit was built.

If you look at European countries, how long before emission laws will start to affect racetracks? And the impact regarding sponsor money might also be felt sooner than what we think.


                       Image: Reynard Gelderblom

The future is here

These days we’re all working in offices where you rather look at a PDF document on your phone instead of printing it out on paper that you’re just going to throw away. We’re told to save water and to use low emission company cars. How long until those major corporate companies will be saying that sponsoring someone competing in fossil-fuel-based motorsport does not comply with their environmental code. It certainly will be double standards to ask your personnel to use every piece of toilet paper twice while putting millions in gas-guzzling racing. 

Whether we like it or loathe it, electric racing is the future. There were those opposed to walking around with mobile phones in their pockets about 25 years ago, yet most of you today will be reading this article on your phone.

Manufacturers are pushing forward their electric technology and if motorsport wants to remain the proving ground for the cars of tomorrow, it will need to adapt accordingly. 

Of course, this does leave the question of where motorsport in South Africa is heading in that future. After all, we are the country where we can’t even keep the lights on during the peak holiday period when most people are relaxing on the beach. This is, however, a debate for another day. I’m also not entirely convinced that the 2030 deadlines that a lot of stakeholders are looking at will be met. The infrastructure to sustain electric vehicles still needs to be further developed and implemented.

A recent conversation with a friend from Australia just highlighted some of the key concerns. Just imagine the mass evacuations they recently had to to the raging bush-fires being conducted with electric vehicles. Be sure however that this will just be one of the concerns that will be addressed by manufacturers in due course. 

Two years ago we were quite vocal about our views on the safety 'halo', now found standard in most forms of single-seater racing as well. Just because most of us didn’t really like it, didn’t halt their efforts. In fact, now we’re debating what we prefer in between and IndyCar’s aero-screen. The same will be the case with electric racing.   

Disclaimer: Wheels24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of Readers or columnists published on Wheels24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24 or Wheels24. 

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