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New power | How the electric vehicle revolution is changing motorsport

  • The UK and French governments will outlaw the sale of petrol and diesel-based vehicles from 2040
  • Mercedes and Porsche will join Formula E from season six, while FCA could enter even sooner
  • Brands partnering with Formula E and its teams include EV charging point supplier Chargemaster and oil brands like Total and Gulf

For many drivers around the world, the prospect of switching from a petrol to an electric vehicle (EV) probably still fills them with a sense of apprehension or aversion.

Sure, it might save the planet, but what will it look like, where will they charge the battery and what kind of speed and performance will it deliver?

The fact is, though, that the momentum in favour of EVs is growing rapidly.

Recent announcements from the UK and French governments that they will outlaw the sale of petrol and diesel-based vehicles from 2040 have given consumers and manufacturers a clear indication of which way the market is heading.

Add to this a firm pro-EV commitment from Volvo, a new $1.5bn (€1.3bn) fundraising round from US EV manufacturer Tesla and a rapid rise in EV sales in China and it’s no longer possible for anyone in the value chain to ignore the message.

The EV revolution is also starting to have a significant impact within the motorsports sector.

This is most evident in the growing appeal of FIA-endorsed Formula E, an all-electric series that has just come to the end of its third season (see below).

Although the series is yet to make money, this summer’s news that Mercedes and Porsche will join from season six is regarded as a watershed moment for EV technology.

Audi has already jumped on board the Formula E bandwagon while Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is also talking seriously about entering the arena imminently.

Established series

The growing appeal of electric does, however, raise a couple of key questions for the motorsport sector.

Firstly, how are more established series – including Formula One – responding? And, secondly, should sponsors shift their focus to electric?

Anthony Indaimo, head of commercial at legal firm Withersworldwide, believes the sport has done a good job of addressing the EV agenda.

This is in part thanks to the efforts of regulator the FIA, “which has for many years been pro-actively working with car manufacturers involved in motorsport about evolving technologies,” he says. “As far back as 2013, the FIA created the regulations that gave birth to the Formula E race series. This is a useful example of a regulator encouraging innovation and partnership between cities, sponsors, fans, drivers and teams.”

IMAGE: The Tesla Model S has a range of 337 miles (Tesla)

That said, he’s not convinced electric spells the end of the road for F1. He adds: “Formula E’s chief executive, Alejandro Agag, should be credited for engaging so creatively with all stakeholders to build a series that seems to be growing in popularity and moving in the right direction in terms of reduced losses and increased revenues.

“But there is room for F1 and FE to thrive alongside each other. F1’s teams are already driven by a desire to become more energy efficient and this, alongside all of its other performance innovations, gives it a distinctive positioning.”

At the same time, there is a general acceptance that FE is nowhere near replicating the raw visceral experience of high-octane racing series like F1 and Nascar.

“FE has introduced some interesting innovations, like Fanboost, but for most hardcore F1 fans, the noise, smell and heritage are a key part of the experience,” says Indaimo.

“FE cars are much quieter and, because of battery charging limitations, can’t match F1 cars in terms of the distances they can effectively race over.”

Exciting start-up venture

Indaimo’s assessment is pretty much in line with that of Mercedes motorsports boss Toto Wolff, who has likened Formula E to “an exciting start-up venture” that offers manufacturers “an interesting platform to bring this technology to a new audience”.

At the same time, however, Wolff stresses that F1 is still “the pinnacle of motorsport, combining high technology and the most demanding competitive environment.”

While F1 and FE may sit side by side, the situation is less clear for other series.

It’s significant, for example, that Mercedes’ decision to join FE coincided with a surprise announcement that it will quit the popular DTM racing series at the end of 2018. Porsche and Audi’s entry to FE have also come at the expense of involvement in the World Endurance Championship.

Bruce Grant-Braham, director, Motor Sport Research Group at Bournemouth University, says: “I don’t believe we’re witnessing the end of traditional motorsport series, but given that the sector is a showcase for manufacturers it’s understandable that we’re seeing more examples of EVs used in race series, such as the forthcoming Tesla-inspired Electric GT Championship.

“I think the German manufacturers in particular see it as an opportunity to build up some positive PR after recent scandals they have faced concerning emissions.”

Adding electric to their agenda

This shift to electric comes in various forms. In addition to FE and Electric GT, existing series, ranging from the Isle Of Man TT series to the 24 Hour Le Mans race, are also adding electric to their agenda – either through the introduction of standalone races or the introduction of hybrid technology.

So is Red Bull Global Rallycross, which will introduce electric cars to its Red Bull GRC race weekends in a standalone series from 2018, joining the Supercar and GRC Lites.

Commenting, Red Bull GRC CEO Colin Dyne says: “[Electric] is one of the hottest topics in the automotive industry, and manufacturers across the globe have recognised its immense potential.

“We want to embrace this technology by welcoming it into our series as we grow and expand. This electric series will never replace the current formula, but will be an important part of our expansion.”

IMG’s Paul Bellamy, who is managing director of the FIA World Rallycross (World RX) championship, takes a similar line to Dyne.

Although World RX has not yet introduced EVs, he says it could happen some time after 2020, and that the demand is there from manufacturers.

“I don’t see EV replacing petrol, but for a series like ours there’s a lot of logic to adding electric racing,” he says.

“The cars we use in World RX are essentially like road cars, and the length of our races means there isn’t an issue with recharging. I’ve had the good fortune to drive an electric rallycross car and I know they are fast, cool-looking cars.”

The details of what World RX might look like after electric are still being discussed with the FIA but Bellamy stresses that EVs will have their own race during the course of a World RX weekend and will not be racing against existing cars.

“Electric rallycross won’t impact on what we already have,” he adds. “The existing format is very successful and we won’t be changing it.” 

Nigel Geach, SVP global motorsport for Nielsen Sports, agrees with the logic of EV having a prominent role in rallycross: “People can’t go out and buy a Formula One car, but a lot of other race circuits are working with vehicles that just look like family cars. So if they can introduce audiences to electric versions of them it makes the story relevant and exciting.”

If auto manufacturers and race series are backing electric, does that mean sponsors should also go the same way? “If a brand’s agenda is around sustainability, the environment, mobility, CSR, reduced carbon emissions or automated driving then EV motorsports is certainly worth exploring,” says Matt Dennington, head of client and business development in Motorsports at CSM Sport & Entertainment.

The perfect example, he says, is the UK’s leading supplier of EV charging points Chargemaster, FE’s Official Charging Infrastructure Supplier. There’s even a role for oil brands like Total and Gulf, says Dennington, both now associated with FE teams.

While this might smack as turkeys voting for Christmas, Gulf International VP Frank Rutten says that EVs “will require new lubricant solutions to ensure they run at optimum efficiency and to support the technologies that will provide increased range, faster charging and greater durability.”

Geach agrees with Dennington’s emphasis, adding: “It also makes sense for brands with clear business imperatives related to electric.

“DHL is a sponsor of Formula E, which makes sense when you think of the kind of charges petrol and diesel-based delivery fleets may face in the future if they go into cities.”

Mainstream brands

Can, however, electric attract more mainstream brands? Grant-Banham says it’s possible, but stresses it is early days. He adds: “To attract a wider array of brands FE needs to develop the kind of celebrity culture you see around F1. And that will generate the kind of media coverage that big global brands are looking for.”

IMG’s Bellamy is optimistic. While firmly convinced of the future of established motor racing, he says “there is a younger generation that hasn’t grown up with that tradition, so they might find the new electric series especially appealing.”

Although Bellamy doesn’t comment on this point, there’s also a possibility that series such as his own will be well-positioned to match up electric with new sponsors.

In the same way that Red Bull’s sponsorship of Global Rallycross has now been stretched to encompass electric races, World RX’s relationship with influential brands like Monster could take a similar turn.

Indaimo points out that some sponsors may also find FE more appropriate than F1 in the wake of the financial crisis. “F1 is an amazing spectacle, but there may be some brands that see F1 expenditure as too excessive, too public. By contrast, FE’s positioning at the heart of cities could be attractive,” he says.

IMAGE: Formula E fans in Mexico City (Getty Images)

Financial services firms, for example, are targeting Formula E, notably credit car provider Visa, Swiss bank Julius Baer and German insurance giant Allianz. Allianz had been a partner of F1 for 10 years before it switched to FE this year.

Explaining the move Jean-Marc Pailhol, head of group market management and distribution at Allianz, says: “We believe that now is the time to engage in the development of new ecosystems defining the future of urban mobility in a sustainable way.”

While the challenge for EV motorsport is to become more glamorous, is there a risk that traditional motorsports will suffer from negative consumer attitudes towards petrol, similar to what has happened to tobacco, alcohol and fast food? 

Ingenious ways

Indaimo argues that this is “only a risk if the sport stops evolving. In the case of F1, as long as it keeps demonstrating its value as a driving force for innovation in efficiency, safety and control then it should stay on the right side of the line.”

And what happens when driving petrol cars on roads is just a distant memory? Grant-Braham argues “there will still be room for motorsports that aren’t powered in the same way as road cars – you just need to look at IndyCar’s use of ethanol. The fact that people stopped travelling around on horses and carts didn’t make horse racing any less attractive as a sport.”

Besides, all this talk of a 2040 cut off point for petrol and diesel road cars may prove to be overly ambitious – especially as manufacturers like Mazda are finding ever more ingenious ways of improving petrol engine efficiency.

There is such a large legacy industry to unravel – and a new infrastructure to build – that political efforts to promote EVs may end up in the pits.

EXTRA: F1 Goes Green

Formula One is at the forefront of developments in hybrid engine technology. Indeed, those connected to the sport argue F1’s 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid, introduced in 2014, is actually more energy efficient than the average electric road car.

In a recent interview with ESPN, Mercedes technical director Paddy Lowe said: “Electric cars are seen as green and the solution to all carbon emissions, but they are absolutely not.

“In a typical country with a regular profile of electricity generation, a Formula One car is massively more efficient than any electric car being charged from a power plant burning hydrocarbons.”

Crucially, leading F1 manufacturers believe that the efficiency gains they have achieved can be introduced into family-sized road cars.

They argue that the most likely way of achieving true fuel efficiency is to develop electric vehicles for city centres and hybrids for out-of-town journeys from 100km upwards.

Besides, as Bournemouth University’s Bruce Grant-Braham points out, the F1 and FE agendas are not as distinct as they may at first appear.

“Liberty Media, which owns F1, is related to Liberty Global, a shareholder in FE. FE cars currently use batteries supplied by Williams Advanced Engineering, a subsidiary of the Williams F1 Team, and McLaren Applied Technologies will supply all the championship’s new batteries from 2018.

“BMW is already Formula E’s official vehicle partner and will join the grid in 2018 with the Andretti Team.”

EVs in numbers

EV Cars Sales: In China, the EV sector is growing fast – supported by government subsidies. In May, there were 40,000 new EVs registrations, a 49% increase compared to the same month last year. EVs currently account for a small proportion of car sales in Europe and the US, but recent forecasts suggest that may soon change. A new study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance says OPEC has recently quintupled its forecast for sales of plug-in EVs, while oil producers including BP and Exxon Mobil have also revised up their outlooks in the past year.

Viewers: The sport is shown live by broadcasters such as Fox Sports, Channel 5, CCTV-5, Eurosport, Viasat and TV Asahi. Although it is dwarfed by F1 (1.5 billion viewers), it managed a reasonably encouraging 61.5 million cumulative global viewers for season one (later figures not available). FE hasn’t provided much guidance on live race attendance, although organisers of the season one event in Battersea Park pointed to Ticketmaster sales of 60,000 as an indicator of the event’s appeal. This is probably at the top end of the circuit’s attendances to date.

Fanbase: Earlier this year, CSM conducted a comprehensive piece of research into the global F1 and FE fanbase. In the case of FE, it identified an audience segment that it believes could be crucial to the future of the franchise. Dubbed ‘Next Generation’, this group accounts for 41% of FE fanbase – and skews towards a younger more affluent demographic. It also indexes highly in China, India, the US and Thailand. CSM’s Matt Dennington says this segment is “knowledgeable” but not yet fully engaged with the FE circuit. He says: “They have the most potential for FE to grow but will require innovative engagement, not necessarily via TV.” Social media and emotional investment in drivers appear key.

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