With climate change topping the economic and political agenda, can motorsport be relevant in this energy-conscious age?
“We’re not only relevant – we’re part of the solution to creating greener cars,” says Alan Mercer, project director at Energy Efficient Motorsport (EEMS), an initiative to put sustainable technologies and fuels at the heart of racing.
He admits that, to outsiders, the words “racing cars” and “going green” might seem at odds.
“But the UK’s motorsport industry is developing environmentally-friendly technologies that go beyond racing,” he believes.
These are early days, but already motor racing seems to be accepting that its future lies in energy efficiency.
An Aston Martin fuelled by bio-ethanol is competing in the British GT Championship. And cars running on alternative energy are now in the Le Mans 24-Hour challenge.
Even Formula One (F1), most of whose teams are UK-based, is exploring how to harness the massive braking power of its racecars and utilise it to drive the engines.
And UK-based transmission supplier Xtrac helped Audi develop its ground-breaking diesel-powered R10 racing car: now this technology is being transferred to Audi’s road cars.
With developments moving fast, EEMS is an important one-stop shop for information and advice. There is even some financial support for research.
But the long-term plans are much bolder.
By 2010, Alan Mercer wants to see at least one high-profile UK championship running to energy-flow-based regulations.
And there are plans to have cars using different fuels and engine technologies competing in the same UK championship.
What does this mean to car buyers?
Motorsport executives believe that energy-efficient racing could have a huge impact on converting consumers to “green” road cars.
For Xtrac’s managing director, Peter Digby, the glamorous world of motorsport “can make energy efficiency sexy”.
The UK-based Honda F1 team has already taken an important step down this road, racing a car that has no sponsorship – just a “green” livery.
For team chief Nick Fry, the move shows that F1 can be fast and furious – and also green.
Racing improves the breed
But marketing is only one part of these new developments.
The industry has a phrase: “racing improves the breed”.
That is, advances in motorsport eventually migrate to road vehicles.
“That’s why hundreds of millions of pounds is being invested in energy-efficient motorsport in the UK,” says Chris Aylett, chief executive of the Motorsport Industry Association.
“Take F1,” he explains. “Car buyers want more energy-efficient road cars, so motor manufacturers will not want their F1 teams to be out of step with their commercial ambitions.”
Cutting development times
Another reason why car manufacturers are turning to the UK motorsport industry is that the sector is uniquely positioned to speed things along.
Chris Aylett says: “We are used to taking ideas from the drawing board to the race track in weeks.”
That’s why other industries are eager to form joint R&D ventures with racing firms, such as defence giant BAE Systems’ work with McLaren.