Formula One Is Going Green
By Chris Ellis
Just before the British Grand Prix last week, the FIA (the governing body of world motor sport) declared its intention to drag Formula One into the 21st century.
The full transcript of the press conference is available at the Formula1.com web site. Fans of motor racing will want to analyze every sentence, but it's the announcement's impact on road cars which should excite everyone who is concerned about fuel prices and global warming. The central message is that the most technically advanced and heavily-funded form of motor sport will now be obliged to focus on fuel economy, one of the key issues that concern ordinary drivers. Consequently, Formula One will become relevant and useful again, rather than just an advanced form of horse racing.
The President of the FIA, Max Moseley, gave a stark warning to the auto makers (BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Fiat, Honda, Renault/Nissan, Toyota, etc) who control most of the Formula One teams. He claimed that they were spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year just trying to get a few more rpm out of their racing engines. This was unsustainable, and wasted superb engineering resources on an ultimately futile objective. Formula One should be the proving ground for advanced automotive technology, but it has fallen behind in areas such as fuel consumption. In the mid-90s at least two teams experimented with hybrid systems, but the FIA stopped them because it was concerned about safety. Since then, battery-based hybrid drives have been successfully launched in road cars. The FIA has now decided to allow (petrol-only) hybrids from the beginning of 2009, subject to final approval at the end of this year.
The FIA is placing only two major constraints on the technology used. The first, which is paramount, is safety. The second is a weight limit of 20 kilograms (44 lbs) for the complete 'surge power unit'. For example, if ultra-capacitors are used, the motor and controller/inverter must be included within the 20 kg weight budget. The technology is otherwise 'free'. Among the obvious alternatives are hydraulic systems and kinetic energy storage systems (quaintly referred to as 'inertia systems' by the FIA). While 20 kilograms would be a prohibitive limitation using conventional materials in a 1.5 ton road car, the minimum weight of a Formula One car, including the driver, will have fallen to only 550 kilograms (1213 lbs) by 2008. In addition, key components have much shorter target 'lives', say ten hours versus five thousand, and much higher component stresses are allowed in racing. Consequently, the FIA estimates that the early systems will be capable of delivering some 60 bhp of additional power for as much as nine seconds, with peak power doubling over several years of further development. The FIA quotes the initial energy storage capacity it anticipates as 400 kilojoules, which translates to some 110 Watt hours.
Let's put that probable 60 bhp of power boost into perspective. The hybrid drive in the Toyota Prius adds only some 34 bhp to the 76 bhp engine of a vehicle which weighs three times as much with a couple of passengers. The FIA's 'entertainment objective' of introducing more overtaking is clearly going to be a racing certainty.
On engines, the FIA game plan distills to the following, assuming no significant changes. From now through to the end of 2010, the cars will run with homologated (i.e. 'frozen') engine designs, essentially the current engines. These are 2.4 liter V8s, producing almost 800 bhp. Despite the light weight of the current cars, they usually get only 4 miles per gallon on a typical track. The fuel consumption is so high because the cars repeatedly surge up to 180 mph or more and then brake heavily, many times in each lap of a typical circuit, throwing away the kinetic energy of the car as heat from the brakes every time they do it. In addition, the cars' coefficients of drag are almost twice those of sleek road cars, as a result of the massive downforce generated by their wings, and open wheels, etc. One might think of Formula One as an attempt to run the EPA's city cycle at insane speeds in cars that have the aerodynamic drag of an SUV! Unlike NASCAR and the IRL, where speeds remain very high and there is little merit in regenerative braking, Formula One cries out for it, and is about to get it. Because some Formula One races are run on public roads (such as Monaco) and all the other tracks have many road-like turns, the capabilities demanded of Formula One cars are much more 'realistic' than those needed for banked ovals. Consequently, there is genuine potential for race-bred Formula One technology to find its way, eventually, into road cars. This certainly should be true of hybrid technology. A $20,000 unit that can add 200 bhp to a $100,000 sports car and double its mpg in the city is likely to have a market.
The FIA is determined to whittle away at downforce, which implies reducing drag, but would like to prevent top speeds rising. Consequently, the FIA is going to have to cut engine power beyond 2010, particularly as power levels build up from the surge power units. Here's the deal the FIA is putting to the participating auto makers. Together, agree a new engine formula, with only two constraints. First any new engine must still sound and feel like a racing engine. Second, and I quote directly because it's critical - 'any research to improve that racing engine would have to be directly relevant to research to improve fuel efficiency in road cars'. That changes the whole ball game.
Amongst the other pearls that emerged during the press conference, Moseley indicated that "we'd be quite happy" with an energy storage device connected to the front wheels. This would effectively turn the car into a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and give it better traction off the line and out of corners. This competitive advantage probably means all the teams will want it, once it's proved to work. Ditto road hybrids? Another interesting move is that the fuel used in Formula One must have a biofuel content in excess of 5.75% from the start of the the season after next.
Standing further back, consider this. Almost any mechanical engineer (and most others!) on the planet would jump at the chance of joining a Formula One team. It's the most competitive and prestigious engineering activity of all, beating aerospace and computing hands down. Now the FIA has told these engineers to stop playing around and to concentrate on doing something useful, which is precisely what most engineers prefer doing. The Directors of R&D in the major auto companies are going to realize, once they've recovered from the shock, that they now have the awesome talents of their racing divisions aimed at one of their key corporate objectives. The clever ones will insist that Racing is still paid for by Marketing, but will also make sure that technology transfer is pursued aggressively. The pace of hybrid development will then accelerate as only a race car can.
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