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Formula E car

McLaren - the power behind Formula E

Peter van Manen (Vice President, McLaren Applied Technologies) explains how McLaren's unique racing pedigree and deep understanding of electronic systems is powering the all-new FIA Formula E Championship.

Why did McLaren Applied Technologies choose to support Formula E?

We believe that motorsport can play an important role in showcasing and spearheading the development of future technologies that will have a big influence on the world in which we live.  Lightweight hybrid and electric cars will feature more widely in large urban environments and the Formula E concept is an incredibly exciting innovation for world motorsport. Being involved in the series provides us with the opportunity to stay at the forefront of technical innovation with the chance to help inspire some of the cars of tomorrow.

Formula E was conceived at the same time we were finishing development of the electric motor and motor control unit for the McLaren P1 supercar, so the timing was right for us.  We had made a small and powerful powertrain unit that was just perfect for open wheel racing.

Can you explain what technology McLaren has contributed to Formula E?

We provide the powertrain. This includes the electric motor which powers a 5-speed sequential gearbox and drives the rear wheels through a differential, a motor control unit which controls the electric motor, and also all of the control electronics that manage the systems on the car.

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What makes this technology so special?

The electric motor that we have developed is incredibly lightweight and powerful. In fact, as far as we know, it has the greatest power density of any automotive electric motor in the world today. A typical series hybrid motor has a power density of 2-3kW/kg.  The motor in Formula E delivers a stunning 8kW/kg, which is 3 to 4 times higher.

What have been the most challenging technical aspects of the Formula E project?

The most challenging aspect of the project has been the very short time available from concept to delivery. From initially conceiving the new racing series to delivering the cars was just over two years.

On the technical side, whenever you go into a different racing category you are faced with differences in how things operate. We saw this when we went from Formula One to NASCAR a couple of years ago. Moving away from internal combustion engines to fully electric motors has been challenging because we have never worked on a fully electric car before.  Electric motors behave differently, so things like how they are controlled and how they react to changing driver actions and ambient conditions on the track are quite new.  

There are unique characteristics of an electric motor that need to be dealt with. For example, they have a very fast transient response and instant torque and braking. This all needs to be worked through carefully.

McLAREN'S ELECTRIC MOTOR HAS THE GREATEST POWER DENSITY OF ANY AUTOMOTIVE ELECTRIC MOTOR IN THE WORLD TODAY.

How does the McLaren electric motor differ to other automotive electric motors?

Our motor is more powerful for its size than other automotive electric motors. It achieves this by being very efficient electromagnetically and also having a very good cooling system. The essence of any motor, and electric motors in particular, is that if you make them small, you still need to get the heat out. They’re generating a lot of power, which in turn generates heat. We’ve managed to navigate this trade-off successfully, and this has definitely contributed to its performance.

How has the electric motor been running in the McLaren P1 – is this a good indicator of its reliability in Formula E?

The McLaren P1 has now been in production since October 2013, so there are already quite a number of them on the road. Before going into production there was extensive performance, environmental and endurance testing, so that itself creates a high level of confidence.  So, we are in a fairly good position; the requirements you have for proving-out something for automotive use give a lot of exercise to the motors, so we know how it reacts under different circumstances.

However, there are obviously differences between the use of the motor in the McLaren P1 and Formula E. We are running the motors harder, but for shorter periods in Formula E, and we don’t have the luxury of the P1’s internal combustion engine attached to it – it is just operating as an electric motor. Because of this, there are a number of things that we have had to do differently in terms of how it operates.

What are the potential uses of the technology outside of motorsport?

There is no doubt in my mind that we will see more hybrid and electric vehicles on the road every year, if for no other reason than there being more and more people living in cities. Because of this, there is a keen requirement to deal with increased emissions. We’ll see motors becoming smaller as adoption increases, and the technologies that we have been pioneering in motorsport can lead the way in that.

Outside of the automotive arena, there are many other applications for electric motors. As power density continues to improve, they will become far more accessible and useable in these different areas.

KEY FACTS - THE ELECTRIC MOTOR IN ACTION

Weight: 26kg
Maximum power in practice & qualifying: 200kW
Maximum power in the race: 133kW with a 67kW push-to-pass

The cars will be operating in ‘regeneration mode’ for 10% of the race. The driver takes his foot off the throttle, and the electric motor starts acting as a motor generator which slows the car down but also recharges the battery.

The batteries are capable of delivering their average power for 20 – 25 minutes, so drivers will change into a new car after this time.

The first ever FIA Formula E Championship race takes place on Saturday 13th September in the grounds of the iconic Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, Beijing. Tune into LIVE coverage on ITV4 at 08:00 UK time.

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