McLaren Applied

How will grand prix racing remain road relevant in 2050?


How will grand prix racing remain road relevant in 2050?

Motorsport and automotive. Automotive and motorsport. The two have been inextricably linked the moment the second car rolled off the production line. Which car is fastest? Which performs best in certain conditions? Which technology is the way forward? The latter is a question that has increasingly vexed both industries in recent years.

Fossil fuels are dwindling and becoming about as fashionable as a bowl haircut. There is a burning desire – set alight by global warming – to give mother nature a helping hand to repair the environment which has been harmed by the extraction and use of said fossil fuels. The search for a better, cleaner and friendlier way of motoring, and therefore grand prix racing, has moved sharply into focus.

We’ve arrived at a tumultuous crossroads in our existence. We’re in the driving seat and about to choose the road to take that will leave a legacy which will either be applauded by future generations, or deplored as they are left to salvage something from the planet we leave behind. It all sounds very dramatic, especially if you are reading this while eating your morning bowl of cornflakes and sipping on a cup of Earl Grey tea. But hasn’t grand prix racing always been about the drama?

Hydrogen is dead, long live electric

Firstly, let’s make it clear. Electric vehicles are currently winning the long-raging battle against hydrogen-powered cars. In pure performance terms, the instant torque of battery electric solutions trumps that of internal combustion engine vehicles. Hydrogen vehicles use the same motors; however, battery energy storage technology development is quickly eclipsing that of hydrogen fuel cells, making the hydrogen fuel cell part of the vehicle irrelevant.  

Despite battery electric edging ahead in this titanic tussle, there’s no need to start putting hydrogen in the same group as the dodo and Blockbuster. There may well be a place for both when it comes to the future of mobility, particularly regarding commercial vehicles.

However, as it stands, attempts to convince the public to embrace hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have almost flopped as badly as Green Lantern at the box office. The film’s only saving grace was providing us with the ultimate Hollywood power couple: Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively. Hydrogen has yet to deliver such stardust.

But what does this all mean? Not for Ryan and Blake, but for the future of automotive and motorsport?

Batteries and electric vehicles are staking a strong claim to be the way forward. Along with outright performance, the advantages they bring arguably outweighing those of hydrogen. They are just as clean, less complicated and dangerous to operate, and crucially easier on the wallet.

Energy storage as a performance differentiator

McLaren Applied is perfectly placed to supply standardised electric vehicle technology to all grand prix teams, just as we can for automotive OEMs.

Our proven track record includes having provided the powertrain for all 40 Formula E cars in the series’ inaugural season. From an electric motor that powered a 5-speed sequential gearbox and drove the rear wheels through a differential, to a motor control unit and all the control electronics that managed the systems on the car. For Season 5, we developed a battery that enables the Gen2 Formula E car to complete a full race distance on a single charge, by almost doubling the amount of usable energy to 54 Kw/h.

But won’t this kind of standardisation wipe out a key element of differentiation between grand prix cars?

That’s not strictly the case. It all depends on what will be seen as the key area for technological innovation in the sport. And by 2050 this could well be energy storage, as there will be quite a variety of energy storage mechanisms.

If you take the internal combustion engine today, it’s a hugely complex piece of engineering that’s been refined over many years. There’s only so much further we can go with it. But take a look at the part that stores the energy. It’s just a tank with fuel in it. The complexity resides in what turns the energy into motion.

When you go electric, everything flips around. The motor becomes far more simple and the energy storage is where the complexity is. This is the development path the sport and teams will likely go down.

The future of battery technology

The batteries used in 2050 will charge significantly faster than they do now and also have considerably higher energy density. We will be enjoying the best of both worlds. Having our lithium-ion cake and eating it.

Except the batteries used in 2050 won’t be lithium-ion. They will be made of a different material. Exactly what is tough to predict right now, there’s a host of technology out there and multiple schools of thought.

It’s important to remember that there have only ever really been two major breakthroughs in battery technology. One was lead-acid and the other was lithium-ion. When you see another story pop up in your news feed, proclaiming the next big transformative breakthrough in batteries has arrived which will power everything from planes to your electric toothbrush, we strongly suggest you keep that bottle of bubbly on ice. At the risk of sounding like Donald Trump, it’s almost certainly fake news.

Take fluorine for example. It may be the electrical counterpart of lithium on the periodic table, but it’s quite possible that batteries of the future will use fluoride (fluorine ions) and not lithium ions. And yes, that is the same stuff in your toothpaste that prevents cavities. 

Fluoride has long been in the running to surpass lithium because of its potential for better energy storage in electrodes, which ions move between to charge a battery. Batteries made from it promise up to 10 times more energy density than currently available lithium batteries, the potential to be significantly lighter, deliver vastly improved range when used in electric vehicles, and not to suffer from overheating or have an extraction process that makes a considerable environmental impact.

But before you start squeezing a tube of Colgate into the remote control that’s been occupied by the same set of triple A batteries that were in it when you bought your television, there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about this. Fluorine batteries were being experimented with in the 1970s, alongside tie-dye shirts and disco. Did someone say ‘Saturday Night Fever’?

It’s a bit like how in Formula 1 it’s often possible to trace the roots of the latest innovative design feature to an earlier incarnation, such as the exhaust-blown diffuser. The defining design concept of the 2009-2013 rules cycle was first seen in 1983. It will therefore be interesting to see if there is a third breakthrough in battery technology that really breaks new ground.  

Inductive charging

Whether it will be possible in 2050 to fully charge the battery of a grand prix car from flat in less time than it takes a current Formula 1 car to complete a flying lap around the streets of Monaco is difficult to say at this stage. But charging about 10 to 50% of the battery in around 10 to 30 seconds is very likely, and this will drive a key strategic element of grand prix racing in the future.

Race circuits with inductive charging won’t see teams necessarily carrying out a full charge during a race, but rather partial charging. Teams and drivers will need to establish how much battery power they will have, and how much that impacts upon the pace of their car. Being low on energy will mean a more conservative pace, whereas plenty of energy opens the door to racing aggressively.

One scenario is to only allow inductive charging in the pitlane. Run slowly through it to gather more charge at the expense of a longer lap time, or travel quicker down the pitlane to reduce time lost off track but run the risk of having less energy to play with.

Or why not take it up a gear and really integrate it into the spectacle to use it as method to showcase driver skill? Why not have inductive charging at some parts of the circuit and off the racing line?  

Charging wirelessly sees electromagnetic induction used to transfer energy through an air gap from one magnetic coil buried under the track to a second magnetic coil fitted to the car. When the car is sufficiently positioned for the coils to be aligned, it will induce a current in the car’s coil which feeds into the battery.

To benefit from optimal inductive charging, drivers would have to weigh up how far they want to run off the racing line, versus how aligned the coils would be to pick up the amount of charge they require. Half a car’s width of charge might be enough, or perhaps they will need every electron they can get to keep a faster car behind them on the straights.

Road relevance

How will all this be relevant to society and the road you ask?

We’re heading towards a future where electric vehicles will be the norm. But if you are travelling a long distance, say the entire length of the M1 from London to Leeds, that’s a lot of charge you will need to carry around with you and that requires a pretty sizeable battery.

Cumbersome battery packs that weigh hundreds of kilos bring performance drawbacks and are costly to manufacture. Therefore, to rein in size of the battery needed in an electric vehicle, inductive charging could well be the answer.

A future where your electric car is seamlessly and wirelessly charged with power from the road, as you thunder along at motorway speeds is possible. The notion that our motorways could become a life-size Scalextric set in several decades becomes even more plausible if you consider what’s happened to the rail network.

Trains have predominantly carried their power around with them. Big diesel generators and about 5,000 gallons of fuel. That’s where their electricity has often come from. However, over time the electrification of railways has increased – now more than 40% of the UK’s railways are electrified – and this indicates that it’s potentially cost-effective in the long run to install a comprehensive electrical infrastructure for trains. The same logic could be applied to our major roadways by 2050. Probably not in their entirety, but at the very least sections of them.

Powering your vehicle via inductive charging on the road will of course come at a cost and this will amount to more than if you plugged into the mains at home. This is because you are paying for the convenience of not having to wait for your car to charge, not to mention contributing to the massive investment in the technology and infrastructure needed to make this a reality.

Drama? What drama?

So, there you have it, the fate of motoring and grand prix racing is not so dramatic after all. Hopefully that knot in your stomach has subsided enough to finish that bowl of cornflakes you were eating for breakfast. Although we do apologise for the cereal now being about as soggy as Gene Kelly ‘singin’ in the rain’.

The work we’re doing at McLaren Applied would have been the stuff of make-believe to those who witnessed the first cars roll off the production line. It’s anything but though, as we challenge convention to develop the transformative products and solutions which will define the future of automotive and motorsport.

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