by Joe Clarke
Motor racing is one of the most technologically advanced, visually arresting, exciting sporting spectacles in the world. Highly competitive race series around the globe are a potent sensory assault combining the heady smell of hot tarmac and petrol, the sleek, intricately designed, vividly liveried vehicles, and perhaps most importantly, that piercing, high-pitched whine of high-revving engines.
For many, the noise of motorsport is the primary appeal. I’ll always remember going to my first Formula One Grand Prix, the cars could be heard several seconds before they barreled past in a cacophony of millions of explosions occurring simultaneously inside the 3 litre engine. As they passed by and changed gear I could feel it in my chest, consolidating the emotional, passionate connection I felt with the sport, the cars, and the gloriously deafening noise.
In an era when the global focus is shifting towards environmental awareness, however, motorsport is slowly changing. It’s moving away from its high octane roots to a more sustainable and eco-friendly model. We are already seeing the beginnings of this in the form of Formula One’s KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System). This is a device that stores energy generated under breaking, and converts it into electricity, which can then be used for a short power-boost at the press of the driver’s thumb.
On first inspection, this is nothing but a great addition to the the pinnacle of open-cockpit racing, but it also represents something more revolutionary than just that. KERS is an indication of the first encroachment of electric power on motorsport and it points to a future where electric technology will eventually be the dominant power source for racing cars. For me, the biggest implication here is not the effect on the spectacle of racing itself, but the effect that electric power will have on the sensory experience of motorsport.
That aforementioned sound and smell of petrol-powered motorsport will be the biggest loss for enthusiasts like us. The whisper-quiet whizzes and whirs of electric motors don’t produce the same evocatively emotional response that a screaming V8 engine does. The loss of V8s that sound like impending doom threatened by the four horsemen of the apocalypse will surely change the nature of motorsport.
It’s not all doom and gloom however, there are some advantages that efficient electric motors have over their grubby, petrol-chugging counterparts, the main one being instant torque. This means that all the all power of the motor is delivered instantaneously to the wheels at 0 rpm, rather than gradually building across the powerband like in a gas engine. Add this to the power-boost function and the lightweight nature of electric cars and you have the ingredients for an exciting, if distinctly quiet race.
Electric cars are no slouches, as this video from our pals at Motor Trend proves:
The Tesla is the first truly sporty electric car and we can see that it is already more than able to compete with comparable petrol-powered cars, even if it’s not quite ready for mainstream markets yet. The technology is still in its infancy, so hurdles like overheating and the battery lifespan still need to be overcome, but the relentless march of technology will surely address these shortcomings.
Looking at the Tesla in this video is encouraging for me. The straight line speed is more than a match for the Boxster and it certainly holds its own around a track, suggesting that fully electric motor racing has a bright future. As the presenters highlight, however, there is something missing – a certain touch, a feel, a noise. The fact is, electric motorsport is more of a certainty than a possibility, when fossil fuels dry up it is the obvious next step, we can only wait and see how engineering buffs will ensure the racing as is engaging and visceral as it is today.
Joe is a motorsports fan and car blogger working for a company specializing in van contract hire