James Allen on EV: Electric F1 meets resistance from Ecclestone, Ferrari and fans

Bernie Ecclestone has called KERS "rubbish"

By James Allen on July 21, 2011 12:39 PM

The electrification of F1, part of an effort by governing body the FIA to make the sport greener, is meeting resistance from commercial rights-holder Bernie Ecclestone, many fans and some teams.

Electric F1 seems a long way off at the moment. Fan surveys so far indicate that F1 becoming greener doesn’t have broad popular support. FIA president Jean Todt has had difficulty in pushing through new engine rules for 2013, with two powerful lobbies in the form of F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone and leading team Ferrari refusing to accept a more efficient four-cylinder turbo engine. Compromise was reached on a 1.6-litre six-cylinder engine with double the regenerative energy capability of today’s engines.

F1 today uses a system called KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System), which stores electrical power and allows it to be reused as a power boost of 60kw (80hp). The storage capacity is capped at 400 kilojoules and that allows a boost for around 6.67 seconds per lap.

“The guys who designed the KERS for our F1 engine are also designing the regenerative braking system that will go on future high-performance Mercedes road cars,” observes Nick Fry, the boss of the Mercedes Formula 1 team, which runs Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg. “There is a direct link between KERS development and what we are fielding on the roads.”

This is the message F1 is struggling to get across at the moment. Todt represents what he sees as the future of motoring – the EV revolution – while Ecclestone represents the past and present. He has called KERS a load of rubbish: “People only ever talk about it when it’s not working,” he says. Ecclestone’s objections are ideological – he hates the idea of F1 engines being anything other than noisy and high revving and many fans agree with him.

But what is interesting about the 2013 engines is that they will run on electric only when they come into the pit lane. I posted on it here a few months ago.

“We’ll definitely see an electric F1 one day,” says Fry. “To start with it’d be in parallel with regular F1, like the electric version of the Isle of Man TT motorbike race runs alongside the TT. Everyone thought an electric TT a bit of a joke to start with but now it’s being taken very seriously.”

Fry is referring to the TTXGP series, an electric bike racing series that is pushing forward electro-mobility not just through track action but also workshops. The idea is to teach aspiring engineers and mechanics about the technology and how to actually build a bike.

There are TTXGP series in Europe, Australia and the USA and this year there will be 13 races in total across the three series.

Taking the idea one step further, one of the F1 engineers I spoke with the other day made a fascinating suggestion – by far the most effective way to start a race would be electric-only for the getaway. The response and acceleration would be instant and there would be no wheelspin, as everything could be fully modulated.

But can you imagine a silent start to a Grand Prix?

Just by having the debate, though, F1 will be one stage further down the road towards electric racing. F1 normally leads the way, but for Nick Fry’s vision to be realised, the speed with which the EVs takes hold in the wider motoring world will have to increase.