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Podcast: How to electrify junior racing feat. Hazel Southwell

by Ida Wood

Photo: FIA Formula E

The all-electric ERA championship is set to launch in 2022, and Formula E is still tabling the idea of a feeder series using Gen2 equipment. On the podcast we discuss where electrification can occur in junior series

There’s only three weeks to go before season eight of Formula E, and there’s lots to discuss. Another future-looking series aiming to get on track soon is ERA, which intends to be the first all-electric junior single-seater championship in the world. It was set to get underway in 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed its plans.

FE has its own feeder series on the discussion table at the moment too, and when Formula Scout spoke to Andretti team principal Roger Griffiths last month he was realistic about its prospects. There’s enthusiasm behind the idea across the paddock, and the idea to reuse hardware from Gen2 also holds appeal, but inevitably it will have to be a spec series.

While the chassis exist to cater for a full feeder championship, there isn’t enough powertrains from a single provider to go around and he said it will take a lot of discussion to choose whose powertrain to take on if FE’s current teams sign up to race. Nissan is interested in taking that on, and McLaren has also been mentioned in passing on this topic. But even once the hurdle of supplying hardware is solved, it’s then an issue of finding a place to put it in FE’s paddock – which is usually located in city centre locations – and Griffiths is aware it would be a logistical problem going from the factory to the circuit and back again as space would be needed for lorries and charging facilities. And he sees an FE support slot as the most commercially viable option for the ‘FE2’ idea.

FE journalist Hazel Southwell appeared on the latest episode of the Formula Scout Podcast to delve deeper into not only the ambitions of ERA and ‘FE2’, but how electrification could and will be achieved in other areas of junior racing and karting, how FE’s latest crop of young drivers will fare and the ways electric racing can be brought into existing paddocks.

Listen to the podcast below, and find it on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

One of the first unexpected hurdles is the fact that FE has an exclusivity contract with the FIA running for 25 seasons to be the only electric single-seater series in the world it certifies. Having the FIA name on a junior series would add credibility, but also cost, and that contract will last until 2039 unless FE founder Alejandro Agag changes his mind on it.

That hurts the chances of an electric junior series supporting the internal combustion engine-powered F1 too, which otherwise would arguably be a logical solution for providing a platform for a international series to exist.

“It would make sense for instance if there was an electric F1 support series because the marshals are already trained to deal with high voltage, there’s high-voltage safety equipment around,” Southwell explains.

“They could share the safety teams and medical teams, and that’s a big limiting factor in terms of what you can do with electric stuff because batteries are dangerous, there are different procedures.

“And because if you’re going to an FIA Grade 1 circuit, then you’re going to have sufficient power supply to be able to charge a whole series, which is another significant problem [at smaller circuits]. You need the infrastructure. Which is why FE you see the Aquafuel generators which now use various things, but basically things that run on vegetable [glycerine] oil. Some of it very high-grade olive oil.”

“Formula E by Waitrose,” Formula Scout quips.

“The problem would be, for instance if there was an electric support series for say GT World Challenge Europe, they don’t have the equipment on site, they don’t neccessarily have the trained marshals; you’re putting an additional burden on the series that you’re piggy-backing on,” continues Southwell.

“That shouldn’t be the relationship. Maybe DTM would be a good solution, because DTM are running electric stuff.

Photo: ERA Championship

“And as they electrify cars and move towards hydridisation and the electric class that they’re kind of pootling around, that could be an option for a paddock that something like ERA or a lower-grade electric series can run in. The problem with FE – and we saw this with the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy, which is probably about the closest we got to a kind of feeder series – even though that was very short races and it was a relatively small and contained paddock, it was difficult to fit it into FE spaces. Both in terms of time and literally difficult to find enough space to put the paddock in a street circuit. It’s tricky.”

Despite the Jaguars being SUVs, they were arguably closer in driving approach to an FE car than a junior single-seater, with FE’s unique challenges behind the wheel making it even harder for a junior series to be relevant to both it and F1.

“There’s been talk about the idea of using the Gen2 cars as a feeder series for FE, and again it makes sense. Everyone knows how to run those cars, it’s already designed, it’s already safety-tested. If you could secure a supply from one of the powertrain manufacturers… but no one wants to make them. Because you’d have to supply so many. You’d have to keep making this out-of-date thing.”

The whole reason the boards of manufacturers sign off the budgets to contest FE is that it can be used as a research and development test bed. Producing powertrain and battery technology that is several years out of date, and not even using it to aid the advancement of the technology in the latest FE cars but rather purely for racing, would make no sense to them.

“I did wonder if Audi might do it. Audi developed their FE powertrain and then used it for exactly one season. And they have been using it [elsewhere], they put it in the Schaeffler electric DTM car, they’ve put it in their Dakar Rally car. It’s literally the FE powertrain and a DTM engine that are forming the new Dakar hybrid. And I think they are quite keen to use it for stuff because they did this R&D. But they’ve left FE. And that’s a totally decisive decision, so the board can’t [undo that].”

For all-electric single-seater racing to exist in a way similar to current F1 feeder series, it may really need manufacturer involvement to provide the racing cars. But at the very bottom of the racing pyramid, electrification may actually be easier than continuing with petrol power.

A few years ago, Motosport UK put out a tender for an electric karting concept, with an onus on the idea that going electric will make it simpler and in theory cheaper too because there are less parts to go wrong. Former Ferrari F1 man Rob Smedley won the tender with his Electroheads project, which was delayed by the pandemic but has now held races.

Other countries have already successfully embedded electric karting into the career ladder, with Germany one of the leading nations in that regard with a national championship being run since 2018. The 2019 title was won by Jasin Ferati, who now races in Formula Regional.

Another factor slowing the arrival of electric grassroots motorsport is marshal training, and very restrictive guidelines from national governing bodies on what types of electrical vehicles are actually allowed to compete. Essentially all circuits, motor clubs and marshals need to be educated in dealing with high-voltage cars before they can be raced and the lengthy lockdown periods of the last two years have reduced the time available away from race weekends to actually train marshals.

Southwell thinks “one of the biggest game-changers in terms of the electrification of junior series will be if Ginetta come out with an electric car; a Ginetta Junior EV would be sweet”, but hybridisation is more likely to be the next step.

The second generation of F4 cars have been designed with future hybrid incorporation in mind, and when the FIA decides on a technical rulebook for the second generation of FRegional machinery that too will be a mix of petrol and electric.

But the fear is that costs and complexion will increase with hybrids, as happened once F1 went full hybrid in 2014, and junior series would need to follow the path of major series like the World Rally Championship by choosing a spec supplier of the hybrid components even if there are multiple ICE options like in Euroformula.

“So you make sure that’s all generic, and you probably should make it as common to as many series as possible,” Southwell reckons.

Photo: Fotospeedy

“It’s not just that there’s a hybrid element, it’s that the hybrid element is common to a huge number of championships so engineers can move between them. You then give them a set of programming. Probably each series, because you’ll have different power level between FRegional and F4, for instance. Because horsepower changes and it’s a different chassis. And then you make sure there’s different hybrid maps that they can select, that there’s different power modes and stuff. So there is an introduction of some signficiant complexity, but without the enormous cost of the programming. The programming is a huge part of what F1 and FE spend their money on. Certainly what [Le Mans’ top class] LMP1-H used to spend its money on. And you make sure that those elements are very controlled, especially you have to control the software because there’s so much capacity for cheating so that just has to be completely locked down.”

FE doesn’t have live telemetry going to teams, unlike F1, and this means it’s up to drivers to give continious feedback to engineers while in the car on all the important data parameters as well as making the decisions on changing energy harvesting modes and other complexions. But if all those tasks were given to a 15-year-old single-seater rookie in a hybrid or electric F4 car then it’s likely they will make a lot of errors, and the type that can lead to disqualification for technical irregularities. So would that decision-making need to be out of the drivers’ hands below FE?

“I think what you do is you give them realtively simple information, so you do have that telementry back [for teams]. In junior single-seaters, it’s not like there’s terabytes of data pouring off the car in the same way there is in F1, but where the teams do have that information, they have the battery and brake temperatures, how much current is being moved across the hybrid system and what’s being delievered and where, you’re going to have to let them have that live. Which does increase the cost, because there’s going to have to be data interpretation, so again you give the teams the [spec] software to interpret the data, and give them an interface for that. That gives control, and does prevent a lot of the creep of escalaing costs. It’s something where we can see that this has gone wrong not just before, but recently.”

The increased complexity of Formula 2’s current car led to quite a few reliability shortfalls in its first season of use, and last year Liam Lawson was disqualified from victory in Monaco for an incorrectly chosen throttle map at the start.

Photo: ACI Sport

“For real young people who are just starting in cars, then you’d have to give them fewer [mapping] options. F2 is a step below F1 in theory, so F2 being complex isn’t neccessarily a problem, but for a F4 driver you’re going to have to say there’s say four energy modes available, and you pick one for the race. And that’s it.”

In the Italian F4 championship, the organiser holds briefings at every round where the onboards and data from the pole lap is shown to the rest of the grid. It provides an opportunity to compare, and in a way reduces costs and time by shortcutting the way to the top. The same approach could be implemented in a hybrid or electric series with spec software if the data was shared from the fastest or most efficient driver to help others improve.

Once this technology does trickle down to the lower levels, the engineers could follow. Despite considerably lower pay in junior series, the pressure of F1 and FE’s growing calendars will reduce their appeal to race team staff, particularly those with families, and so working across series that will take up half as many weekends and maybe even all be contained in one country will be attractive. And with engineering education from school level onwards shifting towards electrification, graduate jobs requiring those skills will become more sought after too.

There have already been two hybrid F4 studies, with the British championship evaluating a move before ditching engine partner Ford for 2022, and the Motorsport Games F4 Cup uses purpose-built chassis with hybrid-boosted Abarth engines.

One way to make the junior single-seater world ready for the electric transition has surprisingly not been utilised yet. Hybrid versions of current cars could be incorporated into popular simulator software such as iRacing and rFactor 2, and it means young drivers could have years of learning energy management and how set-up preferences are changed by the incorporation of powertrains and batteries long before they get to sit in the real thing.

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