Think of a motor racing series and inevitability you cannot help but conjure up the roar of engines doing battle on track and the waft of petrol fumes emanating into the stands. In short, motorsport is far from clean, green living - that is, until now. A variety of series have tried to offer more environmentally friendly alternatives, ranging from biofuel to Formula One's seeming love-hate relationship with KERS (the kinetic energy recovery system).
But the world's first eco racing series is on the precipice of being realised. Set up in England, the six-race series will get under way next year, with races in the UK, France and Germany, with plans already in place to potentially race in the Middle East and specifically the UAE in subsequent seasons. The EV Cup is the globe's first racing series solely for electric cars, and its founders fully expect sceptics in the motoring industry to raise more than a few eyebrows at a potentially silent racing series.
Andrew Lee, who co-founded the series with Sylvain Filippi, admits to answering more questions about the potential for a seriously quiet racing series than anything else when talking about the EV Cup, but he is adamant he will dispel many of the myths about electric car racing. "People have the mindset that electric cars are slow and silent," says Lee, who readily admits to having a similar outlook himself in the past.
A self-confessed petrolhead, he was converted after test driving an electric car for the first time. He recalls: "It was a Th!nk City car and I definitely went into the test drive with pre-conceived ideas of what it would be like. That perception radically changed as I became aware of what an electric-powered car is capable of." As for the notion of quiet racing on track, Lee admits the decibel level will be easier on the ears, but points out that a full grid of whirring electric cars will still cause a din.
"The best way to describe the sound of an electric car at full speed - which I read in a car test review - is like a jet engine," says Lee. "Of course, the noise is very different to a normal engine, but I can assure spectators that there will be noise. Just not as much noise." Lee's love affair with electric cars has come a long way since first taking to the wheel of the Th!nk. However, it was not until midway through last year that Lee, who had previously worked as a consultant to major manufacturers in the electric car industry, thought of a racing series as the way forward.
He explains, "It was last summer when we first started discussing it although we didn't set up the company around the EV Cup until the end of last year. "But it seemed to make sense as we already had relationships with various vehicle manufacturers, and we already had a good idea of the business model and how everything and everyone would work together. And from there it's been a bit of a rollercoaster."
The plan is to run three different classes at a race weekend: a prototype class for Le Mans-style racers, a sports EV class for single-seaters and the slowest of the classes, the City EV Class with the aforementioned Th!nk City car. Already, the Swiss-built Green GT has been signed up to the prototype series, while the Sports EV class will run the Ginetta G50 EV as well as the Lightning GT and the Westfield iRacer.
A variety of different teams and drivers have already signed up for the series, including a host of celebrities, but the EV Cup bosses are not yet making that public. All Lee would say was that "there are a number of race teams". He added: "Some of them are race teams that you would know today and others have been born for this series. There are celebrity drivers that are keen and also drivers that are looking to electric car racing to further their careers."
Lee expects the racing to be more akin to touring cars than F1, although comparisons have already been drawn between the EV Cup and F1, much to Lee's surprise. However, he points out, "We have never compared ourselves to F1, but what's interesting is that other people tend to do that. We're not trying to mimic what F1 is doing. "Where people have pointed out a comparison is that both us and F1 are trying to push automotive technology to the limit and trying to get that into road cars as quickly as possible. It's just that we can get those technologies into road cars quicker than F1 can."
The EV Cup has tried not to pigeonhole itself as solely open to one particular kind of racing team, racer, or fan for that matter. Interest has ranged from individuals who bought the first electric cars available on the market to those new to the electric car community and also green-minded companies looking to get onboard the project to further their own means. "There's quite a differing interest level," insists Lee. "Even the motorsport industry - usually a tough nut to crack - at large is interested. We launched ourselves at the Autosport International Show in January and the interest was immense, even ranging to budding university students interested in studying greener projects in their degrees."
Before the series can get off the ground, there are still a host of loopholes to go through, and the green light needs to be given by the Motorsports Association in the UK and, after that, global motoring governing body the FIA. Lee and Filippi have got Grahame Butterworth on board for that task. Butterworth has 40 years of experience in the motorsport industry, most notably as a competition organiser. He has run the UK's leading kart racing class for the last 15 years and also set up an endurance car racing class eight years ago.
The crux of Butterworth's task is to persuade both the British Motor Sports Association (MSA) and the FIA that electric car racing is safe. With the voltages in question, there are very real concerns for drivers, team members and race marshals, all of which Lee is confident of overcoming. "Grahame is very well connected and knowledgeable in setting up a race series," adds Lee. "But the safety concerns are nothing new. These are things that people are well aware with when it comes to electric cars. We need to ensure that there are no concerns about the potential for electric shocks.
"We're confident we'll be able to deal with those concerns and then the series can get up an running." Lee claims tracks are queuing up to put themselves forward as hosts for a round of the series. None have yet been named, although the UK venue Rockingham is rumoured to be the one definite. What appeals to circuit bosses is the combined selling point of reduced noise and reduced C02 emissions that goes hand in hand with the EV Cup.
"Tracks are limited by both noise levels and C02 emissions, which makes us appealing as we can race at other times away from their normal meetings," he says. "I'd have to say that has been a happy coincidence of the EV Cup as we'd never initially envisaged that. "What it will mean is that we can run at weekends when traditional racing wasn't originally permitted." If FIA backing is given - as Lee fully expects - then the approaches from tracks, such as those in the Middle East, can turn into more viable options for future seasons.
And Lee would welcome a Middle East leg in the future. "We've already had approaches from the United Arab Emirates, and it's an area we're looking into," he says. "The key is our sponsors and, if they are keen to see this type of race in the Middle East, then from our point of view, we're more than happy to go out there to race." Wherever the racing ends up, such is Lee's confidence that he believes his brainchild will overhaul both motorsport and the motoring industry.
"We do think this will change the face of motor racing as we know it," he says. "But also we finally have a chance to really showcase the performance of electric cars. There's been no way to do that until now. We just want to put them on track and show how fast they really are." firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: May 8, 2010 04:00 AM