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Motorsport goes E

31 March 2015

Like most red-blooded males, I'm a bit of a petrol-head.

Okay, I drive a 1991 Toyota ute and I seldom exceed the posted speed limits -- but I do enjoy watching others drive high-performance vehicles on race circuits and rally courses from the comfort of my sofa.

Formula 1, the Bathurst, WRC -- they're all great viewing, when I have the time.

Even the gokarts that race on a track beside my workshop are fun to watch and without the inherent limitations of a video link, I also enjoy the beautiful smell of castor oil (yes, some still use it) and hot rubber.

But how long does motor-racing have left before environmental concerns dramatically change its shape and form?

And would such a change be a bad thing?

Motor racing is a bit like space exploration -- it produces new technologies and materials that are then used in rather more mundane applications.

The cars we drive today owe more than a little to the advances made by those heavily involved in motorsport. Better tires, breaks, engine performance aerodynamic efficiency and safety can all be traced back to their genesis in motorsport.

It was with great interest therefore that I read about the first e-racing series, Formula E.

Although Tesla Motors have done a lot to transition the EV from curiosity to practical reality, there's still a lot more to be done before we're all recharging instead of refueling -- and electric-powered motorsport may well provide some valuable extra technology for enabling that shift.

Nothing encourages innovation and advances more than a the desire to go faster, longer and harder than a racing competitor. Let's hope that Formula E does the same for EVs that F1 and WRC has done for the cars we drive now.

The big question of course is "will it be fun to watch?"

Competition EVs are probably going to cost even more than sophisticated F1 cars so in order to sustain such a racing class, lots of money will be required and that will only come from sponsors if people want to watch the racing.

With traditional motorsport, there's lots of noise, smell and excitement associated with the racing. Will the replacement of volatile, flammable liquids and noisy reciprocating engines with electrons and near-silent electric motors kill some of the experience for motor-racing fans?

Will the inherent reliability of electric power components remove much of the uncertainty and excitement that accompanies the use of unreliable internal combustion engines with their myriad of complex parts?

Will the armies of beer-drinking Westies and Bogans who compose large portions of the crowds at V8 racing be replaced by hordes of geeks with pizza, coke and pens in pocket-protectors if things go electric?

To be honest, I have no idea.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

True motor racing (with noisy, reciprocating engines, flames and the attendant dangers) won't go away any time soon however. Even once the last ounce of oil has been fracked from the rocks beneath our feet, we'll still be using synthetically produced liquid fuels such as methanol or ethanol to power such vehicles for racing purposes.

However, vast tracts of the motor racing scene might become very quiet by comparison.

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