Motorsport New Zealand prepares for an electric future
With the continued rise of electric vehicles around the world, it is inevitable that one day they will make their way into motorsport. Indeed, they’ve already started at a world-class top level in the form of Formula E’s single-seater formula and its Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy power series, as well as its off-road off-road offshoot, Extreme E.
But what about grassroots motorsport at grassroots level – are there any plans for an electrified future there?
Yes, because MotorSport New Zealand, the local subsidiary of world motorsport authority, the FIA, is deeply planning motorsport, which means becoming an ohmic field.
For the circuit categories, this new chapter will not start with the higher level national classes, which culminate in the first single-seater Toyota Racing Series which attracts promising drivers in search of international success, because they are governed by regulations that do not giving no allowance for electricity at present.
* Forget a Nissan Leaf, it’s the ultimate used electric vehicle
* Switch to EV: the time has come
* Quick Charge 01/05: this week in the news for electric vehicles
* What to look for when buying a used electric vehicle
Instead, MSNZ chief executive Elton Goonan sees the revolution starting at the grassroots, club level, where ‘run-what-you-brung’ is well-established and innovation-prone. All-electric, mild and plug-in hybrids, whether as conversions of existing cars or one-offs – MSNZ expects to see it all.
“Electric and hybrid vehicles are going to be a big part of our future. There is already growing interest from our competitors who want to use them for competition. We heard some interesting ideas,” Goonan said.
This is not a new technology supplanting an old one; the authority is sure that traditional combustion engines will remain relevant in the sport for years to come. However, he also thinks the shift to battery cars could well see them have bespoke categories within five years.
Considering a technology that clearly has different safety and technical requirements raises obvious issues, but as much as EVs pose specific risks and regardless of whether acceptance ultimately rests with event organizers and venues – at present, two of the eight established national circuits will not allow electric vehicles, and for others they are a gray area – there is no ignoring them.
Electric vehicles are increasingly present on a national scale and are becoming more common in motorsport on a global scale, recalls Goonan.
The bespoke Formula E and Extreme off-shoot categories, which involve Kiwis Mitch Evans and Emma Gilmour respectively, are now established. Formula 1, World Rally and Endurance Championships and European Touring Car racing all have hybrid drivetrains.
A first taste of the international recipe will come with Rally New Zealand from September 29 to October 2. Scrutineers and local marshals must follow a specific FIA training programme. Viewers can expect to receive notices; the old days of lending a helping hand to get a broken down car back on the road are suddenly much more complex.
The guidelines developed after consultation with a range of vehicle and battery design experts, fire and emergency services, member clubs and distributors of cars distributed to clubs last November have been reasonably well received. Questions have been raised. It is very good. MSNZ wants this to be an educational process. Training of first aiders and medical workers in the use of specialized emergency response equipment developed overseas begins now.
“These (guidelines) will evolve as we all gain more experience using electric vehicles in a competition environment,” Goonan says. “We encourage clubs and licensees to work with us and it’s an ongoing process, but there has been good interest and feedback.”
An FIA grant enabled MSNZ to purchase five packs of personal protective equipment, each costing $5,000, to ensure rescuers are protected in the event of an impact or fire.
Packs including a helmet, heavy-duty gloves, a defibrillator, high-voltage isolation poles and rescue hooks – designed to keep people away from cars if they have been temporarily paralyzed by electric shock – will be loaned to clubs each time that they accept electric vehicles in their events. A Southland club hosting a double sprint in a few weeks seems to be the first user.
MSNZ’s role is to ensure that everyone, and especially the competitors themselves, have a clear understanding of their responsibilities, with safety being paramount.
Some projects and proposals seem a little too adventurous – a proposal to run a car on multiple sets of radio-controlled car batteries and a single-brand series for early Nissan Leafs have been problematic – but there are more promises from a group of the South Island trying to develop a single-seat EV. There’s also Sebastian Steel’s Ghost EV, a home-built hill-climbing car developed in Lower Hutt, and big-name title-maker – rally star Haydon Paddon’s Cromwell-created Hyundai Kona, whose big-name backers include the national distributor of the Korean brand.
After showing blistering pace in demonstrations at several top rally hill climbs and sprints, an upgrade to a bigger battery may give him the strength to get involved in the National Rally Championship, in which Paddon shone in a gasoline-powered Hyundai i20.
So it’s good ? Not quite, Goonan said. The balance of performance must be taken into account. “A big part of our thing is fairness. Once you start using gasoline and electric vehicles in the same class, then you have the equivalence factor to determine.”
Beyond that, until proven otherwise, he will probably have to avoid a natural habitat for rally cars, forests, because of the risk of fire. The South Canterbury round is the only one in the national series that does not pass through wooded areas; the 2022 edition was last month. At this point, the car may have to wait until next year’s return.
What is the size of this risk? EV road car batteries are well protected, as are the Kona’s, but it is still recognized that although the risk of fire is low, if it does occur, a lithium-ion battery fire is virtually impossible to switch off.
Kiwi driver Mitch Evans is aiming for a big result in the Formula E season finale at the Berlin E-Prix.
Towing and touching are also difficult, for fear of electrocution. In this scenario, electric vehicles giving those who come in contact with them an electric shock if the power source is not properly grounded is a risk that will not simply be addressed by emergency packs.
MSNZ estimates that dedicated competition electric vehicles will need to be equipped with an emergency stop switch to isolate the main circuit breaker and high voltage components.
Status indicators could also become standard on outright racing vehicles, borrowing a system similar to F1, Formula E and WRC where a red or green light will be illuminated to indicate whether the vehicle may be hit in safe or not.
In addition, MSNZ predicts that mass production and full-fledged racing electric vehicles will be required to keep a motorsport logbook, with the ultimate goal of collecting more data for incident management and helping sites to Understand what facility upgrades may be needed. Beyond all of that, Goonan says, competitors will need to have answers to any questions about security implementations that one might reasonably expect.