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Is this the year that green racing finally takes off?

About the author

Jack is the presenter of Science in Action on the BBC World Service. He trained as a mechanical engineer (with automotive and aeronautic design) before becoming a journalist. He has worked at the BBC for over a decade and has reported from areas as diverse as war zones and technology shows

Promises of a green racing revolution have yet to materialise, in part because of the need to convince fans environmentally friendly cars can also be fast and exciting. Jack Stewart test drives a car that aims to change this.

Motorsport has traditionally been about noise, speed and the smell of burning rubber. Spectators loudly cheering the high-octane thrills and spills in racetracks around the world might not spare much thought about what damage it could be doing to the environment. But despite this, racing recently appears to have got something of an environmental conscience – and the world of green racing is slowly but surely growing.

Promises of a green racing revolution have yet to get off the grid, though. Last year, a fuel cell car was due to race in the prestigious Le Mans 24-hour race in France in June, but had to pull out at the last minute due to technical problems. In 2008, Formula Zero – a race between hydrogen-powered cars built by six competing universities – tried to show that sustainable energy needn’t be po-faced, and while the zero-emissions race is no longer going, it boosted the idea of a cleaner, greener brand of motorsports.

One of the biggest issues for green motorsport, however, is how to turn around public perception. Can fans be convinced that environmentally friendly cars can also be fast and exciting?

There are encouraging signs that this is happening. Nascar has taken steps to becoming greener, running cars on ethanol and turning its race meets into centres for recycling everything from waste engine oil to old mobile phones. And on Monday Formula E demonstrated its new, fully electric race car for the first time in Las Vegas, capable of reaching speeds of more than 150mph (240kph), and going from 0-60 in under three seconds. The first Formula E championship begins in September, and will see the cars competing in 10 world cities, including London, Beijing and Los Angeles.

The key is how effective the tech will be. At last year’s failed attempt in Le Mans, one piece of technology did prove itself in the grueling race – the humble flywheel. This is currently being exploited by German carmaker Audi, which uses it to recapture energy usually lost when braking, and then use it for acceleration. F1 cars have used hybrid tech in the form of kinetic energy recovery systems, or KERS, since the 2009 season.

Power boost

Regenerative energy recovery is also at play in the vehicle I was allowed to throw around a test track; a modified hybrid Chevrolet Corvette, usually viewed as an all-American muscle car. This car also runs on a blend of biofuel, known as E85. In this case, the car uses a type of advanced cellulosic 85% ethanol – renewable fuel from woody biomass. This manages to avoid some of the main problems associated with biofuels; that they use land and water that would be better used for food production.

The car also has hybrid technology with regenerative brakes. When the car is slowed, energy is recovered and stored in a battery. When an added burst of speed is needed, a paddle behind the steering wheel provides a boost using that stored energy.

“In racing, if you’re not going to make it faster, or more exciting, why even do it?” asks Forrest Jehlik from the Argonne National Laboratory, part of the US Department of Energy, outside Chicago, where I’m test-driving the car. “But if you can do that, and at the same time remove yourself from the environmental debate, it’s a win for everybody.”

In this case, the car I am driving is a simulator – perhaps fortunately as I continually crash it into the barriers. It is one of several in a large show trailer designed to be taken to events such as races and car meets, so that enthusiasts can witness the benefits of green tech, first hand. The simulator consists of a racing seat, a large flatscreen in front, and immersive sound. The experience is like a racing game, but with much more realistic controls.

Jehlik is the man responsible for this green-racing simulator, and he is convinced that planet-friendly technology has a role to play in the future of motorsport. He put me through my paces. I did not make any concessions to economical driving. I drove as fast as I could, and certainly didn’t limit my top speed or harsh manoeuvres – perhaps I would have done better if I was a little more restrained. (You can witness how I did in the video above.)

At the end of the simulation some interesting statistics are displayed on the screen. Over a 200-lap race, in a conventional car, I would have used 193 gallons (730 litres) of gasoline. But the computer claimed that using the biofuel mix, and some regenerative braking, I would only have used 39 gallons (147 litres) of gasoline. The rest would have been biofuel, and, presumably, more environmentally friendly.

This technology is not just limited to the simulator; it is already being implemented in the US, in the American Le Mans GT Series.

The claim is often made that the technologies developed and tested in motorsport eventually make it into the more regular cars that we drive every day, so is it also true in this case? “That’s the goal,” says Jehlik, “to take it from the raceway to the driveway.”

If 2014 turns out to be the year when green racing really takes off, will it matter much to the average motorsports fan? Are these green shoots, like the simulator, enough to convince racing fans?

“The reception has been really good,” says Jehlik. “They really get it. We’re making better racing, and we’re having a much smaller impact on the environment.”

It’s too early to say if things like Formula E will kill off motorsports’ petrolhead tag. But with the advances being made and displayed, cleaner, greener and much quieter motor racing may be closer to the starting grid than you might think.

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