Motorsport technology goes from slipstream to mainstream

High-performance racing cars not only compete for pole position and the chequered flag, they also serve to test technology which has the potential of going from slipstream to mainstream


Motorsport and road car development have been intertwined since cars were first produced in the late-1890s.

Vehicles were raced and lessons learnt on the early race tracks, which were little more than dusty, pothole-strewn dirt paths from city to city, unlike the purpose-built circuits of today. This led to new features being developed which then filtered down, leading to more and more advanced road cars.

Things haven’t changed much in the 120-odd years since the dawn of the early horseless carriages. If anything, car makers are using the race track to develop new technology for the road more than ever.

The old adage of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” still rings true. Motorsport allows car makers to showcase their latest and greatest technology at Sunday grands prix, while dangling an enticing carrot in front of spectators saying, “This could appear in your road car in a few years’ time”.

Car makers are using the race track to develop new technology for the road more than ever

Obviously, Formula E is at the forefront of the electric-car development race. Renault, famed for its electric car range, helped to develop the single seater’s power unit and also provides each team with technical support, while Audi is on board with its Abt Sportline team. Ingolstadt’s arch-rival BMW is also using the championship to showcase its i3 and i8 plug-in hybrids.

Renault says its involvement in the championship “boosts awareness of electric powertrains and strengthens the general public’s trust in the technology”. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ figures, Renault registered 1,016 of its Zoe model in 2014, making it the second most popular pure electric vehicle of the year.

Housing a 250kg battery in a single-seater while providing sufficient range were two of the biggest challenges. And these problems are evident in current road cars as most pure electric vehicles only have real-world ranges of less than 100 miles. Vehicles have also been packaged carefully so boot and passenger space isn’t compromised.

However, the French car maker developed a battery for the series which it says is fully integrated into the structure of the car.

“This is completely new [for us],” a Renault spokesman says. “We also used composite materials to keep the mass down, and we developed an extremely stiff chassis that is electrically insulated and protected against fire.” Renault’s road car boffins provided help with the latter elements, while these developments could filter down to the next-generation of the marque’s electric vehicles.

As well as playing the role of technical adjudicator for the series, Renault is also the title sponsor of the e.DAMS team. The firm says the sponsorship “helps maximise the coverage of its involvement within the series”. Alain Prost is a co-owner of the team and his son is one of the team’s drivers, so the partnership makes sense. To motorsport fans, the two go together like moules and frites.

Renault’s involvement from an early stage in the championship will undoubtedly help in the future. From next season, teams will be allowed to develop their own powertrains. Renault’s sporting arm, Renaultsport, will take over the e.DAMS outfit and that surely will help bring more developments to the road-car arena in the future.

In February, Formula E’s chief executive Alejandro Agag talked about the need to have “actors” joining the series to compete and develop technology for the future, which in turn would improve road cars.

Renault refuses to say how much it is investing in the series, but the simple fact of the matter is through its involvement in the championship, the French acteur is winning on Sunday, while the whole electric car industry is selling on Monday. According to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, registrations of ultra-low emission vehicles were up by 366 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

Formula E’s organisers often talk about the championship creating a buzz, but they’re only partly right because it is also helping to put more and more electric cars on the road.