Race Blog
Singapore 2017

Electric Avenue

“This will be loud, my love,” shouts my dad, “you may want to put your fingers in your ears.” The bright red Ferrari 312B3 is heading towards us fast. Niki Lauda hammers his car under the bridge and into Clearways. A dab of the brake, one gear down, and back on the loud pedal.

Put my fingers in my ears? No chance!

As the Ferrari V12-powered machine screams past our Clark Curve grandstand seats, the sound bouncing all around under the green tarpaulin roof, I scream with excitement. Just writing this now gives me shivers at the memory.

The adrenalin rush of that Saturday morning F1 practice session, for the 1974 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, is etched deep in my memory. It’s as if it were minutes ago… But it wasn’t minutes, it wasn’t months, it was many years… 43 to be exact. 

43 years is a lifetime in the world of automotive technological advancement. A fact we are all well aware of… Well, most of us.

Funny place, the Formula 1 paddock. Too-cool-for-school, testosterone-fuelled blokes all high on their own supply, convinced they’re immeasurably cleverer than you. Some are, many are not. Collectively ‘we’ travel the globe gleefully pronouncing our ‘informed’ opinions to anyone who’ll listen.

We still believe we’re all young and fresh faced but the sad fact is we’re not. The F1 paddock is a rapidly ageing place with a certain dinosaur-like defiance to the prevailing mood of our time.

As the world embraces hybrid and electric-powered vehicles, and governments line up to invoke internal-combustion-engine-ending legislation, keen to exhibit their ever-so-on-trend ‘green’ credentials, the direction of travel is clear to see. Trouble is, many big beasts of Jurassic Park F1 are blind to the mood!

Formula E is on the rise. Electric cars are the future. Sure there are issues concerning battery life, hardware manufacturing contradictions, cost of delivery, etc, but with the collective will of the best minds in the automotive world these issues will surely be tackled soon.

You don’t need to be a crystal-ball-gazing sooth-sayer to see what’s happening. Look at diesels.

Foolishly and naively trumpeted – 25 years or so ago – by the EU, certain car manufacturers and the tree-hugging lobby as the way to go, this flawed fuel technology is now (at last) revealed to be the filthy, cancer-inducing, foul-smelling excrescence anyone with an ounce of sense always knew it was. Those seen driving one of these soot-emitting, lung-clogging relics of the recent past will surely soon be judged as pariahs of our age.

The standalone internal combustion engine is certainly next.

So where does Formula 1 position itself? Embrace the incredible advances in hybrid power produced by the geniuses we have working in our sport? You may be aware of one of the most efficient racing engines in the world, ever. It’s not some power unit of the distant future, no; it’s the engine currently powering Lewis Hamilton to his fourth drivers’ world title. Approaching the 50 per cent thermal efficiency barrier (the white-coat-wearing boffins at Mercedes High Performance Powertrains’ base in the English countryside have actually surpassed this figure with a dyno-mounted unit), the apparatus that pushes Lewis and Valtteri along is an engineering marvel.

As you will no doubt be well aware, thermal efficiency has become the key focus for modern engine builders, and is calculated on the amount of mechanical energy produced from a given amount of heat input.

In the little over three years since the F1 hybrid age began, efficiency rates have rocketed. The Mercedes unit now – allegedly – produces 109bhp more power for the same amount of fuel than it did in 2014. I’m sure you’ll agree that that’s an incredible improvement.

Over the Singapore Grand Prix weekend much paddock chat was dominated by talk of engine deals for now and the upcoming seasons. Excitable gossip and speculation focused on the possible options for the new engine formula to be introduced for 2021.

Blah, blah, blah, the dinosaurs were making plenty of noise… “Screaming V12s are the way to go”, “ear-splitting V10s for me”, “Let’s get rid of these whispering hybrids”, “Formula 1 should rebel against the mood…” On and on they carped.

And, my learned friends, precisely which automotive giants and reputation-and-perception-obsessed blue-chip brands are going to stump up the cold hard cash to fund your entirely fossil-fuel-burning formula? My heart sinks…

Talk of Aston Martin, Cosworth and the like is all very well, but if F1 hopes to build a global audience on the backs of the US and Asia it’s going to need the clout of big manufacturers and not niche players. Perhaps F1 needs to condense and focus on a smaller, more engaged market rather than ‘bigger is better’.

While F1 fusses over four engine manufacturers, Formula E welcomes Porsche, Audi, BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes, Renault, et al. The list will undoubtedly grow. Japanese car manufacturers will surely announce entries soon – they cannot afford not to. 

Like it or loathe it, Formula E appears to be on an inexorable rise in importance and relevance. City centre electric car racing that’s on a dizzying upward curve. 

I love F1 – I  adore the sound of a screaming V12 Ferrari engine, a fuel guzzling mid-80s turbocharged monster, a Cosworth DFV on the downchange. But we simply can’t stop what’s coming.

With the world now driving – quietly! – and at an ever increasing speed along an electric avenue, Formula 1 simply has to be relevant. Rejecting hybrid technology will be the death knell of the sport.

A few years ago one of FIA President Jean Todt’s leading lieutenants leaned in close, looked me in the eye and opined in a hushed and ever-so-slightly chilling tone:

Never forget Darren, “Formula E is our championship.”

I understood his quiet message then and am hearing it ever louder now…

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