Motorsport and electric motors - What direction are we taking?


 From Dakar to Formula E, there are many competitions that are betting everything on electric motors. Let's see what is the present, and what will be the future, of cars and motorcycles with electric propulsion


Usually, when one driver leads the way from the first to the last day, the race is far from spectacular and even quite dull. The 44th edition of the Dakar Rally, the third to take place in Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, was packed with drama as shown by the 8 drivers who won at least one stage of the race.​



​Participation of the Audi RS Q e-trons also aroused a lot of interest. The Ingolstadt-based company entered three amazing prototypes, each with three electric motors, in the toughest rally raid in the world (over 8,000 km (4971 miles) with over half of these being timed heats) which won four stages in all.​

Each Audi RS Q e-tron has two MGUs (Motor Generator Units), one for each axle, which are responsible for traction whereas a third unit acts as a generator which charges the 50 kWh high voltage battery. The powertrain is derived from Formula E’s Audi e-tron FE07 single-seater and delivers an overall power of 680 hp. ​


Since there is no way of recharging in the desert, the battery is recharged by a TFSI 4-cylinder direct injection turbocharged petrol engine derived from the DTM. This is not connected to the transmission and its only job is to produce the energy needed to power the electric motors. 

At Dakar 2022, the three cars were put into the expert hands of Stéphane Peterhansel, Carlos Sainz and Mattias Ekström who gave outstanding results: the Spaniard won the third and the eleventh stage, the Swede the eighth stage and the Frenchman the tenth stage. In the eighth stage the three Audis were first, second and fourth while in third stage they arrived first, third and fifth and in the tenth stage they limited themselves, so to speak, to obtaining the first and second place.

The performance of the Audi RS Q e-trons reinforces the conviction of those who believe that electric cars can compete on the same level as those powered by combustion engines whilst offering the advantage of being sustainable. However, abandoning the diesel and petrol engines used in racing still seems to be a long way off even if the issue is approached in two different ways.​ ​



On the one hand, there are races held exclusively for electric motors which are rapidly becoming more and more popular: for cars, the first in the series was Formula E and the first race was held on 13 September 2014 in Beijing (China). As destiny would have it, Lucas di Grassi won in a Spark-Renault SRT 01E (Dallara chassis, McLaren engine, Williams batteries and Hewland gearbox) managed by the Audi Sport ABT team. 

From its fifth season onwards, Formula E has introduced second generation single-seaters which have led to a significant improvement in performance: the top speed has increased from 225 km/h to 280 km/h and acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h dropped from 3 seconds to 2.8 seconds. All this has meant that the brake system must take a big step forward and Brembo has therefore come onto the scene. ​

Brembo is sole supplier of the entire braking system for all the single-seaters and has developed a complete system specifically for them: it consists of carbon fiber brake discs with 70 ventilation holes at the front and 90 at the rear, a 4-piston monobloc caliper made of oxidized aluminum alloy, carbon fiber brake pads, an aluminum housing and a single-stage tandem master cylinder.​ ​



From the third generation onwards (9th season, 2022/2023), the Formula E vehicles will be even more efficient and when braking will be able to regenerate up to 40% of the energy needed to complete the race. Brembo is working on a new front brake system for these vehicles which will also be used for regeneration whereas the rear brake will disappear, creating the first racing car without rear brakes. ​



For two wheelers on the other hand, the first race for electric bikes was the Tourist Trophy in 2009. That was the year in which the TTXGP was run, a race consisting of a single lap of the Mountain, the course that covers most of the Isle of Man and is 60.7 km (37.7 miles) long. Only six motorbikes managed to complete the lap which was won by Rob Barber on an AGNI in 25 minutes 53.5 seconds with an average speed of 140.7 km/h (87.4 mph). 

This was not a particularly good performance because the British rider was slower than Freddie Frith who in 1937 had won the TT with an average lap speed of 142 km/h (88.2 mph). The gap with petrol-fueled motorcycles however narrowed in subsequent editions of the electric motor race which was renamed TT Zero: in 2014, John McGuinness completed the race in 19 minutes 17.3 seconds, improving on the time taken in 1984 by the legendary Joey Dunlop who won the Tourist Trophy 26 times. 

The TT Zero winner times have continued to tumble to reach a time of 18 minutes 34.172 seconds achieved in 2019 by Michael Rutter with a Mugen Shinden Hachi weighing 248 kg (546.7 lb) driven by a 163 hp electric motor and 210 Nm maximum torque with a lithium ion battery. However, that year, the first electric bike not made by Mugen took over 22 minutes. ​ ​



To prevent different performances affecting the results, Dorna set a sole supplier for MotoE: all 18 riders use Ego Corsa bikes made by Energica Motor Company which also have the same brake system, made entirely by Brembo since the first race held in 2019.​



To stop these motorcycles, with a top speed of 270 km/h (167.7 mph) and acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 3 seconds, they have 336 mm diameter, 7.1 mm thick T-Drive steel discs, 4-piston monobloc front calipers machined from billet with different diameter pistons in titanium, Z04 pads and a radial master cylinder machined from billet with a 19 mm diameter and 18 mm wheelbase. 

In addition to these championships, there are others which are less well known but equally spectacular including the Pure ETCR (touring car) which Alfa Romeo, Cupra and Hyundai have taken part in and the RX2e (rallycross) which has replaced the RX2, using cars with 335bhp of power and 510 Nm of torque, both introduced in 2021 and sanctioned by the FIA. ​




Championships and individual races that see conventional engines and electric motors competing with each other continue to grow. One that has never stopped hosting electric vehicles is the Pikes Peak, an annual hill climb race that takes place in Colorado and has been renamed "The Race to the Clouds" because it starts at 1,440 meters (4,720 feet) and ends twenty kilometers (12.4 miles) later at 4,302 meters (14,110 feet) above sea level. 

In 1981, Joe Ball driving an electric Sears XDH-1 based on a Fiat 128 took 32 minutes 7 seconds to complete it. Thirteen years later, with a Honda converted to battery power, Katy Endicott took just under 15 minutes 45 seconds. The first person to do it in an electric car in less than 10 minutes was Nobujiro Tajima in 2013. Two years later, the first two cars over the finishing line were both electric: Rhys Millen won ahead of Tajima.


The all-time record for the climb also belongs to an electric car and was set in 2018 by Romain Dumas in a Volkswagen ID R Pikes Peak: 7:57.148 minutes, over 16 seconds less than the previous record set in 2013 by Sébastien Loeb in a petrol-powered Peugeot 208 T16. That same year, for the two wheelers, Carlin Dunne with his Lightning Electric Superbike became the first winner of the climb with an electric motorcycle.​



At the 24 Hours of Le Mans, on the other hand, the first hybrid/electric powered cars appeared in 2012 and it was one of these that won, the Audi R18 e-tron quattro of André Lotterer, Marcel Faessler and Benoit Tréeluyer ahead of its twin. The same model made its mark in 2013 and 2014, then it was the turn of the Porsche 919 Hybrid and in the last four years, Toyota, first with the TS050 Hybrid and then with the GR010 Hybrid, all with Brembo components.​ ​  


However, a completely electric car still has to complete the French endurance race. In the 2014 edition, a Nissan ZEOD RC succeeded in completing a whole lap in full electric mode in 4 minutes 22 seconds with a top speed of 300 km/h (186.4 mph). It was forced to pull out because of a gearbox failure.​



Even Jean Todt, outgoing President of the FIA, recently said that: “In Formula One, a race distance is about 300 km (186.4 miles). Without recharging, with the performance of the cars, electricity will not allow that. Maybe in 20 years, 30 years, I don't know. But at the moment it would be simply impossible”. 

Assuming that the world is moving towards increasingly sustainable mobility, what do you think? Do you think that electric cars and motorbikes should compete alongside those powered by other means? Or should they only compete with each other and not race against petrol and hybrid engines?