Child’s play: Greenpower and the Formula E legacy

Greenpower car at Formula E launch courtesy Greenpower

10,000 kids, 500 schools and more electric racing cars than you can shake a plug at – and now, thanks to a partnership with Formula E, the visionary British engineering competition Greenpower is going global.

On the surface, it’s a perfect fit. First, pair a junior racing series featuring electric cars with a globe-trotting high-stakes all-electric motorsport. Next, invite schools local to the grown up race venues to participate on each temporary street circuit as part of the race day programme. Lastly, sit back as the initiative boosts local interest, gives kids the experience of a lifetime, and cements a proper legacy programme that will hook more people into engineering and into owning electric vehicles.

The thing is, below the surface it’s an even better match.

Forming the Formula E relationship

Greenpower is the charity that aims to interest kids in engineering through designing, building and racing their own electric cars. The competition is low cost, safe, boasts a gender balance that’s some 40% female (extraordinarily high compared to industry) and has been operating successfully for more than 15 years.

Three different categories mean that students from the ages of nine to 25 can take part, from primary and secondary schools,  sixth form colleges and universities. There’s a corporate category that allows apprentices and graduates to participate too – Jaguar Land Rover is just one high profile company to field a team. The goal is to complete the highest number of laps possible over the duration of the race, which focuses attention on efficiency in design and driving style.

And for the first time, this year the Greenpower final went international, welcoming entries from the US, South Africa, Portugal, Poland and the Republic of Ireland to Goodwood motor circuit.

Pulling Greenpower into the Formula E sphere is something of a masterstroke, although it’s taken almost a year for the two parties to flesh out the details.

“The idea came from Alejandro Agag,” explains Jeremy Way, chief executive at the Greenpower Educational Trust. “We had a meeting last November. He came up with the concept of getting schools in each of the cities that Formula E will visit to build up Greenpower cars and race them on the Formula E tracks.”

The partnership was announced at a Formula E launch event in London, at the end of June this year, but both parties have remained quiet about the nitty gritty – until now.

In the first year, five cities are earmarked for participation: Buenos Aires, Miami, Long Beach, Berlin and London. Ten high schools per city will take part; they’ll each be sent a Greenpower kit car, with the cost covered by Formula E series organiser FEH, likely in conjunction with an as-yet unnamed sponsor.

The Buenos Aires race is in January, which doesn’t leave much time for logistics. “We’re aiming to ship the cars to Argentina mid-November,” says Way. “They’ll all be our standard kit car, but with a bespoke body designed for Formula E. Each car will require around 15 hours’ build time. Because it will be school holidays, we’ll hold an activity week where the students can build up the cars under our supervision. In year two, we hope that schools will design and build their own cars. It’s become a major part of the Formula E legacy programme.”

Powering Greenpower

The goal of the competition is to engage youngsters in engineering and it is designed to be accessible for all age groups involved.

“Primary schools have to use a kit car we supply, which is called the Goblin,” says Way. “The purpose is really to learn about the basic principles of engineering. There are lesson plans to incorporate the project into class time. For example, to help students learn about friction, you can measure how much force it takes to move the car with the tyres flat or pumped up.”

Teams at secondary school level can buy a more advanced kit car, or design and build their own from scratch. “We leave the regulations very open,” Way explains. “Lots of cars use fixed gears. Some select gear ratios for each event, or swap gears after practice, before the race. Lots of teams use bicycle hub gearboxes or derailleur gears. Some have used electronic speed controls, and some teams have even designed and made their own data logging and telemetry feeds, to send live data back to the pits so that the team can tell the driver to speed up if there’s excess battery charge left, or slow down if not.”

Added complexity doesn’t necessarily guarantee racing success, Way notes: “The top car this year was very simple, but it was very aerodynamic and lightweight. The school has been competing for a long time, so the team benefits from a lot of experience. Every team improves every year. They’re making advances all the time. You don’t need a lot of money: it’s all about knowledge.”

Whether a team simply builds a kit car or designs something from the ground up, all cars must use the same motor and batteries. “The motor is the same in all three categories and is the same one that we were using in 1999,” says Way. “It has an output of 240kW, and it has a real sweet spot.”

The modest motor doesn’t mean the cars are slow – average speeds approach 50km/h at junior level and more than 60km/h for older students.

The batteries are lead acid and must be located behind a bulkhead. They are no longer the standard car batteries that the competition started out with. “The cars are 24V – they each use a pair of 12V batteries,” Way explains. “The batteries use a glass matt impregnated with lead acid, which means they won’t spill liquid content in the event of a crash. There’s a lot for students to learn about them. For example, the batteries vary in performance, which means they need to be carefully paired, and they work better at certain temperatures.”

Charging batteries is not permitted at Greenpower events, so teams must bring several sets of topped-up batteries with them. Junior races are 90 minutes long, but have three mandatory driver changes; senior races are an hour long, with no requirement for swaps. “Races used to be four hours long, which brought some ingenious battery swap mechanisms,” says Way. “We changed the format for many reasons, but safety mainly. There were a few example of students not securing the batteries securely.”

Safety is taken very seriously. The competition is a member of the MSA, which scrutinises Greenpower regulations every year. The seemingly simple powertrain plays a large part in minimising racing risk by effectively capping peak performance, Way says: “Every year the cars get faster and faster. Most of our regulation changes are around limiting speed. We recognise there’s fantastic technology out there, but there’s also potential for the cars to go a hell of a lot faster.” And much faster would bring a whole raft of burdensome regulations that would likely be costly to comply with.

Formula E format

At Formula E events, Greenpower sessions will slot in around the other on track action. “There’ll be a 20 minute qualifying session on race day,” explains Way. “We’ll grid the cars based on efficiency. Then they’ll take part in 20 minute race, using the whole track.”

The school teams will likely be located in temporary paddock bays in the eVillage – a collection of trade stands and entertainment features that was located right outside the main paddock at the Beijing race.

“The greatest challenge will be to recruit schools,” Way goes on. “It seems daunting at first, but we run 30 events all over the UK every year with far more cars and teams participating. We’re just transferring that model. We have a big advantage in Buenos Aires – there’s a government-funded project in schools that’s similar to Greenpower and it’s operated by the Argentina Formula E event organiser. That will give us a head start on selecting schools and organising the race day. We’ve just licensed what we do in the US, so we’ll have the support there of the new Greenpower USA Foundation. For all of the schools and the students, the attraction of racing at the Formula E track will be huge.”

Investing in the future

Because the powertrain doesn’t change, Greenpower cars are a particularly good investment for schools: they can be used again and again. Says Way: “The primary school kits are £1000 – some of the cars competing are now more than 10 years old. That’s great value for money. At high school level, the kit is £2,500, and again, these can be used for several years, with only minor development.”

The affordable nature of the competition is probably one reason why its popularity has blossomed, from 20 schools in the first year to around 500 now. Despite the charity being run by just five full-time members of staff, momentum is building fast, says Way: “Our big goal is to double the number of UK schools participating by 2020. There’s plenty of demand: many of our events are at capacity. We just need more funding: as a charity, we’re heavily reliant on corporate sponsors. It’s a very exciting time for us, and we see Formula E as a giant profile raiser.”

Greenpower is also a great investment for the students themselves and for engineering more widely. “So many designers and engineers come out of university and wouldn’t know how to do up a nut and bolt,” Way observes. “Greenpower gives students hands-on understanding. Whether you’re a student, an apprentice, a graduate, there’s a lot you can learn. You can get as simple or as advanced as you like. You can make of it what you want.”

That approach yields many benefits. Each school project typically involves around 20 students, from a range of age groups. Way says, “In high schools, where the category is for 11 to 16 year olds, older students can work towards B-Tech qualifications by designing and building the cars, and younger students can be introduced to the project by driving.”

The competition attracts a lot of girls, too. “We get them before they’ve been influenced by other subjects or peer pressure,” Way goes on. “Because the girls do as well as – or better than – boys, other girls can see that. It’s also beneficial to be lighter as a driver, so girls have a natural advantage there.”

Jaguar Land Rover uses the competition to foster better intra-business networking. “Up to 60 graduates from across the business take part each year,” Way explains. “They come from all departments, including non-technical roles such as finance. They’re brought together on a project to design and create a new car, just as they would if they were building a new F Type. It gives them something similar to real life experience, and the grads get to work closely with a whole range of people from across the company that they might not ordinarily get to know.”

Greenpower is established, credible and inspirational. While Formula E has grabbed the attention of the world’s media with headline partners and a roster of top-notch drivers, Greenpower has been quietly going about building the future of engineering for well over a decade. There’s no question that the competition will boost the profile of electric cars and electric propulsion engineering among the schools in the cities it will visit. In time, it could even become a feeder series, providing Formula E with technical crews and drivers. In any case, the partnership will underline Formula E’s commitment to culture change.

For the first Formula E season, Greenpower will be a spec series like its bigger brother. That will change in subsequent years to reinforce the educational benefits in host cities. “In the second year, we want every school to design and build a car from scratch,” says Way. “That’s where the real education is.”

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