Tech transfer, tuning and big kahunas

“The racing I enjoy is racing that is extreme – fast drivers with big balls.” So said the head of McLaren’s Applied Technologies division, Peter van Manen. He was speaking to Current E at the Frankfurt launch of the Formula E car earlier this week.

“That’s true of NASCAR, IndyCar and F1,” he went on. “Formula E will be the same. The drivers will have to be tough and have a lot of character to drive these things.”

He should know. McLaren is intimately involved with all four series. Formula 1 is where the company made its name as a racing team, but the organisation has been just as pioneering as a technology supplier. McLaren ECUs – the brains of the race cars – are fitted to all cars across the four series.

“In each series, there is a single set of electronics and software for the whole grid, which has to do different things to reflect the different requirements,” said van Manen. “Across those four series, there are very different engines for the different types of racing. They’re all special in their own way. F1 is the most data intensive; NASCAR runs the most miles. In fact, we do a Formula 1 season’s worth of racing in NASCAR before F1 cars have even hit the track. And in NASCAR, because it’s a long race, it’s like a combination of rally driving and endurance racing. They’ll bring the car in, they’ll fix it, they’ll send it out. It’s not over ’til it’s over.”

Tech transfer from road to track

For Formula E, the British firm is also engineering the powertrain – the electric motors and associated systems that drive the cars – as part of the consortium building the Spark-Renault, which will be used by all teams in the inaugural season. The motor is sourced from the company’s new hybrid supercar, the P1.

“The two projects have been run side by side,” explained Ben Heatley, McLaren communications spokesman. “The dual purpose has helped with research, development and testing. That’s very much the philosophy at McLaren: applying our expertise more widely to society, industry and sport. But it has been serendipitous that these two projects have come along together.”

Although the car revealed at Frankfurt was missing the internal components, van Manen confirmed that testing is well underway: “The powertrain is working. The whole thing has been on the dyno since the summer. We’ve done the equivalent of two race years in the last couple of months and it’s all looking good.”

That components from road cars are being fitted to the Spark-Renault fits directly with the motorsport’s goal of increasing relevance of track technology to the everyday motorist – although the high-end exotica that McLaren is famed for is a long way from the reach of the average driver. The list of the company’s road cars might be short but it’s illustrious: the F1, for a long time the fastest production car in the world and the brainchild of one of the most highly-regarded Formula 1 design engineers; the McLaren-Mercedes SLR, a silver bullet on wheels; the MP4-12C that could outrun the apocalypse if it wasn’t quite so orange; and the P1, spiritual successor to the F1.

“We don’t make ordinary cars,” said van Manen with a slight smile.

Strategy and setting the car up

There are fears that a “spec series” – one in which every team uses the same car – will limit the racing spectacle. That will not be the case in Formula E, van Manen believes.

“With all of these cars, it comes down to who sets up their cars up the best and who drives the best,” he said. “There will be room for individual settings, within constraints. With any powertrain, there are certain things you can tune. With any suspension set up, there are things you can tune. It’s a bit like with a GP2 car; despite the standard powertrain and chassis, teams can still tune the car to suit the driver, the driving style and handling requirements. It will be the same in Formula E.”

Elsewhere at the event, a source revealed that although each driver will make use of two cars with identical powertrains and batteries, one of the cars may be limited in its output, which would mean strategy would come into play with a slower and faster car.

Even if that’s not the case, McLaren is designing the motors to last an entire Formula E season, unlike Formula 1 cars which use multiple engines throughout the year. That will help keep costs down.

Van Manen concluded: “The first Formula E cars will roll onto the track for shaking down this autumn. Track tests will take place early in the new year.”

No location has been publicised yet for the testing. “Talk to the Formula E blogger,” said van Manen drily. “He probably knows.”