Earlier this year Dunlop launched their ‘Future Race Car Challenge’ an opportunity for anyone and everyone to offer an opinion and a vision of what motorsport might look like in a medium term future.
Plenty of options were proposed, and Dunlop helped to kick start the debate by commissioning highly respected engineer and designer Sergio Rinland to ‘envision’ a potential future racer
Sergio’s portfolio makes him an ideal candidate to do this having designed successful cars in a range of sporting disciplines including Formula One, Le Mans Prototypes and Touring Cars, and latterly with a direct involvement in more than one Garage 56 project for the current ACO-led technical challenge to bring new technologies to the track.
He was the ideal man then too to arrange a conversation with on just how, and how quickly, we might move towards that vision for the future of the sport.
We were joined in discussion by Dunlop’s Marketing and Communications Director James Bailey and it was James that was first to the punch after a purposefully pointed question from the DSC Ed.
Garage 56 is it dead?
“It’s very much alive from our point of view, We were involved in the Green GT that, as you know didn’t make it but it is still very much an ongoing project. And we know there are other teams lining up now potentially for future Garage 56 efforts.”
But are the timescales applied to the projects realistic, if a global giant like Nissan struggles to get a car to the track in a reliable form what chance does a small consultancy or academic organisation have?
“Speaking from a tyre manufacturers’ perspective then it is a problem – to develop a one-off bespoke product, alongside other commitments, is a real stretch with just 12 months notice. Add in the other major technology shifts required and it really is a task that needs 2-3 years planning.
“In financial terms the investment required for a successful G56 effort is of a similar level to that required for a successful LMP2, or even LMP1 car. The major issue pretty rapidly becomes justifying that investment and that really means that the car needs somewhere else to race over and above the one race that is currently guaranteed. It’s a big financial risk for a single hit. If it’s the basis, as a genuine prototype for something that follows, with the basic architecture for an LMP, or even a GT car for a subsequent year then of course there is the opportunity to see it as a development tool. Without that then I think it could be a challenge to put it in front of a corporate board.”
“I think Garage 56 is exactly the kind of initiative that is needed, I know you know that I have been involved in a couple of projects, including one that was designed to compete this year, but I didn’t have the support from an OEM to bring it to reality.
“There has been other interest too but the realities of finance and development mean that there’s no chance now for it happening in 2015 for us.”
Moving on from Garage 56 and into the wider question of technological progress for the sport and the wider industry, are we in a sweet spot for innovation right now after what feels like many years of intransigence?
“Yes I think so, and for a couple of reasons. I believe one, is the environmental imperative that has come to the fore so very much, and the other is security, specifically because access to oil is becoming very, very expensive. The US government made it plain some years ago that there is so much dependence on oil that getting and maintaining access was a major security issue for them.
The Dunlop commission must be the ultimate dream brief for an engineer? The ultimate whiteboard?
“Yes, what they have done it to throw the doors open wide – By saying, “OK, there are no regulations, what do you think that motorsport might become in the future?” it gives me an opportunity to take a very different sort of view. Honestly though it is something that I had been thinking about for a number of years, and trying to persuade the powers that be to lower the regulation limits a little bit and help us all to innovate a little more, push the boundaries and do what we all do best, to find solutions to big problems.”
We have the outline of your vision for the future, and a very different future it is! Where do you think the most accessible and likely stepping stones towards that future vision would come from – and when?
“We already have now the current hybrid cars at Le Mans and in F1. Formula E starts this year and again I think it’s a step in the right direction because it creates a platform to do what we think the future of the sport will be.
“To see a car like the one that we have shown as a response to the Dunlop Challenge it is in a direct succession to the progress we have seen in recent years – I really do think this is the future of motorsport.”
There are though a lot of reservations about the role of this new tech in the sport?
“Oh yeah for sure, a lot of people are probably thinking, like myself that technically we’ve addressed a race from London to Paris by starting somewhere in Birmingham!
“What I mean is that they could have started further up on the technology ladder because many of the elements are already here.”
It seems though that the wider sport at the moment is focussing the technology in the area that can only really be described as gimmicks?
“Every time you apply new technologies it is a step in the right direction. I was never concerned for instance about driver aids, something that has been talked about for the last 20 years and some drivers, particularly the most experienced ones are always against new gadgets and new driver aids because then they might need a new technique, and that doesn’t suit them.
“The prime example is between last year and this year in Formula One. Vettel was the master of blown diffuser and that’s why he won so many races and Championships one after the other because the rules were stable and he knew how to drive those cars.
“Come this year and it’s a completely different car to drive and Ricciardo, for example, adapted to the new technique much better than Vettel managed because he was too used to the other kind of driving.
“Of course the same happened before that, to the guys who used to drive the cars before the blown diffuser and then found it difficult to adapt. Drivers evolve through generations. Some drivers learn the new techniques and other fall by the wayside and new guys come and take their place.
“Look back 20 or 30 years and it was the same, and it will be the same looking forward too. As I said in the response to the Challenge, I believe that in the future drivers will be more of an ‘operator’ of a future car, much as a fighter pilot is today. They have to be hugely skilful to fly the planes but with a very different skillset to those that their equally skilful brothers needed 30 or 40 years ago.
That’s already getting to that stage in LMP1 now isn’t it with all the fuel and energy management systems aboard the cars some of the drivers have already observed that their role in the car has changed?
“Absolutely, drivers evolve as the cars evolve. Formula One was fighting throttle by wire 20 years ago because they though it was taking that skill from the drivers, the same with semi automatic or automatic gearboxes. If you give one of the young drivers a car with an H pattern gearshift they probably wouldn’t know where to start!
“In the ‘60s the skill of using the H pattern was one of the defining ones for success, the reality though now is that it isn’t needed or relevant any more and basing a sport on that is wrong.”
What about the tyre market in motorsport, it does seem that the tyre companies are doing perhaps more than their fair share of the sponsorship and activation nowadays?
“I think perhaps what we need to see more of is the competition back – there are now too many single make (tyres) series. It puts the brakes on innovation more than probably any other single factor. An open market and more open regulations where people fight with what they have works on so may levels, it just mean that some of these companies are doing more of their research through the sport where in a more controlled format they cannot and so need to pay to do it elsewhere!
“That’s why I like Le Mans more than I like Formula One in this sense, it’s more open, you have more options and opportunities to innovate and develop.
“Not using technology is a false economy in terms of performance, and often safety too – For example, I was working last year in a formula which does not allow tyre pre-warmers.
“I believe that reduces safety, performance and efficiency too – At Le Mans for instance we tune the set-up of the car using, amongst other things, the information from the tyre sensors, from day to night, from one driver to another, because it is one of the very few factors that we can actually manage to that degree, in a single seater formula where you have a race lasting an hour or so its a safety issue, it reduces cost, not increases it because you have fewer failures, fewer incidents, more control.”
A question both to Sergio, and to James – I’m sure you are both well versed in having to pitch motorsport programmes on a corporate board level – What are the pressures now in that regard, is there active pressure for environmental impact analysis for instance?
“I think that pressure comes from outside the sport, frankly inside the sport the people are still pretty oblivious to it, it is still seen as a threat. But from outside of the sport, that’s why the sport is losing audience because there are too many choices out there and the sport is still choosing to promote itself in more or less the same manner as it did 20-30 years ago. Media has changed, and the options for young people to go and have fun is so much wider than it was even a decade or to ago.”
“It has to be relevant, and that is the big challenge for us. As you observed a lot of the tyre companies are involved in motorsport so you have to find something that differentiates you from the competition and the clearest way of doing that is to beat the competition. That’s why I agree with Sergio that having a tyre war is still an important thing to have in motorsport.
“It isn’t right for all Championships, I would argue that for the British Touring Car Championship and for other categories, particularly in junior single seater racing that a control tyre is important but when it comes to something like Le Mans where you have a huge diversity of different power concepts, in GT with front or rear engined cars and so on, having a bespoke tyre to suit that car can give a competitive advantage and it allows us to develop new concepts that can then cascade through into our standard racing tyres, and then into road tyres too – As Sergio says it encourages us to use competition as part of a natural, even essential, development process.”
In terms of the opportunities to innovate, there really is nothing more open in world motorsport at present than LMP1 is there?
“That’s correct. From all of the formulas out there today it is probably the best one. Like everything else they have their faults but the three current manufacturers have three completely different concepts and there is just 2 or 3 tenths a lap around Le Mans between them! That’s amazing, and I think it proves the point because I don’t think they are spending more money than if you were controlling everything like they do in Formula One where everybody has to run virtually the same powertrain and the competition is not between systems or technologies but between fine-tuning and manufacturing. I don’t think the technology is yet mature enough to have progressed, as we have in F1, to the point where we are looking for such small increments.
“That’s why the Le Mans situation is better, they have given people the freedom to experiment and innovate and over the next few years we’ll see who got it right, and who didn’t and eventually that will feed into the natural, and the correct process to determine what technology is best, rather than to pre-determine the answer!
“OK in terms of the variety we are likely to see that polarise a little as the technology matures and we see perhaps a coupe of manufacturers adopting similar technical solutions to each other, but that will be informed by the successes of performance and efficiency, not by regulation, and that is absolutely how we should be progressing.”
So is the next big step to see these technologies filtering down to other areas of the sport as the top categories take the next big step forward?
“I think if we are talking about the hybridisation, or electrification, of categories then the next big change will be in something lie Touring Cars or Rally because the brands involved in those areas of the sport are getting more and more involved in the electrification of their roadgoing products. That means that on the one hand they need to market and promote that, and racing gives that opportunity, and of course it will give them an opportunity to accelerate their product development. I see there being particular opportunity in Rallying as the cars and the running are the closest to the real road cars.
“To do that though they need a little bit of help from racing, their marketing and development needs need to be matched by the pace of development of the ruleset.
“Look at GT racing at the moment though – The basic premise there is balance of performance, a level playing field between all of the manufacturers. There I don’t see hybrid coming any time soon, despite the fact that three of the biggest manufacturers are building hybrid supercars.
“In fact with the GT convergence having gone away for now there is potentially an opportunity for a future GTE class to have maybe some more technical freedom, and that might include some of the hybrid systems that we are now seeing on some of those manufacturers road cars. GT3 would then become the customer sport category thereby giving a proper differentiation between the two, which was one of the driving factors behind the drive for convergence in the first place.”
“Balancing the technologies can be done – look in Japan in Super GT where they have been racing hybrid GTs (in GT300) for a long time now, they race alongside cars that are basically GT3s and I don’t believe that they are that much more expensive, if at all, than GTE here.
Putting aside current financial realities, addressing the question in pure engineering terms, what would you most like to see as the next big step forward towards your future vision?
“I’d like to see a Series Hybrid car allowing the generation of the electricity from within the car, not as we currently have where the electricity , or at least the energy, is generated by an internal combustion engine.
“The hydrogen fuel cell is being developed very, very fast and in the next few years we will see this technology start to replace internal combustion engines. that will be THE biggest leap because you won’t be using oil any more, no more petrol or diesel being used to generate the electricity, you’ll be using hydrogen.”
How long will that take to be mainstream?
“Well I think we’ll see it raced first, and I think we’ll see a series hybrid with an internal combustion engine at Le Mans probably from 2017 and after that maybe another 3-5 years to see that energy generated by fuel cell technology.
“Formula One is different and I can’t see what the next step for them is going to be, there are so many different interests at play there that I can’t really predict a timeframe. With Le Mans I am far more confident that it will happen within the next couple of iterations of the rules.”