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US: Motorsport industry conference focuses on energy efficiency

By just-auto.com editorial team | 27 March 2007

For those serious about the future of racing, the MIA's Energy Efficient Motorsport Conference, held to coincide with the Mobil 12 Hours of Sebring, proved a significant event.  With support from UK Trade & Investment, Shell, Xtrac and SAE, this was the first time that such a gathering had taken place in the USA.

"We may be a small community in motor racing but we have a huge audience. Therefore, I am very happy we are having this conference in America," remarked speaker Ulrich Baretzky, head of race and special engine development for Audi. With the American Le Mans Series announcing a commitment to ethanol fuel, and bio-diesel making its competition debut during one of the SCCA supporting races, this year's Sebring meeting confirmed the willingness of the American motorsport community to embrace energy efficient technology, with the MIA in the vanguard.

The industry has made dramatic progress since the Association held its first energy efficient "Clean Racing" conference in the UK three years ago. The way in which the USA has been involved in these developments was illustrated by speakers including ALMS CEO Scott Atherton; Doug Robinson, IMSA executive director; Bob Larsen a director of the Argonne Research Center, John Kasab, from the emissions and fuels technology group at Ricardo, Reece Nanfito, of the Ethanol Promotion Information Council and Herb Fishel, formerly of GM, but now the Business of Motorsports.

Atherton, in his welcome address congratulated the MIA on its long range vision for energy efficiency and pointed out that the "real car of tomorrow" is not a futuristic concept, or even NASCAR's new development but the cars currently racing in the ALMS. "There has always been a welcome mat in ALMS, for new technology," he said, "not just as a break through for racing but also for road car application." He pointed to the diesel Audi R10, as an example of that breakthrough technology. Baretzky indicated how this car still looks to the future with the plan that, in 2008, it will be running on bio-to-liquid (BTL) diesel fuel.

Richard Karlstetter, director of fuel technology for Audi's supplier Shell Global Solutions, pointed out "cleaner gas and diesel engines are already here" and we will go to hydrogen sometime in the foreseeable future." Whilst the first generation, gas-to-liquid (GTL),  diesel fuel gives some benefits in reducing CO2 emission. "The next generation will go further," Karlstetter promised, adding that "the very first drops of BTL to come from Shell's pilot plant will be used for motorsport."

Steve Bunkhall, former project director of the UK's EEMS (Energy Efficient Motorsport) initiative, reckons that "there has been a sea change in the public's attitude to bio fuels."
Doug Robinson indicated that IMSA's rules make it easy for the ALMS teams to bring in new technology. A 10 percent ethanol content has already been introduced but a third fuel, perhaps with an ethanol blend of at least 50 percent, may be available for the beginning of next season.

The Indy Racing League (IRL) will, this year, be using ethanol, and is the first major championship to do so. The presence of Fred Nation, Executive Vice President, communications at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of IRL, underlined this, as did the talk by Reece Nanfito. Both admit that whilst ethanol is not the final answer, it is a vital first step along the way to energy efficient motorsport and that alternative fuels will substantially improve the USA's dependence on the Middle East.

A central theme of the MIA's conference was the ideal nature of motorsport for developing energy efficient motoring for the everyday driver. Bob Larsen observed "racing represents an untapped resource of engineering talent." Atherton, with the LMP2 Acuras making their debut at Sebring (one was to win its class and come second overall), reported that what brings this leading Japanese brand  to the track "is not the amount of times its logo appears on TV, but that this is the right environment to develop and exploit new technology." Baretzky used the example of the Dow diesel particulate filter found in the Audi R10. "In Dow, we found a partner which was prepared to urgently develop new lightweight technology, right at the last minute." This successful technology, proven by Audi at Le Mans, will soon be transferred to Audi's road cars.

Another leading supplier to the R10 has been transmission manufacturer Xtrac, its Managing Director Peter Digby pointing out that the car's gearbox is actually lighter than that of the earlier gasoline R8. Diesel power really demands a great deal from transmissions. His company recently responded to a very different, but still diesel powered challenge, that of the land speed record breaking JCB Dieselmax. With kinetic energy recovery systems scheduled for use in Formula 1 for the 2009 season, Digby says that there is "a whole new group of energy efficient technologies, relevant to road cars that have yet to be discovered….very quickly."

Here was the overall theme of the conference. New technologies need developing, and quickly, for the automotive industry to meet its greatest challenge. Energy efficient motorsport may, at first glance appear a contradiction in terms, but it is anything but. In introducing the conference MIA chief executive Chris Aylett pointed out that the engineering challenge behind the sport had, at its heart, the efficient use of energy. He wanted this event to question and discuss, rather than to find a final solution. "We are," he said, "gaining new momentum and creating new business opportunities."

Speaking after the event, Scott Atherton, CEO of Panoz Motorsport Group, enthused "Yesterday was one of the most satisfying days in motorsport that I can remember." He admitted to having been unenthusiastic when first approached by Chris Aylett, with this a concept, four years ago, but has had his mind changed by the progress that has occurred since then. "There is a sweeping, global change that is occurring and all motorsport stands to gain from this."