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Here’s How Audi Will Use Formula E To Develop Electrics

As Audi leaves World Endurance Racing, its new involvement in the Formula E electric series should help it with advancing electric vehicle technology.
Posted: October 29, 2016 - 11:36PM
Author: Marc Stern

By now, everyone knows that Audi will be leaving the prestigious World Endurance Championship (WEC) next year. And, though the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal does figure prominently in the withdrawal plans, there is another very subtle, yet far more important reason that the VW subsidiary is pulling out, electric cars.

Audi has been campaigning diesel vehicles in the WEC – 24 Hours of LeMans, 12 Hours of Sebring, among others – for nearly two decades. For 13 of the 18 years, it has been running its vehicles there, Audi has won, which is no small source of pride to the automaker. Indeed, just to survive and finish in the top 10 of LeMans is no mean feat.

Audi Shifting To Electrics

It is a feat, though, that is becoming history at Audi as the automaker shifts its focus to electric racing cars. Yes, there is a series devoted to electric vehicles, the Formula E electric series. Audi apparently believes that as the automotive world, in its search for zero emissions vehicles, will include a higher proportion of electrics in the mix. It wants to be a major player in the field. In fact, Audi is seeking to boost the share of electrics in its global sales forecast to 25 percent in seven years.

“We will conduct the face for the future on electric power,” Rupert Stadler, Audi chief, told workers in the sports car division recently. It will be the biggest change in the brand’s history. “As our production cars are becoming increasingly electric, our motorsport cars, as Audi’s technological spearheads, have to [be] even more so,” he said.

Notice Stadler’s statement that its electric race cars will be “…Audi’s technological spearheads.” It stands to reason, as well. For years, many have wondered exactly why an automaker would campaign race cars from track to track, keeping teams of mechanics, drivers and others out there when it would be just as easy to save the major sums necessary to campaign two cars by abandoning racing.

The easy answer is that while race cars are technologically sophisticated and they bear about as much relationship to everyday vehicles as a jetliner does to a Space X® rocket, there is something far more symbiotic about the relationship between racing and carmaking. Developments in one feed the other.

Going back to the early days of racing, race cars have been the test beds or mules on which ideas were tried out. For example, the first hydraulic brakes were tested a century ago in racers and the drums and pads were perfected, along with the hydraulics, so that the transition to consumer use in everyday vehicles was pretty seamless. By 1925, hydraulic brakes were standard across all makes. Granted, this is an apocryphal story – one that has come from the dim history of automobiles – but it still has the ring of truth.

A Brief History Of Defrosting

The same applies to defrosting. It was said that during an endurance race in the early 1920s, one of the racers of the day was troubled as his windscreen fogged up in the early hours of the morning when temperatures were down, mist formed on the windshield. An enterprising driver figured that if he could warm the windshield, the fog would disappear. The racer managed to reroute a bit of exhaust through a piece of tubing to the windshield and viola, the defogger or defroster was born. No one knew if the driver finished the race or was found off the road, the victim of carbon monoxide. What is known is that the Studebaker Company heard of the idea and patented it in 1927 and ever since cars have had defrosters.

Think of the advances that will be possible when race cars tech teams are put to work on improvements to batteries and technology and regenerative braking technologies and more. Further, there may be whole new schools of development with lightweight, rare earth magnets and coils and more.

Race car designers look for ways to increase the durability of their vehicles while also increasing their speeds. It is only a matter of time that race-developed batteries and motors will find their ways into street production.

Competitive Pride Backs Effort

Technology aside, there’s also more than a bit of competitive pride in back of Audi’s Formula E effort. Renault, PSA Group’s DS brand and Jaguar are already involved in electric racing. Mercedes is said to be considering it, and it is more than likely that another Audi competitor, BMW, will participate. With two major competitors set to jump in, how could Audi refrain?

Though the departure from WEC means Audi won’t have a competitive diesel in road racing, it doesn’t mean that the automaker will abandon internal combustion racing series. Audi plans to participate in Germany’s DTM series using a four-cylinder engine in place of the current eight.