Jun 252008

Readers will realise – and probably hoped I was over it – that I’m acutely aware and vehemently accusatory about the rising cost of petrol and associated fossil fuels.

Regular readers will know of my staunch support for motorsport, and the V8 Supercar formula in particular. Some might say my concern over the pricing of a dwindling resource and support of a profligate user of that resource in motorsport are somewhat contradictory. Well, it appears that V8 Supercars Australia, the formula’s governing body, is about to embrace greater responsibility in this age of growing concern about carbon production, global warming and exhaustion of the one resource which makes the wheels of industry turn. V8 Supercars Australia has mandated an E85 ethanol-petrol blended fuel for the formula beginning in season 2009.

Currently, a Holden or Ford V8 running in the series uses a five percent ethanol blend, not unlike the E10 currently available at your local servo. From next year, drastic changes will be made to engines, fuel tanks, fuel pumps, lines, injection systems, computer engine monitoring systems … the list goes on. The impact of this new E85 fuel on the cars’ performance is not yet known, other than some loss is inevitable, although results from a 650 kilometre test at Queensland Raceway this week, conducted by Triple Eight Racing, seem to be positive. It’s not as if this change of fuel is something that’s been dropped on teams recently. This move has been mooted for two years now, so you can bet that all major contenders in the series have already been conducting their own research.

The outcomes from this weeks Triple Eight test have revealed an increase in consumption of between 25% and 30%. Engine mapping – the art of understanding just how the computerised sensors monitor and control the performance of a thoroughbred V8 – will undoubtedly be the next undiscovered country for team engineers. Not mechanics, but engineers. I.T. specialists as well. A complete understanding of exactly how the internal combustion engine works, and how to get the best from it is still the domain of a really good mechanic, but that mechanic also needs to be an engineer and be able to relate to the highly skilled geeks which all teams employ these days as translators for the language of EPROMS.

Increased fuel consumption isn’t expected to be a problem during the sprint race part of each season, but we do have two or sometimes three endurance races each year which will be impacted upon radically by increased fuel consumption. Bathurst, for example, is managed in terms of fuel stops. For the perfect race, teams will go for five or maybe six stops depending on whether they start with full or half full tanks when the lights go out at race start. A 30% increase in consumption means another 1.8 – let’s say 2 – stops for fuel alone. From my perspective, that necessity will only serve to make the racing more tactically exciting, but wait on a mo! There’s more fuel being burned. Isn’t that bad? Not with a renewable resource like ethanol, which burns cleaner from a carbon perspective, but does burn hotter, producing more nitric oxides. Catalytic converters scrub out most nitric oxides in standard road cars, but V8 Supercars don’t have catalytic converters. Yet.

Clearly, my favourite spectator sport is on the verge of undergoing drastic change, and I’m all for it. Unknowns and instabilities make for great racing and frankly, over recent years the formula has become very predictable. The challenge for the sport’s administrators will be to instigate these carbon-sensitive changes without impacting on the sport’s popularity and creating unsustainable cost increases through necessary technological change. I believe V8 Supercars Australia will succeed. We watched the sport morph from a pure production car series, to the Group C race cars, then to Group A production racers and onward to the formula we have today which are pure, purpose built racing machines which just happen to look like the cars we can buy from the showroom. Sort of. I have no doubts another change will happen smoothly and be of benefit to the sport’s future. Is the price of change worthwhile? I’d have to respond to that question with another. Do we really have a choice?

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