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Nissan plugs in quickly to electric racing

Nissan plugs in quickly to electric racing
Autos
Nissan e-dams driver Sebastien Buemi had a big weekend in Brooklyn in the season-ending races of the 2019 Formula E campaign, which marked the first season for the automaker.Nissan

BROOKLYN, NY — When the vast majority of road cars are electric, will there be a fan base for gasoline-powered racing?

It’s an interesting question, and one that was bandied about by an impressive panel conveyed by Nissan during the recent Brooklyn stop on the 2019 ABB FIA Formula E calendar, the two-race event marking the end of a very successful fifth season for the all-electric, open-wheel series.

Series CEO and founder Alejandro Agag made an analogy to horse racing, noting that while it was huge in the early days of the combustion engine, an era when many people still had daily contact with the four-legged creatures, today it is a niche sport.

Nissan global motorsport director Michael Carcamo, who oversaw a very successful inaugural Formula E campaign for the Nissan e.dams team, agreed that even when EVs rule the roads, combustion-engine racers would still have a place.

“We still go to the Goodwood Revival to see cars from fifty, sixty years ago, so I think there will always be a space for the craftsmanship and artisanship of building a (gas) motor and a car,” he said, adding that emissions on a racetrack are very small compared to the global total of vehicles. “What we need to do is do well for the environment and the world, but there’s no reason why racing has to stop.”

Not too surprising an outlook given Carcamo’s impressive career resume, which includes a mechanical engineering degree from Tufts University, a half-decade working in IndyCar, and a 17-year tenure with Nissan, the last three as global motorsport director overseeing Formula E, Super GT, prototype and GT3 racing activities.

What is surprising is that it took Nissan so long to join Formula E, considering the automaker is an EV pioneer. It’s all-electric Leaf model debuted in in 2010, and in March of this year global sales surpassed 400,000 units, making it the world’s best-selling highway-capable electric car.

Nissan global motorsport director Michael Carcamo worked in IndyCar for five years before joining the Japanese automaker, and oversaw a very successful inaugural season for the Nissan e.dams two-car team in Formula E. Andrew McCredie

Despite waiting until the fifth season of the open-wheel series to join in on the emission-free fun, Nissan proved that it’s extensive battery and electric powertrain knowledge from a decade of Leaf development was transferable to the racetrack. Nissan driver Sebastien Buemi won the Saturday race in Brooklyn and finished third in the Sunday race, results that gave him second place in the final driver’s championship standings. The title was won by defending champion Jean-Eric Vergne of the DS Techeetah team. Buemi’s strong results, combined with teammate and rookie Oliver Rowland’s good showings, gave the Nissan e.dams team fourth-place in the overall team standings, just one point shy of Envision Virgin Racing. By all accounts, a very successful rookie season for Nissan, the first Japanese manufacturer to enter the series.

“We knew we faced a steep mountain to climb when we entered this championship and the first half of the season certainly tested us,” said Carcamo. “We also now have a full season of data, experience, and knowledge in the Formula E championship which will not only allow us to build a better race package for season six but will also play a key role in improving our electric vehicles for the road.”

That latter point, in essence, is the raison d’etre for Formula E. The real world R&D achieved by running the battery packs, motors and inverters flat out for the course of a race is invaluable for the automakers in the series. It’s why Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are fielding teams for season six, joining the established teams from Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Nissan. That the racing is wheel-to-wheel exciting, many of the drivers have F1 experience and the winner is often in doubt until the final lap is just a bonus.

Driver Sebastien Buemi and Nissan global motorsport director Michael Carcamo celebrate in the Nissan e.dams garage during the Brooklyn race weekend, in which Buemi won the first race and placed third in the second race. Nissan

During the panel discussion Carcamo alluded to this transfer of knowledge from racetrack to road car by saying “the secret sauce of this series is efficiency.”

I caught up with him in the Nissan e.dams garage the next day to find out what he meant by this.

“As compared to other race series where every team and every manufacturer is only focused on achieving the maximum power, and so power density is the most important factor, in Formula E we all have a limit to the power output and its regulated (by FIA),” the engineer in him explained, adding the DNA of an electric vehicle are the powertrain and battery management systems. “There’s no way to get around that FIA rule, so the only other choice you have is how efficient can you use that power. That is the trick.”

Because there is very little testing in Formula E, and the fact that the cars themselves are unavailable to the teams between races, the information currency they deal in is digital, he continued.

“We have to learn a lot about our car virtually, and the ability to correlate that between real and virtual, that’s an asset,” he explained. “The road car team is learning about how can we make such a high fidelity representation in the virtual world, and then be precise enough to race with it. That is a tool that is being shared every race we get.”

Translation: where once the revered ‘engine builders’ and ‘aerodynamicists’ ruled the top step on the podium, tomorrow’s open-wheel race champions will be spraying champagne thanks to 0s and 1s.
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