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Racers, Start Your Engines

January 29th, 2011 Comments off

Flying Lizard Porsche/Riley Daytona Prototype

The racing season officially starts today!  The Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series is running its 49th annual 24-hour endurance race at Daytona as I type this.  And while the France family dumbed down the series back in 2003 with the introduction of the low-tech tube-framed Daytona Prototypes, the racing is exciting at least.  Endurance racing is supposed to be about patience and strategy, but this running is already off to a sprint-race-like start.  It’ll be interesting to see if the pace can be maintained while the little hand travels twice around the clock…

Audi R15 TDI Le Mans Prototype

The more relevant sports car series, the American Le Mans Series, has their winter test at Sebring early next month, with the racing commencing in mid-March.  Meanwhile, Formula 1 starts its season in Bahrain about the same time.  NASCAR also begins its long and boring season next month … but does anybody really care?  (Though it’s the most popular series in the U.S. – much like McDonalds is the most popular restaurant – it’s essentially a spec-series using outdated technology, and its huge fan-base has been in decline of late.)

Sebastian Vettel's 2010 Renault-powered Red Bull F1

But more importantly, Cub Scout Pack 350 held their Pinewood Derby this morning, and your author’s 7-year-old son took first place in his den!  Sure, the construction of the car was very much a father-son project (emphasis on the father).  After all, it’s unwise to hand over saws and power tools to a 1st-grader.  But the boy designed the profile, and repeatedly rationalized his design decisions based on the fact that we wanted to optimize the aerodynamics.

…And if that doesn’t solidify my credentials to bring you this blog, then I don’t know what does!

2011 Pinewood Derby "Blue Pirate"

Somebody KERS!

February 14th, 2010 Comments off

Last August, I posed the question, “Who KERS?” in regards to the limited success of the Kinetic Energy Recovery System employed in the 2009 Formula 1 season, and the elimination of the system for 2010.  Well, it turns out that at least one of the systems developed by an F1 team will in fact live on.

As recently described by AutoBlogGreen, Porsche is utilizing the Williams-developed flywheel-based energy storage system in its 911 GT3 R Hybrid.  The 911 GT3 R is the race version of Porsche’s bread-and-butter 911.  The hybrid system leaves the conventional 480-hp flat-6 powering the rear wheels untouched, while adding a pair of 80-hp electric motors to each of the front wheels.

Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid

Porsche has always done things a little differently than other automakers, at least with respect to the 911.  Instead of competing in the horsepower wars using 8-, 10- and 12-cylinder engines with massive displacement, they’ve continually developed their horizontally opposed 6-cylinder combined with lightweight (and often exotic) materials to maintain their competitive edge.  Until just over a decade ago, this engine was still air-cooled, in contrast to literally every other automaker’s water-cooled powerplants.  And even now, in a triumph of engineering over physics, Porsche still hangs the motor way out back behind the rear axle.  So it comes as no surprise that they’ve taken the less-traveled path of using a flywheel (instead of a battery) to recovery the energy from braking.

In the simplest terms, the system works by the front-axle motors acting as generators to convert the kinetic energy of the spinning wheels to electrical energy under braking.  The electrical energy is then converted back to kinetic energy at the flywheel (which is essentially another electric motor), as it spins at speeds up to 40,000 rpm.  Under acceleration, the flywheel then acts as a generator, converting the kinetic energy of its spinning mass to electricity, which is routed to the front-wheel motors, where it is converted back to kinetic energy to help power the wheels. (One thing I’ve often wondered in systems like this is – why all the conversions? You want kinetic energy to move the car, and with a flywheel you’ve got a kinetic energy storage system.  Seems like there’d be fewer conversion losses if you could skip the electro-part of the electro-mechanical system, and just connect the flywheel to the drive system by an intelligently activated clutch or viscous coupling.  I’m sure the hybrid system designers out there could give me countless reasons why this wouldn’t work, however.)

And finally, am I a hypocrite because I like this car so much more than the BMW X6 ActiveHybrid, which I criticized here?  Of course not.  BMW has taken a conventional fuel-efficient technology and applied it to a mass-market car solely for performance purposes, with almost no efficiency benefit.  (Plus, the X6 is ugly.)  Porsche, on the other hand, has taken an unproven fuel-efficient technology, and applied it to a limited production race-car as sort of a rolling laboratory to spear-head the development of this new technology, before potentially applying it to its road-going cars.

And although I (like many others) question the feasibility of flywheels as the energy storage solution for mass-market hybrid vehicles, people also once criticized the throwing-a-dart-backwards handling characteristics of the rear-engined 911.  And by most measures, Porsche has been successful with that effort…

The Great Pumpkin

October 6th, 2009 Comments off

They say the two best days in a guy’s life are when he buys a race car, and when he sells that race car.  (They also say the same thing about boats.  And spouses.  …But this is about cars.)

Great Pumpkin

The Great Pumpkin

I bought the Great Pumpkin – a 1978 Porsche 911SC – about 6 and a half years ago, from its former owner whose life had brought him to the point that he no longer needed a race car.  (Who needs a race car? you might ask.  Well, doesn’t everybody?)  I bought it to replace my ’89 Porsche Carrera, which I totaled at Virginia International Raceway in 2002.  I also bought it to go Porsche Club Racing, which I did fairly successfully for a few years before life dictated that I, too, should pass the Great Pumpkin on to someone else.

Every little boy dreams of owning a Porsche.  …Or at least a fast car.  As a kid in the ’70s and ’80s I had Porsche posters on my bedroom walls, and decided in the late 1990s that I might actually be able to buy one.  The iconic design of the Porsche 911 has endured for nearly 45 years now.  It remained virtually unchanged for its first 25 years, but even the latest iteration is instantly recognizable as directly linked to the original from 1965.  No other car in the world can claim such direct lineage.  And no other car is equally at home on the race track as it is on the street.  (Well, OK, there might be a few others…)

Yesterday, I sold the Great Pumpkin, to a guy in New York who plans to race it in the SCCA.  (Coincidentally, when I met him, we realized we could be long lost brothers – a fact that was pointed out by one random passer-by who noted our similarly disappearing hairlines.)  I hope he enjoys it as much as I have.

They say the best two days in a guys life are when he buys a race car, and when he sells that race car.  But that’s crap.  The day he sells the race car is much worse.

Categories: General, Racing Tags: , ,

Who KERS?

August 25th, 2009 Comments off

Unfortunately, I haven’t had much time to keep up with the goings-on in Formula 1 for the past season and a half.  But this weekend, I found myself with a few hours to spare, so I sat down to enjoy the European Grand Prix from Valencia, Spain.  This was the first race that I’ve watched since the season opener in Australia.

One thing that struck me during this weekend’s broadcast was the lack of talk about KERS – the Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems that were allowed this year, effectively making F1 cars hybrids.  At the beginning of the season, KERS was a hot topic, with about half the field attempting to take advantage of the technology.  Unfortunately, given the effort of developing the systems (and the artificial limits placed upon them by the FIA), KERS didn’t immediately prove successful, and most teams decided to drop the technology.  McLaren and Ferrari were the only teams that decided to stick with it.

Louis Hamilton's McLaren

Louis Hamilton's McLaren

At this weekend’s European Grand Prix, McLaren swept the front row in qualifying, and McLaren driver Louis Hamilton finished the race second (and would have arguably won it if not for a botched pit-stop).  Kimi Raikkonen‘s KERS-equipped Ferrari rounded out the podium, with the other McLaren finishing fourth.  So, KERS-equipped cars grabbed 3 of the top 4 spots – and the top two spots at the previous race in Hungary (Hamilton’s McLaren followed by Raikkonen’s Ferrari).  It seems to me KERS development has finally paid off!  Yet the only mention of it (that I recall) during the broadcast was over the fact that KERS will likely be abandoned for the 2010 season, due to its ineffectiveness and added cost.  How frustrating. …I still maintain that if the FIA had not set such low limits for its use (max of 60 kW boost allowed for 6.6 seconds per lap), it would have been more successful.

As an aside, I recently found out that the KERS system used in the McLaren uses A123’s Li-ion cells for energy storage.  Ferrari also uses a battery system (though I’m not sure from whom).  The other option some teams employed was a flywheel system.  …In any case, I’d sure like to see KERS remain for 2010, though reining in costs is a high priority in racing – even F1 – these days, so I’m afraid this season may be the end for it.  Of course, if McLaren and Ferrari continue to enjoy their recent success, KERS may again gain favor with the teams just as quickly as it lost it!

Categories: Racing Tags: , , ,

Eco-Tires & Eco-Racing

July 3rd, 2009 Comments off

I love tires.  And I love racing.  I especially like the sort of racing that involves both right AND left-hand turns.  Not so long ago, I made sure to watch every Formula1, American Le Mans, Grand-Am, and Speed World Challenge race that was broadcast.  (My wife’s 30th birthday present to me was VIP tickets for the Petit Le Mans – best present ever!)  Unfortunately, I now seem to have much less time to devote to sitting in front of the tube every race weekend…

Of all these series, the ALMS has made the most effort to “go green,” (with involvement from the EPA and DOE).  It started a few years ago, with Audi’s “clean diesel” R10 cars dominating the LMP1 class (and the whole series).  Since then, ALMS cars have raced using E10 and cellulosic E85 fuels as well as hybrid technology.  This year, there’s even the Michelin-sponsored Green X Challenge, which scores the race-finishers based on highest performance with least environmental impact.  (Yeah, I’d love to see the NASCAR folks try to implement a program like this…)  And, yesterday it was announced that the ALMS has even partnered with The Nature Conservancy!

Yokohama Advan ENV-R1Adding to the Green Theme, Yokohama is now supplying the eco-tires used in the Patron GT3 Challenge series (a support series for the ALMS).  This tire (the Advan ENV-R1) is a race-tire that replaces 10% of the petroleum used in the tire’s construction with citrus-derived oil.  The impressive performance and durability characteristics of these tires demonstrate that this technology is applicable to street tires as well.  (Now, I would like to know just how much petroleum is being displaced, both in the tire construction itself as well as from a life-cycle perspective.  Is the extraction of the orange oil and incorporation of it into the manufacturing process any more energy-intensive than the conventional method?)

In another take on eco-friendly tires, NHTSA has recently proposed a tire-rating system that adds fuel-efficiency ratings (in addition to revamped traction and treadwear ratings) to the mandatory tire-labeling system.  Yes, the tires you buy do have an impact on your car’s fuel efficiency!  On the whole, I think this is a good idea; however, one thing does bother me a little.  Tires improve fuel-efficiency for the most part through decreased rolling resistance.  Decreased rolling resistance almost always means less grip.  (NHTSA states that this doesn’t have to be the case, with the disclaimer that higher costs would be involved otherwise.)  And think about it – the only thing connecting your car to the road is the four tire contact patches, each about the size of your hand.  Less grip at the four corners of your car means longer stopping distances and less traction when going around corners.  In an effort to (slightly) improve fuel economy, is it so far-fetched to question if there may be a (slight) increase in traffic accidents?

I wonder how much fuel could be saved through low-rolling-resisitance tires.  Though I haven’t done the analysis, I would guess it would be small compared to how much could be saved if people just maintained proper tire pressures!  And how does it compare with the effect of using orange oil instead of petroleum in the tire construction?  …Yeah, I’m gonna have to figure this one out…