I'm not really a sports fan, but I am pleased today to be making my debut as a sports writer. I do understand the excitement that comes from following the fortunes of a favorite team or figure, but I sometimes find major sporting events a little empty, a diversion of energy and somehow detached from the real world.
An event to be staged in London this weekend (June 27th and 28th) will, however, be an exception. Although it will bring together cutting edge racing cars (generally not on the list of environmentalists' favourite things) it is set to foil my skepticism. This is because the cars will not be the usual screaming petrol-powered polluters that get on our TV screens but instead be all electric. They will be competing in in Battersea Park in the first Formula E race to be staged in the UK. The last in a series of ten races staged around the world, from Berlin to Buenos Aires and from Miami to Moscow, the London contest will mark the end of Formula E's first world season.
As well as presenting the exhilarating spectacle of clean cars topping 150 mph, there is a highly practical side to the series, not least in how the tournament has been set up to serve as a test-bed for electric vehicle technology, driving innovation so that developments on the track might inspire new designs for the road. It could lead to breakthroughs that help us deal with some of our most pressing and hitherto intractable environmental problems.
We know that the climate-changing pollution coming from vehicle exhausts needs to be drastically reduced and much more done to curb the traffic-derived air pollution that each year causes millions of premature deaths. Hybrid vehicles, more efficient conventional engines and some liquid biofuels have roles, but it is in electricity that we can see the biggest prize.
First though the technology needs to be refined, including batteries, so that new generations of electric models can quickly improve and displace petrol and diesel alternatives. Powered with solar and wind power, millions of car batteries might not only provide clean mobility but also, through being connected to the grid while charging or idle, be one means of balancing the intermittency of renewables with demand. To be realized these potentially huge opportunities need correspondingly big investments of finance and brainpower. A race is one way to attract them.
By encouraging the participation of major vehicle manufacturers and leading entrepreneurs, there will be refinement of technology in exactly the same way as has occurred with Formula One, and which also led to many innovations going from track to road. Examples include designs that reduce the risk of aquaplaning, traction control systems that minimize skidding and multi-function steering wheels among them.
Comparing Formula E with Formula One is, it seems to me, not the correct parallel, however. There is another sporting series that I believe presents a far more appropriate comparison. It was a seaplane race in which entrants competed in speed trials to win the coveted Schneider Trophy. The race was held twelve times between 1913 and 1931 with competitors refining many innovations in the process, especially in the fields of aerodynamics and engine design.
Winning machines were entered by British company Supermarine with its victorious 1931 S6B aircraft being the first ever to travel at over 400 miles per hour. The rest, as they say, is history, for the streamlined shape, elliptical wing and the low drag liquid-cooled engine pioneered in that aircraft were later obvious in its direct descendant: the Supermarine Spitfire. That plane in turn helped avert disaster at a time of darkest national peril, enabling Fighter Command to resist a punishing pre-invasion onslaught meted out by Adolf Hitler's numerically superior Luftwaffe.
The seaplane race thus helped accelerate the development of aircraft capability at what proved to be a critical time and a similarly positive effect could come in the wake of the Formula E contest, with spin-offs leading to world-changing innovations. The recent launch of a household-scale battery to store energy from solar panels so as to power homes at night is case in point. Put into the market during May this year by electric automotive company Tesla, that battery design could be a catalyst that changes everything.
The Schneider prize undoubtedly helped Britain and its allies to be on the winning side in the Second World War. I wonder if future historians will judge Formula E as having had a role in refining technologies that enabled societies to be on the right side in what might be called the Carbon War?