Saturday, April 20, 2024

Yamaha Formula E Deal is ‘First Pillar’ of Lola’s Racing Revival

Embarking on an electrification project as a Formula E manufacturer alongside Yamaha represents the ‘first pillar’ in Lola’s revival, according to its motorsport director Mark Preston.

Experienced racecar constructor Lola returned in 2022 when Till Bechtolsheimer, an investment company CEO and occasional IMSA driver, completed a purchase of all company assets. Bechtolsheimer’s goal is to bring Lola back to prominence in the motorsport industry after it ceased operations in 2012 amid financial strife. The first milestone of the revival is today’s announcement of Lola’s new affiliation with Japanese manufacturer Yamaha, made ahead of the inaugural Tokyo E-Prix.

Lola and Yamaha are developing a Formula E car for use in the 2024-25 FIA Formula E World Championship season, under the Gen3 Evo regulations. Lola will be the registered powertrain manufacturer and Yamaha will be its technical partner. The Lola side of the project has enlisted several key figures from electric racing, not least Preston who was team principal of the DS Techeetah team when it won back-to-back Formula E titles.

Image of Lola Yamaha Formula E car
Lola was founded in 1958 by Eric Broadley and built single seaters for the Indy 500, F1, F3000, F3 and A1GP, as well as a range of sportscars from Can-Am to LMP1. Martin Birrane purchased the company in 1997 and it ran until 2012 (Lola)

‘I got to know Till Bechtolsheimer when he bought Lola and was looking around at what the future of racing was,’ Preston told Racecar Engineering. ‘Lola is now focused on three pillars: electrification, which Formula E is the pinnacle of; hydrogen, where there are discussions for Le Mans and F1 in the more distant future; and sustainable materials and fuels, which covers quite a lot of what’s going on in other racing series.

‘Having been away for a while, we need to focus on some of the future technologies that are going on in the world. Electrification is the first pillar that we’re talking about today.

‘I’ve been talking with Yamaha for quite a few years. They came to some of the races and are very interested in the future of electrification. They do a lot of powertrains in things like scooters and marine. Decarbonisation is a big part of the future of transportation for everybody.’

Lola and Yamaha are developing the full electric powertrain for their Formula E car, including software. Some parts are being sourced from suppliers, such as the rear powertrain electric motor from Helix and the gearbox from Xtrac. According to Preston, Lola and Yamaha have been collaborating on the powertrain’s development for over 18 months. During that time, Lola has built a team of seasoned motorsport professionals, such as experienced Formula 1 design engineer Mark Tatham (technical director), former HWA chief technical officer Michael Wilson (managing director) and ex-Ferrari and McLaren F1 engineer Dieter Gundel (head of control systems).

Lola has recruited seasoned Formula E professionals to spearhead its project, including former DS Techeetah team boss Mark Preston (Yamaha)

‘We’re helping to define everything from gearboxes to simulation, working closely with Yamaha,’ said Preston. ‘Lola is leading the internal design study and simulation, supported by Yamaha’s experts in various areas from the MGU to the inverter.

‘We’re doing simulations and they’re doing simulations. They probably have more knowledge of magnetic design and all those elements to the actual motors and inverters. We’re doing a lot more of the racecar side of the simulation.

‘But there is also cooling systems, and software. Yamaha is keen to learn a lot about the control systems and energy management that Lola brings to the table. Software is a huge element of Formula E, and it’s one of the areas they’re most interested in. We’re working closely and collaborating on all areas of the powertrain.’

Software is one of the key performance differentiators in Formula E. Manufacturers have converged to an extent on certain hardware elements, such as radial flux motor technology and silicon carbide power electronics, while the battery is a spec component from WAE Technologies. That has opened the door for software to be a driving force in energy management strategy, as covered in the March 2024 issue of Racecar Engineering magazine.

Energy management is a key part of the competition in Formula E and Lola is developing a software package to aid this (Simon Galloway/Formula E)

‘Software is becoming more important in all forms of racing and road cars,’ said Preston. ‘We don’t do the front powertrain in Formula E, but we control the front powertrain. The learnings and knowledge that come from developing a full software suite, with the vehicle control unit, will go well in any future projects that we develop, in WEC and other series.

‘Obviously we will continue to do what Lola has been traditionally famous for, but we will start to differentiate ourselves by firstly doing electrification, and then looking into other forms of energy carriers. That’s why we’re also looking at sustainable fuels. It’s not just electrification; it’s a full suite of elements that we’re looking at.’

Preston confirmed that Lola is currently outsourcing its software coding but is working to ‘bring expertise into Lola’ as the project moves forward. Meanwhile, track testing of the Lola-Yamaha Formula E car is around the corner. Lola has a facility at Silverstone where its test operations will be based. Former DS Techeetah and Mahindra Racing team manager David Clarke is heading up that side of the programme as Lola’s operations director.

Parts including the chassis were due to arrive in late March and early April, while the first shakedown is scheduled for early June. Dyno testing will also be carried out as the team group for its race debut in less than 12 months’ time.

Lola is plotting a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, more than a decade since its last appearance (XPB)

Formula E marks the first stage in Lola’s resurrection. The company is also looking towards hydrogen and sustainable fuels, including a 24 Hours of Le Mans programme to cover the former. Le Mans organiser the ACO is planning to introduce a hydrogen class in 2027 and Lola wants to be there when ready. Its preference is to develop a hydrogen fuel cell solution, but is open to hydrogen internal combustion if the rules move in that direction. Currently, both options are allowed.

‘We’ve been working along in the background there,’ said Preston. ‘There have been a few announcements recently from the [FIA] World Motor Sport Council to talk about the storage mechanisms. We’re joining those discussions.

‘When you start from scratch, to differentiate ourselves from the existing players, we have to do new technologies. Hydrogen is a new element to it, and Till is very keen on pushing the boundaries of motorsport in general.

‘Hydrogen is one of the newest things on the cards. It fits quite nicely with the electric powertrains that we’re doing, because any fuel cell or internal combustion engine will have an element of regen required, especially fuel cell because it will have a full electrified powertrain. Transferring it over from Formula E will work quite nicely on that front.’

Lola’s return is spurred by the opportunities presented by emerging technologies, so Formula E is a sensible starting point. The series is now a decade old, and Lola can draw upon people with knowledge of the technological nuances to get a manufacturer programme up and running. The company hopes its deal with Yamaha will help to accelerate its engineering business and return Lola to a position of prominence in motorsport.

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