Pure ETCR: the next big thing in electric racing?
The Hungaroring recently became the latest venue to host Pure ETCR, a fledgling championship for electric touring cars
To be honest, I’m in love,” swoons Jean-Karl Vernay. This experienced racing driver, who has adapted from single-seaters and sports cars to become one of Europe’s best tin-top aces, isn’t talking about the World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) in which he’s a title contender for Hyundai. Instead, he’s pledging his amour for the new Pure ETCR series for electric saloons, in which he’s doubling up this year. In fact, the Frenchman is so in love with EV racing that he professes he would be happy to race nothing else “if there were more cars and it were more mature”. Give it time, JK, and there’s every reason to believe it will be.
So, what is Pure ETCR? In short, it’s a quickfire, short-form race series for electric touring cars that produce a potent 670bhp at maximum power, running on all-weather Goodyear tyres that aren’t far off road spec. It was supposed to be launched last year but was forced into delaying by the pandemic, and it has now got going with a five-event prologue series around Europe. It has popped up at Vallelunga in Italy, Motorland Aragón in Spain, at a popular street race festival in the Danish capital of Copenhagen and in mid-August at the Hungaroring, near Budapest, which is where we travelled to find out more.
The formula is the creation of European touring car godfather Marcello Lotti, whose WSC Group also created the popular petrol-powered TCR regulations that have proved a smash hit around the world. Eurosport Events, the race promoter behind the WTCR and the preceding World Touring Car Championship, has tuned into the EV hype to create and run Pure ETCR. It was in gestation for a long time, according to series director Xavier Gavory.
“I could see in 2007 and 2008 that Marcello was already talking about the electrification of touring cars,” says Gavory. “He was talking about how to make WTCC cars hybrid and regenerating power through braking, so it has been a very long journey. He was too far ahead at that time.”
Not any longer, as the technology has caught up with Lotti’s dream. What he has inspired is the world’s first multi-make electric touring car series, catering for four- and five-door production saloons. Magelec Propulsion has created a spec electric motor, inverter and gearbox package that pushes out 300kW (402bhp) of continuous power to the rear wheels only, rising to 500kW (670bhp) via the Power Up boost feature designed to spice up the racing. The batteries come from Williams Advanced Engineering and offer a relatively modest capacity of 65kWh at 800V, but the resulting lack of range doesn’t matter when it’s mated to Eurosport’s quick-fire race format, designed to showcase spectacular EV performance over endurance and prove such cars offer much more than ‘do-gooder’ zero-emissions motoring.
That format is a little convoluted. As we witnessed in Hungary, the weekend begins with a glitzy live TV game show on the Friday night via the mobile Energy Station that travels to each event. The 12 drivers competing this year are split into two pools of six, then each pushes a button to find out at random which so-called Battle they will be drawn in and where they will line up on the three-car grids. On the Saturday, each driver races twice over just three laps from a starting gate that resembles something from a Hot Wheels loop-the-loop toy set. Then on the Sunday, there’s a solo time trial in which each car competes at maximum power (but oddly doesn’t count for championship points), before a pair of six-car Superfinals conclude the weekend. The driver who has scored the most points from all of the action is then crowned the ‘King of the Weekend’ (or Queen if/when a female driver joins in).
Gimmicky and full of jargon? Oh, yes. But Eurosport is going all out to offer something different that appeals to the gaming generation, so let’s go with it for now – especially as what really matters is the rear-wheel-drive touring cars. They’re a proper handful.
Three teams have signed up so far: Hyundai has built the Veloster N ETCR to take on Cupra’s Leon-bodied e-Racer, while a late addition has been the Romeo Ferraris team and its independently developed Alfa Romeo Giulia. Each is represented by four drivers sharing two cars between them (the hurdles and complications created by the pandemic means the teams didn’t have time to build a car for each). Then between the races, the cars are recharged via hydrogen fuel cell generators that are designed to be a fan feature (so no oily diesel generators undermining the inevitable sustainability message).
Everything about Pure ETCR is a bit different and it’s fun – but don’t just take our word for it.
Tom Chilton is a WTCC veteran who’s racing this year for Hyundai in Pure ETCR and in Ciceley Motorsport’s BMW 3 Series saloon in the British Touring Car Championship. “With these short, exciting Battles, it’s not a case of waiting until the tyres and brakes start wearing out and then figuring out where your rivals are weaker and where you’re stronger; you haven’t got much time for that,” says the 36-year-old Brit when we catch up with him the day before the races.
“You’ve just got to exist on your instincts, and I like that. That’s how I race and how I’ve had to race, spending my time in some of the most competitive touring car championships in the world. I will get only three to five laps of practice before I go into my race tomorrow, yet I haven’t raced here at the Hungaroring for five or six years. I have to get my braking points perfect on my first lap out of the box.”
What’s his Veloster N ETCR like to race, then? “The cars are heavy, which you have to bear in mind when you’re racing and when you’re calculating your moves,” he answers.
“The Power Up boost feature is what makes it really exciting. There will be some people leading at the beginning who will get overtaken at the end. You get 40 seconds of the extra 200kW [268bhp], and if you just use it on the main straight here, that’s 10 seconds for three-lap races, but you might want to use it on other bits of the circuit. Where and when you use it counts: if you can force someone to use more and earlier than you, you can use yours to get them at the end. At Aragón, there’s a kink that’s easy flat, but not with Power Up. It’s then totally different, because you have so much more power and suddenly 900Nm [664lb ft] of torque. It’s incredible, and it makes the racing exciting.”
His team-mate Vernay concurs: “It’s supercool and very challenging on these tyres with the weight of the car. Hopefully the series grows in the next few years with more rounds and more cars. There are many great drivers already, and we’re all happy to be here; we’re not being told to say that.”
Gavory is encouraged by the fan response so far, although no one at Eurosport ever talks about TV numbers. “The cars were just out of the oven when we started to race earlier this year, especially for Romeo Ferraris,” he says. “All of us were surprised by the potential: it’s huge. The cars are super-fun and pretty complicated to drive. They’re reliable, we’ve had no technical failures so far and the drivers are clever enough to fight very hard but to manage the cars so as not to smash them up.
“It’s complicated when you have two drivers per car. The manufacturers are happy and we as the promoter are happy, because we know that with more cars and more manufacturers, it will be super-interesting.”
Next year, Pure ETCR will become a full-blown FIA World Cup, just like its older sibling, the WTCR. There’s no sign of new manufacturers joining the party at this stage, but Eurosport is talking up the “real” element of these cars being based on what we see on the street, unlike Formula E, which has just lost Audi and BMW and will lose Mercedes-Benz after its next season.
If such a brand joined Cupra, Hyundai and the indie Alfa Romeo squad, Pure ETCR could reach for the skies. Mind you, Gavory is careful not to over-promise in this regard: “Manufacturers are interested; there are lots of questions,” he says. “They really needed to see this first to see what the potential would be, that it’s there. We have to be patient, but definitely in the coming years we will have more manufacturers coming, more cars, more drivers, more sport and more fun.”
As in Formula E and Extreme E, sustainability is part of the story, but as Gavory’s boss made clear at the launch last year, Pure ETCR “isn’t out to save the planet”. Eurosport’s honesty is refreshing: it’s a promoter that just wants to create a great spectacle. The evidence from Hungary was compelling. The action was mostly close and exciting, with lots of overtaking on a track where it isn’t easy to pass and enough argy-bargy to create a bit of driver angst. The noise? A whoosh like from a turbine-powered racer. It takes getting used to, but it’s not terrible. As with everything in Pure ETCR, it’s different.
Spaniard Mikel Azcona became the series’ first two-time King of the Weekend in Hungary by winning both his Saturday Battles, his side of the time trial and his Superfinal for a maximum score in the Cupra. He was dominant, but the broken-up nature of the format, in which every driver has a chance to shine, meant you didn’t really notice. Right now, Pure ETCR is a live laboratory, a work in progress. But it has potential. Lots of it.
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