When you think about karting, which name comes to mind? BRP-Rotax, the legendary company with a long history in racing and the company recently celebrated their 102 years of history. The innovative Rotax four- and two-stroke high-performance engines are used for BRP products such as Ski-Doo and Lynx snowmobiles, Sea-Doo personal watercraft, Can-Am on- and off-road vehicles as well as for karts and recreational aircraft. In my conversation with Steven Chapman, Group Leader ROTAX MAX Challenge and Business development, Rotax Propulsion Systems, all focus was on innovations in go karting. Which products have been developed by BRP-Rotax over the years for karting, what makes them so special, and what does it take behind the scenes to come up with reliable, high preforming and enjoyable products for serious racers? Let’s find out!
Routes to a sustainable future
Rotax Karting is fully committed to the combustion engine. But the company will be ready. That’s why it has invested for the long term to ensure they have the right products at the right time. There is a push for more sustainable options and BRP-Rotax has explored different routes. Steven tells me they know from market research that there will be a social change in where people want to spend their money and their private time based on their ethical thinking. It turns out the company has researched synthetic fuels, hydrogen and obviously electric. BRP, the Canadian company Rotax belongs to, has committed 300 million US Dollars for the next 5 years to invest in electric technology. In different locations in Austria and Canada, R&D and manufacturing takes place for various parts for electric technology. But what about hydrogen and synthetic fuels, are they no real option?
Steven: ‘There are benefits to all the optional technologies on the market. Hydrogen generators store energy in a battery and then you still have an electric motor. It’s just a different energy source that you use for your deployment. You have the negatives and the weight of a combustion engine, coupled with the battery also. But with the pressures involved to store and transport hydrogen, safety can become an issue’.
‘With regards to efuels: we have investigated and tested this. Our MAX range runs no problem on efuel with no adjustments. There are no component changes. You just change the fuel in the tank, and you are ready to race. This is already an option today. The only issue with efuel at the moment is cost and supply. And efuels don’t address the issue with noise. So many tracks in the UK and Holland struggle with noise restrictions. Noise will be one of the areas that will be controlled quicker than others. If a track is threatened with closure, electric karting is an option to carry on. If we don’t start working on electric karts now, we have no chance to save the sport for the future. When the tracks are gone, it’s over. Actually, E-Karting is a chance to open more tracks.
Steven is ‘a combustion guy’, with a long history in the sport. But he also sees the other side of it and appreciates the new technologies. It’s also not a replacement, it’s an option. He stresses the importance to have a variety of products that actually grow the sport more, so the sport will be healthier for the future. The focus for the future is on electric: ‘Who knows where the future goes. I see electric as a more viable option.’
‘Some people are for electric, and some are not. We started the Rotax Thunder some years ago, which was developed with an external partner. This were our first steps with electric products internally. We then switched to the fully internally developed Rotax E20. It was completely developed in house at Rotax. That was launched in 2019 at the RMC Grand Finals in Sarno, Italy. We have been racing that since then. We are going into the 4th year of using this product. The people who drive these karts… they don’t use it, they abuse it. It’s really good R&D for us. The E20 karts we built in 2019 and we are still running them now with the same batteries. We haven’t had a single failure on the motor, or battery or inverter.’
‘The E20 is extremely fast and very powerful. Because the power is very easy to control, it delivers what you want. It’s not like a combustion engine where you have to wind it up to get the most out of it, it’s very predictable how it’s going to behave. We also have a key system: you can have different power levels dictated by the key. With a new driver, you put a green key in. With an advanced driver, you put a red key in and you have more power. This is also the beauty with electric: you can have one vehicle that can suit a whole range of drivers.’
As we know electric needs a battery and this results in more weight. The E20 was designed and built in 2018/2019. The technology has moved a lot forward since. By all this learning and further industrialized components we might build the product for 20 kilograms less. When we drop 20 kilos off, we will be even faster. This is the next steps with the E20. To apply what we already know, how the technology has moved forward. We can end up with a lighter, more agile and more attractive package for the customer.’
Safety testing and features
Rotax puts a lot of effort into testing its products, especially with the introduction of new technology. Nothing is 100% safe in racing, but the karts themselves must be (almost) bullet proof. Steven tells me: ‘What I really like about the E20 is the amount of safety built in. The kart is legally classified as a high voltage system. With that comes a lot of responsibility. This is where Rotax do an excellent job, with regards to the isolation monitor that is built into this system and the way it protects the user and the people around. On board we have the 12 Volt system which powers all the startup and the display. Also, we have the high volt system.
We had an accident one day where somebody drove over the back of a kart and broke a 12 Volt light. The cables from the 12 Volt light touched the kart and the whole system shut off. The moment it detects any kind of electrical impulse in the chassis or any of the power train where it shouldn’t be, the system in the battery switches off and isolates the power supply. The E20 went through all the crash tests, like a road car does. It went through the waterproof and dust-penetration tests. This was a lot of work, 9 months of safety validation. And to be honest, I would rather have a battery that can switch off next to me, than 8 litres of fuel between my legs. With regards to safety, we are in a very good position.’
The new E10 kart
Rotax launched the new low voltage E10 kart at the Grand Finals late in 2022. Steven tells me more about the project: ‘We really believe that we should start with the E10, the smaller classes. This will be the first next steps in the E-journey. We want to demonstrate it to the world, but we haven’t started production yet. First, we will produce a pre-production run (small quantities). We will do extensive tests with these few karts. At the end of the year, we will have them as a demonstration class at the Grand Finals. Then the plan is in 2024 to start to sell in small numbers and into select markets the E10. We have to test properly; we will prove it before we sell it.
Are the circuits ready for electric karting?
Circuits have been hosting karting events for decades. But when the technology of the kart changes, the infrastructure has to adapt. It’s a chicken-and-egg syndrome: will the tracks invest when the karts arrive, or will the tracks be ready before racing drivers arrive with their electric kart? Steven says: ‘The karts charge from a normal 220 Volt connection in the wall. It’s the same as you turn a cattle on in your kitchen, this is the demand for the power. Some of the tracks are ready, some tracks are not. The tracks that are 100% ready? Wackersdorf and some more in Germany, most in Italy and some other areas in Europe – especially the high-level accredited CIK tracks. I spend a lot of time with the circuit owners talking to them about how the future could look and how they should consider preparing for the future.’
My experience is that in Holland, an electric kart is often charged by running a diesel generator. That’s not how it’s supposed to be, but sometimes this is the only option. Steven says: ‘We have to show people and tracks what is there in potential. With a generator, we use biofuel or synthetic fuel to kind of try and do our best. The reality is that it’s not always possible in this moment. It’s just a part of the process. We have to prove the product so people want it. Then the tracks will come onboard and at some point, they will invest to support the products that will keep their business alive. Which one will come first, I don’t know.’
"We have to show people and tracks what is there in potential"
When it comes to high performance outdoor electric karting, there are not many options for a customer. But there are various brands who offer karts these days. Steven tells me: ‘Some competitors that use one battery pack, they have a big problem with heat. With the E20 we had nearly 2000 charges on a kart with no limitation in performance. When you have a battery pack that is so densely packed, the heat becomes a challenge, and it ages the battery. With the E20 we are able to come off the track and we can immediately start to charge. We don’t have to wait for the battery to cool. We can be on track with a full charged battery every 45 minutes. We can use the product in the same way as a combustion kart. We have from the first lap to the last lap the same power. We don’t have this power decay when a battery or the motor gets hot. We tested some of the competitors on the market: we did a race with their karts. The E20s have the same power from start to finish. The competition? With every lap they went slower and slower.’
We are now already working on the next step after the E20. The target will be a sellable product which we then will sell by the distribution network.
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