The Lean, Green, Racing Machine
feature bioethanol touring car
Is it possible to keep racing car performance and still save the planet? Warren Pole joins touring driver Fiona Leggate at Silverstone to find out
With petrolheads fast becoming pariahs as society becomes ever greener, you could be forgiven for thinking that the internal combustion engine will soon be legislated off the planet, leaving us all humming about in dolphin-friendly, battery-powered bubble cars packing the excitement of an afternoon at the local rest home. And this is understandable. After all, oil is running out, the planet is heating up and something's got to give. But what if you could save the planet and keep the performance?
Well, you can because with a little judicious tweaking it turns out that bioethanol can make a car go like absolute stink.
The car in question is Fiona Leggate's MG ZS British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) racer. Weighing in at 1,200kgs and packing a weighty 300bhp in its two-litre loins, this stripped-out machine packs a punch. Fire it up and the clattering, banging din is immense. The garage shakes, small children fall over, and the sweet smell of race fuel fills the air.
But this is no ordinary race fuel, because this vicious firebreather runs on E85 bioethanol, and although this isn't new - worldwide bioethanol use has been gaining momentum for years - this is the first time that genuinely outrageous performance has been fashioned from such green ingredients. "We gained five brake horsepower just by switching to biofuel," the team's chief mechanic, Mark Atkinson, yells at me from under the bonnet as he warms up the car. "The inlet manifold sludges up because of the fuel so we have to clean it regularly, but other than that we've had no problems".
At this point Leggate wanders in. She's petite and easygoing but there's a tough, determined streak in there, too.
"Racing's my dream," she tells me, "and I've come a long way in a short time - five years ago was the first time I was ever on a circuit. The next time I saw a track I was racing on it.
"This year was my first full year in the BTCC but it's been the worst season possible. I've been taken out three times alone and had some massive crashes, but I know I can do this. This isn't about making a point because I'm a girl, I'm doing this for myself."
I shoehorn myself into the passenger seat for some flat-out laps with Leggate. Negotiating a baffling array of switches and levers where the centre console once was, she fires the car up and we head on to the track. …