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We interview Rodi Basso about E1 and the future of electric powerboat racing

E1 racing CEO and co-founder Rodi Basso was kind enough to spend some time talking with us last week to talk about E1, Formula cars, Mercury Marine electric power, and what the future of high-speed boating might look like.

Rodi Basso is a smart, smart guy. He did his thesis at NASA and was eventually hired on as a consultant to help finish his thesis work on a recently declassified FPGA implementation for on-board Data Analysis. From there, Rodi moved onto Formula 1, where he was a Race Performance Engineer at the all-conquering Ferrari and Red Bull Racing teams during five championship-winning campaigns.

From the high-speed world of F1, Rodi had a stint as Chief Technical Officer at Fiat-Chrysler (FCA) before taking on the Motorsport Business Directorship role at a small engineering firm in Woking, England, called McLaren.

You might have heard of them.

Most recently, however, Mr. Basso has decided to leave the racetrack and go boating – but instead of drinking beers and casting for lake trout from the seat of his lazy pontoon boat, the boat Rodi has in mind is a world away from that.

E1 Racebird

E1 Racebird electric powerboat, courtesy E1.

It’s called the Racebird. Built by renowned boatbuilders at Victory, the Racebird is an all-electric hydrofoil that its creators say is specially designed for “foil-to-foil racing” at speeds up to 50 knots (about 58 mph – which is bonkers on the water). E1 pilots will be able to showcase their skills using tight and technical circuits located close to shore in the heart of coastal urban cities (think of Miami, Tokyo, or Monaco).

It looks absolutely awesome, with a Star Wars/Last Starfighter aesthetic that would definitely get me to buy an E1 race ticket – and I said as much during an interview with David Foulkes, the CEO of Brunswick Boats. Brunswick is the parent company of Mercury Marine, which developed both the legendary DOHC LT5 motor in the original, record-setting Corvette ZR1 and the high-output outboard that powers the Racebird. Dave and I talked about our past lives at GM, and – yadda, yadda, yadda – I’m talking to Rodi Basso.

The interview

NOTE: Because Rodi is in the UK, we decided the best way to overcome the time difference was a written Q&A, which he answered via audio recording and is transcribed here with minor edits.

Jo: You guys obviously have a wealth of motorsport experience with Alejandro Agag and Rodi Basso, but I tend to think of them as “car guys”. Do you have a lot of car guys involved? What are some of the “automotive world” skills that have transferred over well?

Rodi: The way we planned the design and engineering is based on a multicultural approach, and we try to take the state of the art of at least three fields: motorsport, powerboating, and sailing. Of course, from sailing we got the foils concept … that was inspired by both looking at nature and looking at electric surf boards, both from the design and how popular they have become. Moving into the powerboating culture of course we have Sophi (Horne, Founder and Head of Design at SeaBird Technologies) a very young but very talented designer, coming from the powerboating industry, then we have partnered with Brunello Acampora, who has thirty-plus years’ experience in race and luxury yachts and pleasure and leisure boats. This well covers everything that is related to the design concept, feasibility, and engineering of the powerboat. And then, of course, given the advantage in time that the automotive world and motorsport world has in electrification and electronics, in general, we have two brilliant engineers at SeaBird Technologies who have been working with me in the design concept and integration, the system integration, of everything that is related to low voltage (control systems, the “brain”) and high voltage (everything related to propulsion). Yes, for sure we are coming from the road and the race track, but we have a balance of everything within these three fields.

Jo: The Racebird seems pretty complicated – in a car, you have roll and pitch and yaw, but reading a bit on race boats there seems to be much more involved, and the Racebird doesn’t have the big keel or rudder one might expect. Is there some automation or stability control involved in keeping it stable?

Rodi: The way Brunello has conceived the naval architecture is based on an intrinsically stable platform. This means that, whenever the boat moves away from a stable/level flight, the way that the foils behave naturally is that the boat will go back into a stable position. In any system, you struggle to seek for stability by only having an electronic control. You need to have a intrinsically stable platform from a mechanical and fluid-dynamics standpoint, then on top you can build an electronic system that can anticipate and improve the experience, smooth some dynamics and behavior, in order to have even more performance and be even more safe.

Jo: What about the racing itself? Is the vision to have all twelve of the proposed teams racing side-by-side, like a Formula E race, or will it be more in the Extreme E vein of a rally? I imagine it would take some serious piloting (is that the right term?) skills to race side by side!

Rodi: E1 is more the latter, and yes – piloting is the right verb because our powerboats fly over the water. The athletes, one male and one female, which will alternate in each session in order to get the best out of the race boat. The way we feel, we will have matched races in qualifying, where we have quarters, semifinal, and final in a race format. We haven’t fixed it 100%, but four or five powerboats will compete and whoever does the best laps will win the race and move to the next level until you get to the final and decide the winner. This, we reckon, is more in line with the battery technology but especially also aligned to a more exciting format. This is also being adopted by Formula E, they just ratified the proposal.

Image courtesy SeaBird Technologies.

Jo: In terms of electrification, you’re working with Mercury Marine on the motors. What are some of the challenges you’ve found in terms of using an electric power plant instead of internal combustion?

Rodi: As with everything that is moving, as soon as you define a propulsion system based on electric technology, you get all the torque instantaneously. This is the main ingredient that can make the race more exciting if you can use this feature effectively. Then, of course, there are all the other aspects typical in an electric system. There is a reduced amount of maintenance needed, the reduced amount of parts to order and assemble, and the typical advantage is an expected longer life for the propulsion components. Of course this doesn’t come with no challenges. There are challenges to ensure that the propulsion system can address the torque and the matter of the cooling system that needs to be addressed. If we race in oceans or seas, we need to make sure that the design of the cooling system is such that it doesn’t interact with the salt air, and safety, of course, with our system which is designed to run at 600 volts.

Jo:  Horsepower and torque matter in different ways on the water than they do on a racetrack, of course. When we think of electric motors we think of that instant torque – how does that instant torque benefit the Racebird’s hydrofoil design?

Rodi: It benefits in a way because the amount of time needed to get the Racebird to “take off” will be the minimum possible. We have bet on the dramatic visual effect of these boats taking off out of the water and that level of acceleration is only possible because of the use of electric propulsion.

Jo: In the early days of Formula E we had cars pulling into the pits halfway through the race only for the driver to hop out of one and into the other. Thankfully the series has evolved away from that with the work you did on the McLaren battery, but do you see something similar coming from E1? If so, how long until a Racebird can complete a race on a single charge. If not, what’s the difference? Is it just that 8 seasons of battery development has made the tech that much better?

Rodi: There won’t be any change of powerboat. Considering the mix of the state of the art of the battery technology and the race format we are currently designing, we have made sure that everything related to the charging phase will be “stealth” to the fans. Let’s remember, the first season of Formula E was eight years ago, and the battery technology has – and will! – evolve greatly.

Jo: Formula E has become famous for fan boosts and the attack mode – they seem to be great for racing, will E1 use something similar?

Rodi: Nothing is defined, yet, but we are absolutely thinking of new ways of increasing the spectacle during the race, and this can – and will include, as much as possible, input from the fans both on-site and remotely.

Jo: Formula E also has big names involved, Jaguar, Nissan, Andretti, Porsche, to name just a few. What sort of big names have you attracted, or do you hope to attract to E1? Will we see a Weichai/Ferreti or Benetti branded team, or will it be teams famous from other, traditional motorsport?

Rodi: We are targeting to have a mix. We are multicultural so we want a multicultural approach. So, for sure we are super keen on bringing in the important players from the marine industry, but we have a lot of interests from the athletes coming from powerboating, motorsport, and sailing. Then, of course, we have the professional racing teams in powerboating that are getting closer and closer to a deal. It will be a mix, and yeah – it will be a unique characteristic of E1.

Jo: They say that racing improves the breed. What new E1 tech do you think will be the first to “trickle down” to commercial boat products?

Rodi: I would say just the combination of hydrofoil and electric propulsion is already an innovative combination and at least the way we have conceived it, which is different from existing solutions, then I would like to focus on the controls and integration for the electric propulsion. What is also important, and I wouldn’t disregard is some of the navigation technology we are developing with our partner, Navico, a vey important player for electronics in a marine application. I like to say that we are an evolving project, we have a compelling starting point, a great platform, but in the next 3-4 years we will work with the teams and stakeholders to try to understand what to let the teams develop by themselves to make a difference out on the water, and I look forward to that next generation of the Racebird because that will be, for sure, a good opportunity to offer breakthrough for the marine industry, with some crossover to the SeaBird (Sophi is designing) a solution to a luxury tender, as well as a fleet concept that will be derivations of the Racebird, in terms of engineering. Of course, it will be different, not for one person but for seven, and the driveability will be more for enjoyment and the best application for a leisure boat, with more electronics to just let the passengers just enjoy the ride. This will come very shortly.

Jo: Final question, will you be racing in Miami?

Rodi: We want to race in Miami, it is an iconic place. It represents the center of gravity for all the marine industry so we definitely need to be there, and we are already in talks with local organizers to land a long-term agreement to race in Miami.

Electrek’s Take

Rodi Basso and his partners are the guys you think of when you say, “electrify everything,” and they are racers to the core. They absolutely believe that what they’re doing and the shows they’re putting on are helping to advance the cause of electrification and carbon reduction – and the fact that it’s a good show is a bonus.

Source | Images: E1, SeaBird.

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