Formula E rolled into New York City in 2017 with a great gimmick. Bringing electric race cars to the streets of a city notorious for its hostility to cars was a great way to get attention for electric vehicles. But Formula E had to evolve in order to continue its dual mission of providing a testbed for electric-car tech and be a sustainable alternative to traditional motor sports. The third New York City E-Prix proves Formula E is doing just that. Experience gained on track could make future electric cars better, but in the meantime Formula E is just plain good racing.
All charged up
Formula E is only in its third season, but it’s already seeing some big changes. You won’t see drivers switching cars halfway through a race; new “Gen 2” cars with bigger battery packs give drivers the range to go the entire 45-minute race (plus one lap, per the rules) without stopping.
“That was one aspect people criticized,” said Mitch Evans, a driver for Panasonic Jaguar Racing, adding that the mid-race car swaps were “kind of dangerous.” With range anxiety remaining one of the biggest concerns for potential electric-car buyers, the car swaps weren’t exactly helping make the case for electric power. The new cars have 54-kilowatt-hour battery packs that are about twice the size of the packs in the previous-generation cars, showing that the technology is advancing, and lessening the chance of people getting run over during races.
Formula E is trying to attract new fans outside the traditional gearhead set.
Eliminating the car swaps did mean drivers wouldn’t have to make pit stops, however, removing some of the drama from races. So organizers came up with Attack Mode, which gives drivers a temporary power boost. The catch is that drivers have to pass through a specific “activation zone” that’s off the ideal racing line, meaning they often lose time – or even places – trying to get Attack Mode. But drivers do get an extra 25 kilowatts (33.5 horsepower), which can make a big difference in a close race.
Oliver Turvey, a driver with the Nio team, told Digital Trends “It adds some strategy, gives us a chance to overtake.”
Attack Mode seems like something devised by video game developers, not racing stewards, but that’s typical of Formula E. It joins Fan Boost, which rewards a temporary power boost to the five most popular drivers, as determined by fans on social media. The top three drivers also take a selfie on the podium after each race. It can seem like a naked attempt to cash in on cultural trends, but at least Formula E is trying to attract new fans outside the traditional gearhead set. But what if you do care more about lap times than hashtags? Does Formula E have anything to offer diehard racing fans?
The inevitable comparison
Formula E is not Formula One. It’s worth saying that explicitly because it’s easy to draw parallels between the two series. They both feature single-seat cars, and both claim to be at the cutting edge of automotive technology. They’re even organized by the same group (the FIA), and several current Formula E drivers previously raced in F1. But Formula E is a completely different animal to F1 – and not just because of its electric powertrains.
“You cannot compare. Formula One has a lot of downforce, big tires, different tracks, so many things,” Felipe Massa told us. He would know: he won 11 F1 grands prix over a career that spanned 15 years. The Brazilian just completed his first Formula E season with the French Venturi team. The Venturi VFE05 wasn’t the fastest car on the Formula E grid this year, but Massa still enjoyed going electric.
“I think it’s great. I think it shows that electric cars now have nothing to lose [compared to] combustion engines. I think it’s quite fun.”
On paper, though, Formula E cars do seem to lag behind their F1 cousins. The new Gen 2 cars are more powerful than their predecessors, but at 200 kW (270 hp) in race trim, they lag far behind F1 cars. Most of the automakers involved in Formula E make more powerful road cars you can buy today. A Formula E car’s zero-to-62 mph time of 2.8 seconds and top speed of 174 mph are more impressive compared to road cars, but still can’t match F1.
Another crucial difference is the tires. Instead of the series of bespoke racing tires used in F1, all Formula E teams use the same Michelin tire, which is designed to work in all conditions. The tire was designed for low rolling resistance to improve efficiency, and features tread like on a normal road-car tire. That means it offers substantially less grip than a traditional racing tire. It’s more relevant than exotic F1 tire tech, but it doesn’t do the drivers any favors.
“We’re always sliding. We’re constantly on the limit of the tire,” said Pascal Wehrlein, a driver for Mahindra Racing, and another F1 veteran. “In Formula One, you try to avoid sliding and drifting.”
So Formula E has slower cars that are harder for drivers to keep in a straight line. That is exactly as designed. It’s all about developing technology that will be relevant to electric road cars, and producing a good show. Formula E is succeeding on the latter count: in recent months it has produced much more exciting racing than Formula 1.
The current F1 season has really only been exciting for fans of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas team which had won all but one of the nine races held at the time of publication. The team has won the past five drivers’ and constructors’ championships, and only has two serious rivals (Ferrari and Red Bull). Even a race win is more or less out of the question for the other teams. On the other hand, the 13-race Formula E season saw nine different winners from eight teams – including Jaguar’s first international racing victory in 27 years. Going into the New York City E-Prix, a double header that served as the season finale, the drivers’ and constructors’ championships were both wide open.
“It’s a lot more competitive across the whole field because we all race the same cars, the same power.”
Going into the New York E-Prix, DS Techeetah’s Jean Eric Vergne was the favorite to win the drivers’ championship. His team, a Chinese outfit backed by French automaker Citroën’s DS sub-brand, was in the lead of the constructors’ championship. But a string of bad luck for Vergne, including a massive pileup, kept both championship contests alive. Nissan driver Sebastian Buemi won the first race, suddenly propelling him into championship contention and giving the Japanese automaker its first Formula E win. Vergne and DS Techeetah ultimately came back to win both championships in the second race, but everything came down to the wire.
The closeness of the competition is partly down to the design of the cars. Unlike F1, Formula E doesn’t emphasize aerodynamic downforce, in which air flowing over the car pushes it down onto the track to generate grip. This means cars can run very close together without losing grip due to turbulence disrupting airflow over the body – a major issue with current F1 cars. Because designers didn’t have to festoon the cars with aerodynamic aids, they could also focus on making the machines look cool.
Formula E also standardized the most expensive parts of the car, including the chassis and battery pack. Teams are allowed to develop their own powertrains, but the cars are kept largely the same to keep costs down. This prevents the wealthiest teams from gaining an advantage simply by spending more money.
“It’s a lot more competitive across the whole field because we all race the same cars, the same power, and the same batteries,” said Andre Lotterer, Vergne’s teammate at DS Techeetah. Lotterer’s resume includes a stint in F1 and three 24 Hours of Le Mans wins. With their low-grip tires and lack of downforce, Formula E cars “come alive” on the series’ street circuits, Lotterer gleefully told us.
The cars throw another challenge at the drivers. While the new Gen 2 cars can make it through an entire race, they can’t do it while going flat out. Drivers have to back off the throttle and coast if they want to make it to the end. Formula E has made range anxiety a part of the show. You’d think that would be a problem for racing drivers, but they don’t seem to mind.
“It’s part of the challenge,” said Lotterer. Jaguar driver Alex Lynn said he’s fine with emphasizing energy saving over outright lap times, as long as the rules allow cars to maintain a reasonable pace.
Technology torture chamber
It’s often said that racing serves as a testbed for road-car technologies, and that is supposed to be the case with Formula E. It’s why the series exists in the first place, and why major automakers like Audi, BMW, Jaguar, and Nissan are involved. Even though cars have to adhere to a pretty strict template, engineers are still learning simply by pushing electric-car tech to the limit in races.
“When you’re driving around downtown, or even on the freeway, you don’t actually push the car very hard,” noted Roger Griffiths, team principle of BMW i Andretti Motorsport. “How many times do you ever go full throttle on your road car? These guys go full throttle coming out of every single corner. We’re working this battery and the whole electric powertrain extremely hard.” That leads to issues electric cars wouldn’t normally encounter outside racing.
“Just like when you charge your iPhone, it gets hot. You’re generating heat by putting power back into the battery,” Griffiths said. One of the team’s cars had just come in after qualifying in pole position, meaning it will start from first place in that afternoon’s race. A mechanic was using dry ice to cool down the battery. “We can’t just come in off the racetrack with a hot battery, plug it into the charger, and expect it to charge at its peak rate. We have to be able to bring the battery temperature down,” Griffiths explained.
The average electric car owner probably isn’t shoveling dry ice onto their battery pack, nor are they using charging stations like the ones employed in Formula E. Built by Enel, they’re based on production charging stations, but were designed to be lightweight and portable without sacrificing power, Enel engineer Ilaria Vergantini said. With a charging rate of 80 kW, they can recharge a race car’s 54-kilowatt-hour battery pack in an hour. As with the cars themselves, lessons learned from developing racing-spec charging equipment could eventually be fed back into production charging stations.
“We are learning a lot of things here. We started from production units, and we customized them for motor sport,” Enel engineer Alberto Venanzoni said. “Basically, you start increasing the power and reducing the weight, then you experience some configuration that you never experienced in the streets.”
Formula for the future?
It’s hard to say when, if ever, technology from Formula E will transition to ordinary road cars. As with other forms of racing, Formula E tech is highly specialized, and organizers may eventually restrict innovation in order to maintain the status quo. For now, Formula E is still doing something important. By offering a new and exciting form of racing, it’s showing that an all-electric automotive future doesn’t have to be boring.