Cars powered by electricity instead of petrol/gas, and eschewing a conventional circuit in favor of a course that cuts right through the city center: Jean Todt, President of the International Automobile Federation FIA, certainly provoked skeptics when he unveiled the world's first all-electric motorsport series back in 2013. One year later, during its inaugural season, Formula E was still attracting wry smiles from the motor racing fraternity. Today, its star is definitely rising, and present competitors Jaguar, Renault and Audi are to be joined over the next few years by teams from Nissan, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Quiet, carbon-free electric vehicles (EVs) have become a megatrend in their own right, and Formula E is a superb showcase for what EVs are capable of doing.
20 racing cars are on the starting line when suddenly the lights change to green, and the air fills with: a humming sound. The cars sound like a large swarm of bees as they race round the Street Circuit at Berlin's former Tempelhof Airport, accelerating from zero to 100 kph in just 2.9 seconds. This compares favorably with a Formula 1 vehicle which is just a touch under 0.3 seconds quicker. Then the noise level rises, because on any inner city course the next corner is never far away, and the tires squeal around them – not a sound one is used to hearing on racetracks, as it is usually deafened out by the scream of engines. But Formula E is different. Emission-free, it is kicking over the traces – and leaving none in its wake.
“I certainly missed the sound of engines during the first few races,” admitted Nick Heidfeld. He spent 11 years behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car and is now driving for Indian Formula E team Mahindra. “15 years ago, the F1 sound was wicked, and I miss it – but, having said that, today's F1 cars are a lot quieter,” he added.
The race – staged at Berlin's mothballed Tempelhof airport – is the 9th event of the current Formula E season. The previous races have been held in Hong Kong, Marrakech, Santiago de Chile, Mexico City, Punta del Este, Rome and Paris: every one of them inner city courses where racing cars with combustion engines are (somewhat grudgingly) permitted in exceptional cases only – too much noise, too many fumes. But these races, with zero inner-city emissions, are allowed to be staged even by the pretty shores of Lake Zurich, or in New York's Brooklyn dockland. Formula E is all about sustainability, efficiency and engineering progress. Its intention is to offer the automotive industry a platform for driving the development of EV technology.
Trialing tech for street-legal vehicles
Manufacturers like Audi, Jaguar, Renault and Mahindra are already doing it, with BMW and Nissan coming on board next season, and Mercedes-Benz and Porsche the year after that. Even now, this is a bigger 'who's who' of the motor industry than in any other branch of motor sport. This championship sees them all testing and developing technologies under extreme conditions. This technology transfer has waned somewhat in Formula 1 as the similarity gap between racing cars and on-highway vehicles has widened.
All Formula E vehicles use a uniform chassis, the Spark SRT 01E. Each year, a Technical Roadmap sets out the parts and procedures on which manufacturers are allowed to get creative. Right now these include the gearbox, the inverter, the rear suspension, and the motor. The motor is allowed to deliver no more than 200 kW, powering the car up to a maximum speed of 225 kph. This may sound a tad conservative for a racing car, but they rarely reach 200 kph as they hurtle down these winding inner city circuits. No improvements are permitted to car or motor during the year. This is intended to save cost. Another interesting feature is that every manufacturer is allowed to develop its own motors, but must then make them available to other teams at an acceptable price. At present, Chinese team Techeetah is availing itself of this opportunity, using a Renault power delivery system, though all other teams are doing their own development work. All these arrangements are in place to prevent an uncontrolled tech rush and ensure instead that Formula E remains exciting. Unlike Formula 1, it is not possible to say, before the race, who is in the running for a place on the podium.
In the Berlin race, Audi driver Daniel Abt put himself confidently in the lead. Behind him, drivers jostled for position, with constant overtaking. Braking errors are commonplace – it's hard to steer a vehicle with a 230 kg battery in the back. “Sometimes you can look like a bit of an amateur,” said Mahindra driver Felix Rosenquist before the race. At the time, he surely didn't think he would be referring to himself, but right in his first lap the young Swede made a braking error and slipped 10 places down the pack.
Pit stop and car change
It's a fairly common scene after 22 race laps: one by one, the drivers start coming into the pits. In Formula E, though, it's not to refuel or get new tires – they jump out of their cars and hop straight into new cars standing alongside. This maneuver takes just a few seconds – indeed the drivers train long and hard for it, because each tenth of a second saved is a tenth of second that does not have to be regained on the track. Battery capacity has still not reached a level permitting an entire race to be driven. “Our batteries come from Williams Advanced Engineering and have a capacity of 28 kilowatt hours,” said Gerry Hughes, head of Chinese team NIO. And minimizing the load on this battery is one of the decisive factors in the race.
Battery management wins the race
“Keeping your foot to the floor is easy for anyone, but we've constantly got to keep an eye on battery capacity if we're to finish the race with some to spare,” said Felix Rosenquist, pinpointing a key factor that differentiates Formula E. Great Britain's Oliver Turvey experienced this first-hand in Berlin: even at the start of the race he was using a lot of battery power, which caused him to head for the pits one lap before the others to switch cars. During the second half – having started the race in second place – he was forced to save power and ended up being fifth over the finishing line.
But it's not all about saving battery power. Drivers are allowed to recover up to 150 kW from the energy released during braking. Precisely when they choose to do this is up to them. They have the option to brake heavily, or less heavily, before a corner, and can also use switches on the steering wheel to select different energy recovery levels. Using a special paddle on the wheel, drivers can also recover energy without using the footbrake. The electric motor then applies braking to the rear wheels, and allows the driver to use the energy so produced during the course of the race. Reigning Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi explains the tactical options available to the driver: “Where to use full acceleration, and where to go a bit easier and save power? Where to take your foot off the accelerator when entering a corner, and how to recover energy? When you're battling it out with another driver, it's better to save power until such time as he doesn't have much left. If you're defending your position, though, you've got to make intelligent use of the power available so the other guy can't get past. That's why I always say it's like playing chess at 200 kilometers an hour.”
Formula fun for all the family
It's not just the drivers that get a thrill out of this chess game. It may not yet have reached mass popularity like Formula 1 has – attracting, as it does, 60 to 70 million spectators and viewers – but, even so, the races are all sold out. And they attract a different breed of person, with families, city-dwellers and techies all flocking to the events. They don't just get a ringside seat for the race – before it starts, they're also able to visit the pits and talk to the drivers, giving a whole extra depth of involvement in the event. Also, the Fanboost feature allows them to use Twitter (the official Formula E app) or a website feature to fast-track an extra 100 kilojoules of oomph to their favorite driver who can then use it during the second half of the race. The Fanboost winners in Berlin were Daniel Abt, Sebastien Buemi and Felix Rosenquist.
“The thing we just love about Formula E is that it's different from other series. Here, we're reaching people who may well be looking to buy an EV of their own soon,” said Toto Wolff, Head of Mercedes Motorsport. He, too, attended the Berlin event as a guest or, as he put it, “as a fan”. Sitting with other fans, he saw his German competitor Audi's Daniel Abt and Lucas die Grassi quietly cross the finishing line to win the race, leaving jubilant fans significantly less quiet! Many had indeed hoped for a German home win, but the chances did not look so good before the event. The race won, everyone rushed towards the podium to congratulate the winners. Trackside, there was scarcely any noise, the motors now humming peaceably, and the tires once again slumbering into silence.