It’s a somewhat strange experience to attend a motor race devoid of the roar of engines and scent of high-octane fuel. But, as nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen said to this scribe during a chat about the electrified Formula E series last year: “Life is always moving, and you have to move with it.”
This pretty much sums up why several car manufacturers — including Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Citroen, Nissan and Mahindra — have thrown their weight behind Formula E, with heavyweights Mercedes-Benz and Porsche set to join the fray from next year. We’re moving towards a time when EVs will become the norm on our streets, and these carmakers are seeking to leverage the synergies of participating in a race series that’s reflective (at least in their source of motive power) of the cars they sell. Formula One may remain the blue-ribbon racing category for the next decade or two, but these brands are pumping their motorsport dollars into the fledgling e-series.
The global footprint of the Formula E championship is rapidly expanding, too, as the 2018-19 series sparked up last weekend with the maiden Ad Diriyah E-Prix in Riyadh. Any reservations one may have had about staging an electric-car race in a nation that’s one of the world’s largest oil producers were ill-founded. To the surprise of this scribe, the grandstands were largely full, and the atmosphere at the event was vibrant.
BMW i Andretti Motorsport driver Antonia Felix da Costa hung on for a hard-fought victory in a nail-biting race around the brand-new 2,495km street circuit nestled within the Dirayah UNESCO World Heritage Site. Meanwhile, pre-race penalties to Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler drivers Daniel Abt and Lucas di Grassi relegated them towards the rear of the grid, but they charged through the field to finish eighth and ninth respectively.
Formula E racers are discernibly slower than their F1 counterparts, but the new Gen2 cars that debut this season are a big improvement on their predecessors. Weighing 900kg (including the driver), and pushing out about 330bhp, the Gen2 Formula E sprints from 0-100kph in under 3sec and can hit 280kph flat out. What’s more, the tight, twisty layout of the tracks means there’s lots of wheel-banging action for the duration of the 45-minute race.
But the category isn’t merely about driving flat out from lights to flag, as the battery pack in each of the cars is only charged to 75 per cent capacity prior to the start. This means drivers have to strategically deploy the available energy in the battery pack and ensure they have enough ‘juice’ left towards the end of the race to either defend their position or try to make up a place or two before the chequered flag is waved. There is also the Mario Kart-inspired ‘Attack Mode’ and Fanboost, whereby drivers get an extra hit of power for short bursts, adding to the spectacle and unpredictability of the race. It’s a bit gimmicky and hard to follow at times, but these elements do liven things up.
All cars in the field use the same chassis, battery pack and Michelin all-weather tyres, but each team develops its own electric motor, inverter, gearbox, rear suspension and cooling system, and this is what prompted Audi to exit Le Mans in 2016 and put its full weight behind Formula E from last season onwards. It’s lessons learned here that the brand aims to transfer across to production cars such as the full-electric e-tron SUV that goes on sale here next July/August.
Although the hardware components used in Audi’s FE05 Formula E racer are highly specialised, team spokesman Daniel Schuster says there’s still ample scope for tech transfer to the company’s road-car division, most notably in the areas of software development, energy recuperation and brake-by-wire systems that do away with conventional hydraulics. You could think of Formula E as a high-intensity test lab where manufacturers get to push developmental boundaries to the max and trial the results of their handiwork in the heat of battle.
Apart from the learning that can then be transferred across from Formula E to the cars you and I drive, there’s also a payoff in terms of the positive exposure generated by competitive success. It’s estimated 300 million viewers tuned in to at least one Formula E race during the 2017/18 season, and that number will only grow over the coming years. The next round of the championship takes place in Marrakech on January 12.