Formula E: the journey so far and the road ahead
Image credit: Formula E
As Formula E gears up for its upcoming season, we delve into the progress the adolescent motorsport has taken since its inaugural series five years ago and how it has helped pave the way for an electric vehicle future.
The 2019/20 Formula E season is just around the corner, with 24 drivers and 12 teams from across the world battling it out for the championship title in the highest class competition for electric open-wheel racing.
Since its inaugural championship back in 2014, this young motorsport has paved the way for an era of pure electric racing, with its first-generation cars reaching top speeds of around 225km/h (140mph).
Manufacturers invested in the sport, however, are consistently developing new technologies to ensure these racing cars are more powerful, efficient and, most importantly, faster.
“We’ve come a long way and progressed at a rapid rate in such a short space of time,” says Formula E founder and chairman, Alejandro Agag. “We were essentially a start-up in the first few seasons and the idea itself was only written down on paper eight years ago. Now we’re entering our sixth season and continuing to charge forward.”
In its last season (2018/19), the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) introduced a new car to the competition. Known as the Gen2, the Batmobile-esque machine is capable of speeds of up to 280km/h (174mph), thus showing how rapidly the technology has progressed.
“The cars have got quicker - they look cooler, too!” Agag exclaims. “We’ve also gone from two cars to one car per driver [2018/2019] and doubled the range of the battery. That’s the biggest visual indication of the progress we’ve made with the performance and efficiency of the second-generation car.”
Besides its Gen2 car, which is intended to be raced for three more seasons, teams can tinker with their cars to ensure they can go faster – within regulations, of course.
“The regulations and room for manoeuvre are concentrated to areas of the car around the electric powertrain, with the freedom to develop components such as the motor, inverter, gearbox and rear suspension,” Agag explains. “Therefore, teams take the energy from the battery and can control how best to put that power down.
“This was a conscious decision to limit what teams can influence, especially in the early phase of the lifespan of the series,” he adds. “Having a certain number of ‘spec parts’ keeps competition close - which is what we and fans want - and it keeps costs down, which is what the teams want!”
Agag also highlights how there is an even-minded investment within the teams to ensure the competition is fair. “What we wanted to avoid is one team dominating, or one team winning by out-spending another,” says Agag.
Indeed, by regulation, teams who develop their own powertrains have to offer them to customer teams at a fixed price. This allows customer teams and independent teams to have a chance at competing. Agag cites TECHEETAH in season four and Envision Virgin Racing last season as examples.
“As you can see, the cars look the same,” he says, “but they’re all different beneath the surface and under the skin of the car. There’s room for ideas and innovation, but without impacting the sporting spectacle.”
2019/2020 race calendar
Race 1: Diriyah (Saudi Arabia), 22 November 2019
Race 2: Diriyah (Saudi Arabia), 23 November 2019
Race 3: Santiago (Chile), 18 January 2020
Race 4: Mexico City (Mexico), 15 February 2020
Race 5: Marrakesh (Morocco), 29 Febuary 2020
Race 6: Sanya (China), 21 March 2020
Race 7: Rome (Italy), 4 April 2020
Race 8: Paris (France), 18 April 2020
Race 9: Seoul (South Korea), 3 May 2020
Race 10: Jakarta (Indonesia), 6 June 2020
Race 11: Berlin (Germany), 21 June 2020
Race 12: New York (USA), 11 July 2020
Race 13: London (UK), 25 July 2020
Race 14: London (UK), 26 July 2020
Formula E, however, is not all about winning races: it is also about shaping developments in our road cars.
In Formula One (F1), its regulators introduced a down-sized V6 turbocharged engine to its cars in 2014 which mirror developments in road-car engine technologies; smaller, hybridised engines. Agag praises the current hybrid units used in the F1 cars. “They’re a work of art,” he says, “and improved the efficiency of the internal combustion engine.
“However, that’s not our game,” Agag insists – and much like its hybrid-powered sibling, Formula E hopes to bring electric racing tech to our roads, aspiring to forge the future of electric mobility. “The automotive industry is moving towards electric and we’re the platform to progress that changeover.”
In July 2017, Mercedes – which currently hold the top two positions on the F1 driver leader board with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, and have just won the 2019 constructors’ championship – announced its entry to this season of Formula E. The team’s reason for joining the series is described by managing director Ian James, who says “we’re first and foremost racers at heart”.
“We see this as something which provides a fantastic level of competition,” James adds, “and it also provides a unique platform to showcase electric vehicle technology.”
Mercedes intends to embed this tech into its electric road cars. In fact, the team has set up meetings between its Formula E engineers and engineers working on the company’s EQ range, with James saying how these workshops will “ensure that we’ve got that knowledge transfer taking place”.
In other words, Formula E is essentially a living laboratory for EV technology. Porsche, a newcomer to the 2019/20 season alongside Mercedes, dropped out of the Le Mans endurance races so that it could invest in Formula E for the same reason.
Agag agrees: “Motorsport has always been a laboratory for the automotive industry and it still is today. Seat belts, wing mirrors and carbon brakes were all conceived in F1 before later being transferred to road cars.”
He adds that Formula E is doing the same for components on electric cars, by testing new technologies and pushing them to the production line. “You could argue that Formula E is now the most road-relevant category in motorsport, in terms of the future direction of the motor industry,” he says.
Agag highlights examples of Formula E technology that is already on our roads. For example, the Panasonic Jaguar Racing team embeds the same technology from the Jaguar I-PACE into its racing cars. These include its all-aluminium architecture, motors in the front and rear axle, and a 90kWh battery pack, which sits on the floor of the car.
Furthermore, the NIO EP9 and Aston Martin Rapide E take inspiration from the motors made in Formula E. “The Audi e-Tron takes learnings from Formula E and so will future Nissan Leaf models,” Agag adds.
Indeed, Formula E could accelerate the switch to electric, Agag says. “When electric cars are more efficient, more accessible and affordable for consumers, then the crossover will come”.
When highlighting the fact that the technology used in Formula E cars mirrors that in our current, and future, electric road cars, Agag argues that it has become the motorsport for generations to come. However, he acknowledges that it will be hard to compare with the rich history of F1.
“You can’t compare the glamour of Grand Prix racing: they have a history of almost 70 years and names from the past, like Stewart, Fangio, Prost and Senna,” he says.
That being said, some drivers have already chosen Formula E ahead of Formula One. For example, Nyck de Vries – the current F2 champion – is joining Stoffel Vandoorne at Mercedes-Benz EQ this season. “This shows how far we’ve come, that even young drivers are now looking to Formula E,” Agag adds.
Not only have drivers who have previously driven in the hybrid-powered class decided to switch to pure-electric racing, but some have also tested the road-car technology themselves, reciprocating positive feedback to those involved in the motorsport.
In fact, current F1 champion Lewis Hamilton recently drove an EQC Mercedes road car in Melbourne ahead of the 2019 Australian Grand Prix and spoke positively about the experience on his social media channels.
According to online magazine Autosport, team principal of the Mercedes F1 team, Toto Wolff, said that he would let Hamilton sample a Mercedes Formula E car if the world champion ever wanted an outing. However, he stressed Hamilton is not about to join the grid in the electric single-seater championship due to his commitment to the F1 series.
Nevertheless, Agag believes that Formula E coincides with the technologies of the future that are being tested today. “Again, it’s hard to compare with the history of Formula One,” Agag concludes. “But we’re making our own history.”
Gen1 vs Gen2
In the 2018/19 season, Formula E welcomed a new car to its tracks, the Gen2, which is faster and more powerful than its predecessor. Here is a breakdown of the car’s feature changes:
The design Designed by Spark (the racing technologies company behind the Gen1 car used in previous seasons) and also by the FIA, Gen2 has been developed with a futuristic design. The aim of this design is not only to increase downforce but will allow the driver to maintain aerodynamic grip when closely following another car. This also helps with overtaking.
The most notable change to the Formula E car is what’s underneath its bodywork: the battery. In comparison to the Gen1 car, the batteries installed in the Gen2 have double the energy-storage capacity. This means that the cars are capable of covering the full race distance without the need for swapping the battery mid-race.
As well as its improved longevity, the maximum power output of the car has increased to 250kW. This is an increase of 50kW from its predecessor which sees a top speed of 280km/h (174mph).
The Gen2 car has also incorporated a new brake-by-wire (BBW) system.
In its previous seasons, when the drivers braked, they got both the deceleration from the brakes themselves and a varying amount of slowing from regenerative braking effect (regen) on the rear wheels. And although the driver could adjust the regen settings from the steering wheel, there would be a chance the brakes would lock up and cause the car to spin.
To overcome this issue, the BBW system only affects the rear brakes, and the driver presses the brake pedal as usual. Then, the electronic control unit (ECU) balances how much braking the driver wants and what braking effect will be supplied by the regen set up. This, therefore, gives a balanced and consistent braking effect for the driver.
For its upcoming season, they are still using the Gen2 cars in the races. However, they are currently in the midst of developing a Gen3 car for the 2022/23 season.
Gen1 vs Gen 2
Overall length 5,160mm (+160mm)
Overall width 1,770mm (-10mm)
Overall height 1,050mm (remains the same)
Front track 1,553mm (+25mm)
Rear track 1,505mm (+13mm)
Ride height 75mm (max) (remains the same)
Wheelbase 3,100mm (remains the same)
Minimum weight including driver and battery 900kg (+20kg)
Battery alone 385kg (+65kg)
Maximum power 250kW, equivalent to 335bhp (+50kW, +67bhp)
Race Mode 200kW, equivalent to 270bhp (+20kW, +30bhp)
(maximum power available)
Maximum power regeneration 250kW (+100kW)
Maximum speed 280km/h, =174mph (+55km/h, +34mph)
Acceleration 0-100km/h, 0-62mph (-2.8s)
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