The inaugural Formula E race took place in Beijing this past weekend. A few short years ago it was just an idea. Now it has opened an exciting new chapter in the world of racing bringing a fresh approach and solid talent pool to the mix.
The main idea behind Formula E is that of a global electric racing championship focused on high performance and energy efficiency, which are really two sides of the same coin (though performance is much more exciting to watch than efficiency). By using quiet electric race cars and packing all the sessions into one day, the organizers are able to bring the action and the glamour to the masses in ten urban centers around the world in this season’s championship.
While it is said to have cost $100m to launch the series, that’s comparatively inexpensive considering it costs more each year to run a mid-field Formula 1 (F1) team. Though racing is not inexpensive, this could well turn out to be a great investment for founder Alejandro Agag and his backers.
Cars By Consortium
The cars are all-electric and built by Spark Racing Technology, incorporating components and systems from big names such as Dallara, McLaren, Williams, Renault and Michelin. Powered by 150 kilowatt (kW) motors (201 hp), they can reach modest top speeds of about 140 mph.
While power is nominal, torque is undoubtedly prodigious and instantaneous. Acceleration is quick. Battery capacity is still very limited, so the races are a brief 45 minutes, with each driver using two cars. Even then getting to the finish is really tight; drivers eke across the finish line with barely any charge left.
The cars use fairly flat, low downforce front and rear wings because there isn’t enough energy available to overcome the extra aerodynamic drag of high downforce wings commonly seen on cars on street circuits.
Compared to F1 cars the relatively low speed and low drag/downforce design makes the Formula E cars less aerodynamically sensitive. Because of that they should be able to race much closer together.
The big concern about the lack of loud engine noise is, in my opinion, unfounded. While certainly less noisy, electric cars at speed are not silent simply because there are other sounds present such as tire and wind noise. At speed they emit a pleasant high-pitched whir. Somewhat surprisingly, the Formula E car uses treaded tires that are closer in size to those of street cars. This is likely to negate the need for rain tires.
Despite its modest performance and somewhat odd appearance, particularly due to the fairings in front of each tire, the Formula E car is a great platform from which to develop further technology. There is little doubt it will continue to improve in performance in the coming seasons.
Racing Around Town
The race started by following the grid procedure used by F1. The first part of the race was relatively uneventful, with race strategy mainly limited to choosing during a narrow mid-race time window when to pit and change cars. When the time came to pit, most drivers came in within a lap or two. Exiting the garages the way they do seems risky, and I suspect this procedure may change soon.
The Beijing street circuit around the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium was pretty dull. Most of the turns were 90 degrees, with a few chicanes thrown in to spice up the straights. One motive behind those chicanes is energy conservation. By slowing the cars down, the batteries don’t get drained as quickly and regenerative braking helps recapture some of the energy expended.
While I’m on the subject of conserving energy, street circuits tend to produce more yellow flags and safety car periods than races on permanent circuits. This reduces average speeds, and the net effect is that the cars don’t consume as much energy. The racing also tends to be closer due to the cars getting bunched together for restarts.
With the batteries so limited, every time the safety car is deployed, the collective field probably sighs in relief that they are that much more likely to have enough energy to make it to the end.
Overall I enjoyed the race other than for two issues. The first is that fanboost is the most egregious form of sporting interference I’ve yet seen in racing. This is even worse than the controversial Drag Reduction System (DRS) introduced in F1 in 2011.
What we have here is a social media popularity contest ahead of each race that gives each of three drivers a short burst of extra power – 30 kW (40 hp) – they can choose to use at any point during the race. Fanboost didn’t appear to have any effect in the first race. But not only is it a silly gimmick, it puts the sport on a slippery slope to further diminish the driver’s role.
The second issue was the time penalty assigned to third placed Daniel Abt for using too much energy, which bumped him down to 10th place. There is a limit of 28 kWh, and Abt was found to have used 28.2 kWh [Note: At the time of writing the results and news releases about this used the incorrect units of kW (power) rather than kWh (energy)]. Rules are rules, but this one did nothing to improve the show.
If the energy capacity is there, the driver should be allowed to use it. If he or she uses too much the battery is depleted, and the car doesn’t finish. There is no need for artificial limits. Other than these two issues, the racing itself was quite good.
Further illustrating how far battery technology has to go, it took two full charges for each driver to finish the approximate race distance of 52 miles. At the end, many of the runners had about 3% to 4% battery life remaining.
Said another way, at racing speeds the batteries have a range of about 27 miles. Still that’s impressive considering my cell phone doesn’t go anywhere under its own power and can’t make it a full day without recharging.
If Hollywood Wrote It, You Wouldn’t Believe It
A more dramatic outcome could not have been scripted. It came down to the last corner of the last lap. Ex-F1 driver Nick Heidfeld attempted to pass Nicholas Prost for the lead, who promptly swerved into him. Both cars suffered suspension damage and failed to finish, with Heidfeld’s car barrel rolling spectacularly then landing upside down. Fortunately he emerged unscathed.
The latest crash reinforces the view that sausage curbs (because they’re shaped like sausage links) should not be used, as they can serve as ramps which launch errant cars high into the air.
The FIA, which also governs F1, rightly gave Prost a 10 place grid penalty for the next race, though in initial post-race interviews he denied any fault on his part. If this were pro wrestling he would likely be considered a heel, as he was clearly to blame for the incident.
With the crash Luca di Grassi won the first ever Formula E race, with Franck Montagny second and Sam Bird promoted to third after Abt’s disqualification.
Though it’s a brand new series, the organizers have done an impressive job of bringing a new concept to fruition. They put on a good show while demonstrating new technology. Hopefully the racing will be allowed to proceed free of artificial gimmicks.
Photo courtesy FIA Formula E Championship