FormulaE - Pre-Season Impressions

I am a huge fan of both electric cars, or at least the idea of them, and of motorsport, so the whole concept behind FormulaE as an off-season complement to Formula 1 run on street circuits around the globe really appeals. That the series is based at nearby Donington Park and holds its test and development days there is a huge benefit. As soon as booking was available for the test days my name went down... 

People seem to have a huge interest in FormulaE, either to trash the idea that electric cars can be used for racing or to argue that actually this is quite an interesting concept so thought I'd take the time to jot down my thoughts. One caveat is that here are loads of places where you can find detailed technical information on the cars, teams and drivers - this is very much a set of my thoughts.

A full photo gallery from the 4th July testing is available here!

The Series

Team Amlin-Aguri car in the Donington pit lane

FormulaE has essentially been built as a global race series from nothing in under two years. Designed to compliment existing series (particularly Formula 1) rather than replace or displace them it will run in the off-season on a series of street-circuits around the world. Major players are involved - Renault, McLaren, Williams and Michelin (or sub-enterprises within them) have all developed technologies that are incorporated into the cars whilst Qualcomm have developed the charging and power management tech. Yes, spin-offs from FormulaE will probably end up in your phone as well as your car...

What's quite clever is the thought that has gone into developing the entire concept. Based at Donington, the formula is relatively easy to get to for everyone involved - remarkably important when you have to get to the entire circus to and from places as diverse as Beijing, Puenta del Este (Uruguay) and Long Beach. Conveniently the FormulaE HQ and all the team's facilities that surround it are a mile or so from East Midlands Airport -coincidentally (or not...) the site of DHL's European hub. DHL are the logistics sponsor the series - no small task in itself. It may seem a silly thing to dwell on, but all of these things help the potential sustainability of the series by enabling teams to keep costs down.

One of the things that has people slightly concerned about FormulaE is currently-proposed race setup. Technology doesn't yet allow 3-second, F1-style pit-stops and refuel/recharge so for this first season the drivers will need to swap cars part-way through the race. I'm really not sure just how well it will work. I certainly didn't see people doing entry/exit practice in the pits! From speaking to people who know these things, it's anticipated that over the coming years this will be replaced by battery-pack swaps, fast charges and, eventually, the possibility of an induction "charging lane" - a sort-of real-life slot-car setup without the slot.

There are 10 teams involved, each sporting 2 drivers who will, in turn, each have 2 cars.

The Cars

All the cars for all the teams are exactly the same. Based on a Dallara chassis the cars (or at least their components) are made by a consortium called Spark Racing Technology. Fitted to this is a motor running through a 7-speed paddle-shift gearbox supplied by McLaren Electronics Systems. This is powered by a set of 200kW batteries from Williams Advanced Engineering. To make all of this work RenaultSport have had the role of "systems integrator" Charging technology is from Qualcomm. The tyres are Michelin and look a lot like high-performance road car tyres as the same tyre is used for both dry and wet conditions. Supposedly they can get "a bit fun" at times - I guess it's similar to the Toyota GT-86 being supplied with Prius tyres for similar reasons. It should help make an interesting show for us spectators.

Annotated FormulaE car. This is the Qualcomm-liveried development car used by the formula for testing new maps and parts.

Annotated FormulaE car. This is the Qualcomm-liveried development car used by the formula for testing new maps and parts.

Whilst all the cars are exactly the same this season, it's anticipated that as the series and technology matures then teams will have more and more freedom to differentiate from the "template" in terms of bodywork, battery and powertrain - just like in many other race series.

Audi Sport Abt sporting a fine "Leaf blower -> Hose -> Chip Basket of Dry Ice Pellets" cooling setup. White pellets on the floor are dry ice.

The identical cars are giving teams other areas of innovation. One of the challenges will be how quickly and efficiently teams can charge the batteries. As we all know from how hot our phones get when charging or playing a processor-hungry game or video, batteries get hot when being both charged and discharged which is why the cars have the radiators in the side pods. There's nothing the teams can do about battery discharge - that's down to the driver, but when charging they've come up with different and innovative ways to keep the batteries as cool as possible - everything from fans pumping air on to the radiator to leaf-blowers blowing air though chip-fryer baskets of dry ice. Actually, leaf-blowers feature quite significantly in the cooling mechanisms and are the overwhelming noise in the pit-lane.

Noise is actually one of the areas which most people are concerned about and, with the objections raised to the new turbocharged sound of Formula 1 it's something people are more and more conscious of. All I can say about the ForumulaE cars is that they have a very distinctive noise. It's a high-pitched, futuristic sound that wouldn't be out of place in Star Wars/Trek and I really like it. What I'm more sceptical of is the idea of playing music over the racing as a soundtrack. I understand why this may have seemed a good idea, and I quite like the music, but it does seem just a little weird - I've rather hear the futuristic whirrs of 20 cars battling it out on track...

 

The Spectacle

So, summing it up, what do I think the full event and series will be like? Well it's hard to say as I've been to a single test day held in a rural setting and where there were rarely more than 4 or 5 cars on the track at once. If I use my imagination and try and scale up what I saw, if I shift it to Monaco or Beijing in my mind then I think it will be an impressive event. It will be totally different from what many of us see when Grands Prix at Spa or Hockenheim and I think maybe Singapore will be a better equivalent due to its urban setting. For some strange reason I imagine the races would be even better at night, but as I can't see race times on the FormulaE website then I think that will have to stay in my imagination.

One of the other "Spectacle Enhancing" things added to FormulaE is "Fanboost". Unfortunately this doesn't give Mario-esque levitation, but grants the 3 most-voted-for drivers an extra 2.5 second power boost per race. That's right, it's a popularity contest. Thank you, Simon Cowell. As I'm sure you can tell, I'm even more sceptical of that than of the musical soundtrack.

Naturally, a significant amount of the sheer spectacle of a race is from the quality of the drivers and this really is where FormulaE has a significant advantage over almost every new series to have been introduced in the past and include for F1 drivers Bruno Senna, Nick Heidfeld, Sebastien Buemi, Jarno Trulli and Jaime Alguersuari. If nothing else then they'll assure plenty of wheel-to-wheel action!

So overall I'm impressed and the latent anticipation and excitement that I already had for the series has been heightened rather than dampened. I'll certainly be tuning in to ITV4 to see the action in Beijing and really hope it's as good as I'm expecting!

A full calendar and loads more information is available from the FormulaE website.