What is Formula E?
Formula E is an all-electric racing series, backed by the FIA, which premiered with its first ePrix in Beijing back in 2014. Now in season 3, Formula E races have already taken place in five continents with more unique and interesting cities being added to the schedule every season.
Formula E was initially an idea of FIA’s President Jean Todt, and with his contacts book in motorsport, media and business, was picked up by Spanish Businessman Alejandro Agag who turned Todt’s vision into a reality. Agag and Formula E Holdings have a ten year contract with the FIA, so we’ll be seeing electric street racing on the streets of our cities for at least the next seven years.
Teams and drivers
Right now there are a total of ten teams in Formula E, with each team having two drivers, and each driver, two cars. For anybody familiar with Formula 1, there are some very recognisable names. The legend that is Alain Prost heads up the Championship-winning Renault eDams team, whilst amongst the drivers, names have included Bruno Senna, Nelson Piquet Junior, Lucas Di Grassi, Jacques Villeneuve, Nick Heidfeld and of course current Formula E champion, the Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi.
Other teams involved in Formula E include some of the biggest car manufacturers around – Jaguar, Audi and BMW are all involved. Mercedes have taken an option to be part of the 2018/2019 season, with the potential of more names being added all of the time.
Buemi is already dominating season 3 – but those challenging for the top position include Lucas Di Grassi, Nico Prost, and even the rookie driver, Felix Rosenquist.
Alongside the drivers, the series is not without glamour with top Hollywood actor and environmental campaigner Leonardo DiCaprio being co-owner of the Venturi team, and Sir Richard Branson heading up the DS Virgin team.
The most outstanding thing about Formula E cars is that they are fully electric. This means no fuel tank, no exhaust pipes, and cars that sound like nothing else in motorsport.
Most components on the cars are standardised across all teams, helping to ensure incredibly close racing. In Formula 1, a team’s success or failure to master their aerodynamic package is one of the most important factors determining whether you have a quick car, or a slow one. In Formula E, all of the cars are aerodynamically identical.
The battery that powers the cars is also identical for all teams. Since season 2, the teams have been able to develop their own motor, inverter and gearbox, a set of components often referred to as the “powertrain”, to get the most out of the fixed power available. 8 of the 10 teams have chosen to do this, and it’s interesting to know that no powertrain is currently the same.
This fierce technological competition between the teams has resulted in efficiencies of over 90 per cent, compared to 25 per cent for a conventional road car with a gasoline engine.
The differences in design strategy are huge and fundamental – over the past two seasons we’ve seen teams use one motor, two motors, a single gear, two, three, four and even five gears...
So, how quick are the cars? An average Formula E car is able to accelerate from 0–100 km/h in three seconds and to reach a maximum speed of 225 km/h. In fact, the cars could run even faster, but the speed has been capped for safety reasons, as most of the races take place in city centres, with some tight sections and very little runoff.
For many, the beauty of Formula E is that the majority of the races take place on street circuits around the world. This can often mean tighter tracks, fiercer battles to overtake, and a passionate local crowd only metres away.
Unlike a purpose-built racing circuit, there are bumps in the road, manhole covers, cambers to think about – just a few days before the race, this will have been a busy city centre road.
Also, unlike a racing circuit, there’s no run off area in the middle of the city – meaning just one wrong move can end your race. This makes a street circuit a very exciting set up to a racing fan. It also places Formula E right in the heart of some of the globes most exciting cities. For just a few days, the city’s streets are taken over by this exciting event.
Practice and qualifying
Formula E is unusual in that practice, qualifying and the race itself all happen on the same day. Free Practice 1 is a 45 minute session at the start of the day when the drivers really start to get to grips with the track.
Although they’ve practised on the circuit for around 100 hours on their simulators, this is when they really find out about the lumps, bumps, tight corners of the street circuit. Expect twists, turns and smashing into the barriers as we see all the teething problems come to light in this first practice.
There’s then one further practice session, Free Practice 2; the drivers last chance to really learn the track before going into qualifying, and to gather as much data as they can for the team.
Then, at midday, it’s on to Qualifying. The cars go out in four randomly-selected groups of five cars each. Each group has six minutes on the track. With an out lap and an in lap, this means the drivers really only have one shot at nailing their qualifying lap. One small mistake could wreck months of preparation, so the stakes are high.
For qualifying, the cars are set to the maximum power of 200kW. This is the chance for the driver to set their best lap time.
The five drivers who set the best times in qualifying, then move on to Super Pole, an electric 15 minutes where the drivers go out one by one (with the slowest of the five going first), to set their fastest lap. This often leads to real tension between the two front runners like Lucas Di Grassi and Sebastien Buemi in London at the end of season two.
Not only does this set the formation for the grid, but the pole-sitter also gains an extra 3 vital championship points.
Then it’s officially ‘Park Fermé’ – the cars are back to the pits, and that’s it – they’ve done all they can – now there’s just one thing for it – to race.
After qualifying, the starting grid for each race is set. There’s no formation lap, so the drivers hurtle towards turn one on cold tyres and cold brakes – always a recipe for first-corner action!
There is no ‘typical’ Formula E race circuit, as each street circuit is very different from the next, but the races run for around 50 minutes, and the track is normally around 2.5km in length.
The cars are set to a maximum of 170kW power in race mode, although there is an exception to this with the fan boost – more on that later
During each race, the drivers have to swap to their second car – this normally happens between around lap 13-17. Unlike other motorsports, teams are not allowed to change tyres unless they’re punctured or damaged. This applies even if it rains – Formula E uses all-weather tyres, so there’s no need for intermediates or wets like in other series.
As with any pit stop, drivers practice their car changeover, and there’s strategic thinking about when to make this changeover as there is a limit to how much energy the car can carry. Drivers have to ration their energy, and think about when it makes sense to save energy, and when to go for speed. The team is in constant communication with the driver, and the car is sending essential data back to the team.
Unlike other sports, in Formula E, fans can vote for their favourite drivers to have a ‘Fan Boost’, this is done via social media, and runs in the weeks building up to the race, and during the opening 6 minutes of the race. The 3 drivers who win the fan boost each receive an extra 100kJ of energy to be used in a power window between 180kW and 200kW – this is often used for an essential overtake.
The winner of the race gets 25 points, with the first 10 positions being in the points
There is also an extra point for whoever sets the fastest lap during the race, so there’s something to aim for even if you’re running below 10th. What we’ve often seen happen is a driver damage their first car early on, and limp back to the pits to get into their second car. Even though in this situation they simply don’t have enough energy to get to the end of the race, there’s still a championship point to play for by finding some clean air on circuit and putting in a quick lap.
In fact this is how season 2’s title was decided, following an opening-lap crash between Buemi and di Grassi, who were level on points. Both guys limped back to the pits and the title decider became a hot lap shootout between the two for that fastest lap –
great entertainment for us as fans!
Any sport is underpinned by great strategists, and Formula E presents its own unique strategic challenges. Of course, once the cars are built and the season kicks off, race strategy becomes crucial. While complex, Formula E strategy is best thought of in terms of getting the maximum motion from the minimum energy – doing the most with the least. Every driver has to stop at some point during the race, to switch into a fully charged car. This presents opportunities to outwit your rivals...
The most common strategy we see in Formula E is drivers doing everything they can to be able to go a lap longer than their rivals in their first cars, by saving and regenerating as much energy as possible. If you can do this without losing too much time – that means in your second car – you’ve got to do a lap less. And that means more power, more aggression, more overtaking, and ultimately, more points.
Sustainability and green ambitions
Formula E was set up to help in the fight against climate change, and to improve the quality of the air we all breathe. By being involved with Formula E, car manufacturers have a unique opportunity to really push electric car technology to its limits, and to learn directly from these experiences. This can result in big moves forward for them in their development of their electric road cars. Already, we’ve seen Formula E teams create stunning, exciting, super-fast fully electric vehicles, changing the whole face of the automotive industry.
But Formula E’s commitment to the environment isn’t limited to the cars. The whole Formula E event is powered by a largely renewable mix of energy sources. The gaming arena is powered solely by photovoltaic solar panels, and spectators are encouraged to use public transport to and from the races, which is made a lot easier with city centre locations. Even the race calendar is structured to minimise air miles as much as possible.
Alongside being a competitive, exciting racing series, Formula E’s main aim is to promote the use of electric vehicles – bringing forward the day when electric cars are the norm on our roads and leading the way towards a cleaner future.