In its fifth season, Formula E will continue to bring new venues, countries and opportunities to showcase electric vehicle technology across the globe. The championship continues to grow – with partners such as Julius Baer having been with the series since the start.
Formula E begins its fifth season this weekend. With faster, more powerful cars, bigger batteries, an entirely new race format and the backing of nine manufacturers it is in an extraordinary position. Not just a racing series that has survived by the skin of its teeth but one that’s thriving, having defied the odds – and its critics.
Facing the challenges of climate change means Formula E’s success is critical to the automotive industry and the future of our world. More than a spark of hope, the race is on to change the way we drive and Formula E’s second generation will push that forwards at thrilling pace.
What you need to know
Formula E is an all-electric, single-seater racing series. It’s the first – and currently only – FIA international racing series to use only battery-electric power.
All 22 Formula E cars run the same chassis and battery, with teams able to customise the power train (electrical motors and drive train) and software in the cars, a key component of efficient technologies.
Formula E races on street circuits in major cities, bringing racing to the streets that people drive on, using road-suitable tyres. This lets fans and enthusiasts get close to the show and see the power of electric vehicles in the setting they are most needed in.
After four successful seasons using the first generation chassis, battery and racing format Formula E now enters “Gen2,” it’s second phase, for Season 5.
What’s new in Season 5?
Formula E is hitting its second generation – of race cars, of teams, even arguably of drivers as more youngsters come from junior series directly into the sport.
Three new manufacturers have entered the series: BMW turning Andretti’s entry into their works team, Nissan taking over Renault’s hugely successful e.Dams partnership and Mercedes dipping their first toe by moving over their champion DTM squad HWA as Venturi customers.
Formula E also has an all-new race car, with increased battery capacity – so the mid-race car swap is over – and an aggressive profile that’s been compared to the Batmobile.
The brand itself has taken on an edgier look, wanting to emphasise the close competition and aggression of the series and no longer needing to sell itself purely on technological credentials.
In addition to all that, Formula E is pushing the boundaries of racing with a new format. Without the mandatory car swap pit stop, it has switched to a format where energy management over time, rather than a specific lap distance, is key and where drivers can activate additional power modes by taking more difficult routes around the circuits. No other motorsport uses this format and it will get its first test this weekend.
The Gen2 Formula E car
The first-generation Formula E car was built by Spark, a company formed specifically to build cars for the championship. It used a chassis and monocoque (the protective space a driver sits in) built by Dallara, a battery from Williams Advanced Engineering and, for the first season of the championship, an electric motor supplied by McLaren.
After the first season of Formula E, teams were able to build their own powertrains, although the battery and car remained the same for everyone. The past three seasons have shown that extracting maximum efficiency and optimum setup for each race is extremely challenging and that ensuring reliability is sometimes even harder, putting the teams under pressure to push their powertrains and software futher.
The first-generation car ran for four seasons, with minor modifications to the chassis and battery pickups. Having covered a total distance equivalent to going around the earth one-and-a-bit times, including 54,500km without an on-track battery failure, the first car retires having done more than its job.
Gen2 takes the lead using all the lessons learned in Formula E’s first four seasons to build a true street-racing car that adheres to the principles of the championship (keeping cost and energy demands low) at the same time as giving it a distinct – and desirable – new look.
The Gen2 car was also built by Spark, using another Dallara chassis with a radically different, sleek look. Its new McLaren battery increases capacity from 28kWh to 54kWh and improves heat tolerance by over 15C, meaning higher regenarating stress is possible.
All this allows the car to run a full race distance without the need to recharge, meaning the mid-race car swap that characterised the first four seasons is gone. And the new racing format does away with pit stops entirely.
The new cars are more powerful in terms of output, too. In Formula E’s first season, the maximum usable power output during a race was 150kW, without Fanboost. In the Gen2 car, drivers will have a base output of 200kW during a race, with the potential to increase that to 250kW with both Fanboost and Attack Mode.
Regeneration has also increased, allowing drivers to recover up to 250kW under braking, meaning that the cars will be more efficient in re-cycling the power they expend.
The Gen2 car is designed to include the FIA-mandated Halo safety device, protecting the driver’s head from debris or in a crash. In Formula E, the Halo also contains flashing LED light displays which will show what mode a car is in – turning a cool blue when drivers activate Attack Mode.
The minimum weight for the car has been increased, from 880kg to 900kg including the driver – a very modest increase for such a huge leap in battery capacity and power output.
The Formula E car is designed to be low downforce, for a race car, in order to make street racing more exciting. It also now incorporates brake-by-wire, a system where the brake balance is partially done computationally, instead of drivers having to reset and adjust it manually between corners.
This should all mean even closer, faster racing and a fiercely-fought battle to take the first Gen2 title.
The Season 5 race format
Formula E is radically changing its race format for Season 5, doing away with the motorsport staple of compulsory pit stops.
Used tactically, pit stops are a way of mixing a race up and an opportunity for teams to strategically improve their results (or worsen them, with a bad call) so if there was no need for them, a different option needed to be devised.
Formula E has come up with ‘Attack Mode’ – an opportunity for drivers to use an area of track not on the ‘racing line’ (the most efficient route around the circuit) in order to gain a burst of speed advantage.
A driver who goes through the Attack Mode activation zone will be able to use an extra 25kW of power for a pre-decided amount of time. However, teams and drivers won’t know how long that is or where the activation zones are until an hour before the race, forcing it to be a true strategy call rather than a pre-simulated decision.
This gives a significant element of the strategy of a race back to the driver (the engineers can’t steer for them, after all) and forces on-track decisions and moves to be the deciding factors in a race.
This is reinforced by the move away from a lap-distance race to a timed race. Rather than running a specified number of laps at a circuit, all Formula E races will be 45 minutes + 1 lap, from the time when the race leader crosses the line.
If the race leader happens to cross the line just before 45 minutes are over, that could effectively put two more laps on the board which will make reserve energy and tyre management very challenging and keep the racing unpredictable.
We could see some very interesting results this season – and some races like nothing else in motorsport.
The Season 5 teams
Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler Formula E Team
One of the first teams to enter the championship – and the only one to have fielded the same drivers in every single round of Formula E’s first generation – Audi are the teams’ champions from Season 4 and will be looking to defend their title. Team principal Allan McNish will certainly be determined to prove his leadership again.
Both drivers are proven race-winners and capable of consistently near-unbeatable results, provided the team resolve reliability issues that nearly dogged them out of the title last year.
Drivers: Lucas di Grassi, Daniel Abt
Lucas di Grassi was Season 3 champion and is unquestionably one of the most competitive drivers in Formula E, after years of rivalry with Sebastien Buemi. He completed a run of seven first and second places from Punta del Este until the end of the season, after reliability issues hampered him in the first rounds and is surely motivated to repeat that level of performance.
Daniel Abt took his first race victories last season, including Audi’s first Formula E victory (twice, after his first win was stripped from him for a technical infringement) and continues to want to prove himself, stepping out from the shadow of his teammate.
Last year’s driver champions – who nearly managed to snatch the teams’ trophy from Audi’s hands, despite being (then) the only customer team on the grid. Although in theory Techeetah sprang into being in Season 3, they come from an amalgamation of older teams and have a wealth of experience within the team as well as in their drivers.
After a spotty first season, last year seemed to inspire them to a relentless consistency; now a factory outfit with their own DS powertrain, if they can continue the roll they will be formidable contenders.
Drivers: Jean-Eric Vergne, Andre Lotterer
Jean-Eric Vergne is the current drivers’ champion, having led a very focussed campaign to win last season. Having struggled with consistency over his first three seasons in Formula E, there’s no question JEV found it last year – and will be determined to keep it this season.
Andre Lotterer entered last season as a rookie, with almost no testing time in a Formula E car despite his years of experience in other series. Despite struggling at first, he was eventually denied two wins only by his teammate and became a consistent podium finisher. Some experts have him as favourite for the title, this year.
Envision Virgin Racing
The team who previously had DS’ powertrains, lost during an acrimonious row that coloured the European season for the otherwise dogged Virgin team. Now under the leadership of Sylvain Filippi, they have become an Audi customer team – apeing Techeetah’s previous tactic of taking the fastest powertrain of the previous season – and slightly reshuffled their organisation.
Having been there or thereabouts with an overweight and inefficient powertrain not much developed over the season, they too stand to contend at the front if they can harness the Audi.
Drivers: Sam Bird and Robin Frijns
Sam Bird has been with the Virgin team since the start of Formula E, with race wins each year despite rarely being in a front-running car. He has out-performed each of his teammates (including current champion Jean-Eric Vergne) and was the last driver able to contend the title from Vergne at the finale last year. With an Audi powertrain and an obvious hunger to finally take the title after too many third places, Bird could be this year’s giant killer.
Robin Frijns is returning to Formula E after a stint away in GT racing. Last time out, for two season with Andretti, he beat both his teammates and was widely regarded as one of the best Formula E drivers before manufacturer conflicts saw him axed from the team. Frijns is a man of few words and probably wouldn’t talk himself up – but his results will likely speak for themselves.
Mahindra were one of the first manufacturers to enter Formula E, at a point when the Indian automotive giant had very little racing experience. Working both smarter and harder, they’ve made canny partnerships with aerodynamicist Pininfarina and electronics giant Renesas work to put them in the front runners – but never managed to stay at the absolute top for long.
The team – and brand, whose electrification plans are amongst the most ambitious of any in Formula E – are hungry to change that. With an all-new (to the team) driver lineup and an intensively researched Gen2 powertrain, this could well be the year they come back in anger.
Drivers: Jerome D’Ambrosio and Pascal Wehrlein (replaced by Felix Rosenqvist for round one)
Jerome D’Ambrosio comes to Mahindra after four seasons with the Dragon team. A hugely experienced Formula E driver, he will be looking to replicate Mahindra’s race-winning success, having not seen the top step since Season 1.
Pascal Wehrlein is a former Formula 1 driver and one of Mercedes’ highest-rated junior drivers. He will miss the first round of the championship due to contractual obligations for DTM testing but expect him to be eager to prove himself in Marrakesh.
E.dams finished only fifth last year. For a name like Nissan it doesn’t seem so striking but up until that season, their last with Renault, they had been the only winners of the teams’ title with three consecutive trophies.
Despite a disrupted public testing programme and Nissan being new to the sport, e.dams should be considered a strong contender. Jean-Paul Driot, the team’s leader, is back and Formula E’s most successful driver has stayed in the team despite a bit of musical chairs for the other seat.
Drivers: Sebastien Buemi and Oliver Rowland
Sebastien Buemi is the most successful driver in Formula E history. Despite not winning any races during Season 4, he retains a 27% win rate for every start he has made and should be regarded as a threat by any driver. In his fifth year with the team, Buemi seems as focussed and motivated as ever.
Oliver Rowland is not quite a Formula E rookie – he competed in one round for Mahindra, in Season 1, standing in for an injured Nick Heidfeld. He completed one day of testing for Nissan e.dams in Valencia, so will head into the season slightly more prepared than his last time out and very eager to prove himself, after struggling for a race seat last year.
Panasonic Jaguar Racing
Like many manufacturers in the championship, the pressure is heavily on Jaguar this year, their third in Formula E. In their first season, they knew they were finding their feet, with a powertrain it might be generous to say was “hastily assembled.”
They made a huge step forward last year, moving to mid-field from dead last. But teething troubles dogged the team, losing points, pole positions and even a potential win with miscalculations and poor timing.
In Season 5, the pressure is on for the team to deliver a truly electrifying result – ahead of the whole Jaguar-Land Rover automotive brand turning hybrid or battery electric.
Drivers: Mitch Evans and Nelson Piquet Jr
Mitch Evans is one of Formula E’s youngest drivers, having come to the series with Jaguar from GP2. His first two seasons in the championship have shown how competitive he can be, fighting with much more experienced drivers and taking Jaguar’s first podium and pole, while also suffering some losses he has described as ‘painful.’ He has out-scored both teammates in the series.
Nelson Piquet Jr was the Season 1 champion of Formula E, before sliding backwards on the grid as the NextEv team’s chances floundered. His performances have been representative more of his equipment than his skill, however and Piquet remains motivated to return to the front of the competition, with the experience to make tactical calls as needed.
Venturi Formula E Team
It’s sometimes easy to forget that Venturi are themselves a manufacturer team – and many people assumed their relationship to Mercedes’ entry to Formula E would be that they received the German marques powertrains.
In fact Venturi – revitalised with new team principal Susie Wolff and incoming F1 star driver Felipe Massa – will be supplying Mercedes’ customer team, HWA, with their Monagasque powertrains.
The pressure is certainly on the team to deliver, not just for themselves but their demanding client – with a research department that consistently breaks land-speed records and four years of Formula E experience, they could be the ones to watch this year.
Drivers: Edoardo Mortara and Felipe Massa
Edoardo Mortara was the breakout star of last season, nearly winning race two of the Hong Kong Eprix before an attempt to take fastest lap as well sent him into a spin. Although he didn’t quite return to the top of the finishers, Mortara is an energy management genius and could manage to game the new format’s tactics to great success.
Felipe Massa comes to Formula E off the back of a hugely successful Formula One career, having taken a year out to select a team that was right for him to go to. Now back racing, there’s no proof of his Formula E record yet but Massa seems hugely engaged with the championship, becoming a race ambassador and immediately taking on greater commitments to the series.
NIO Formula E Team
NIO are one of the biggest electric vehicle manufacturers in the world, the giant Asian brand has recently moved to Silicon Valley in a bid to rival Tesla and uses its sports cars to break lap records at classic tracks like the Nurburgring.
Their Formula E team had mixed results last year – they gained their first podium in Mexico but weren’t able to repeat it and struggled for points towards the end of the season. However, they’ve changed their line up a little and with the brand recently floated on the stock market, are surely putting everything into performance this year.
Drivers: Oliver Turvey and Tom Dillman
Oliver Turvey is Formula E’s most consistent qualifier, starting in the top ten (regardless of where his teammate was) more than any other driver. He achieved the team’s first podium and after several bitter disappointments, including an on-track failure from the lead on his 30th birthday in Season 3, is surely due a pay off to his quiet commitment.
Tom Dillman has been something of a super-substitute in Formula E, filling in for racers across several teams. Although he has yet to prove himself with a full season, he’s been a consistent points-scorer and is a highly regarded driver surely determined to prove himself this year.
Geox Dragon Racing
Somewhat the rank outsiders of Formula E, Dragon are the only team who, without a direct production manufacturer link, make their own powertrains.
Jay Penske’s squad have persisted, however and stayed able to take advantage of races where bigger teams got it wrong to snag points or even a podium at the Julius Baer Zurich Eprix last year. The new race format could be an opportunity for them to steal a march on their rivals.
Drivers: Jose-Maria Lopez and Maximilian Günther
Jose-Maria Lopez is one of Formula E’s most aggressive drivers, with a highly competitive on-track style that frequently proves controversial. He’s also been the Dragon team’s most consistent points-scorer, having come to the team two races in last year following Neel Jani’s departure.
Maximilian Günther comes to Formula E from GP2, this year’s youngest on the grid. He completed rookie testing in Marrakech last year and was one of the fastest, despite technical issues. Although there’s no proof yet of his Formula E ability, he is a GP2 race winner and a highly competitive driver.
BMW i Andretti Motorsport
The Andretti team has struggled for three seasons now with an awkwardly configured, inefficient powertrain. When BMW entered the scene, they focussed most of their work on Gen2, leaving the team at the back for Season 4 and that seems to have paid off.
Although it’s difficult to say for certain, until the teams get to a proper street circuit, BMW looked to be the fastest team at testing. Could it be that Andretti have finally recovered from their long slump?
Drivers: Antonio Felix da Costa and Alexander Sims
Antonio Felix da Costa has spent the past three seasons as one of the most frustrated men in Formula E. Saddled with a car that proved close-to-undrivable at times, the Portuguese driver has remained upbeat but no driver wants to race at the back. Setting quick times at testing saw a huge change in Da Costa, no longer damage-managing but keen to win – re-energised, he could be a major contender.
Alexander Sims is a self-proclaimed electric vehicle nerd and has been trying to get a seat in Formula E since the start, finally getting the nod from BMW (who he drivers GT cars for) this season. Although he has no race experience, he was immediately on the pace of his teammate at testing in Valencia...
HWA Racelab are Mercedes’ first entry into Formula E. Although they are buying in customer powertrains from Venturi, the team previously ran one of Mercedes’ most successful DTM squads – and came straight from their winning celebrations there to pre-season testing.
The team had a difficult time at testing with some technical issues but that is, after all, what testing is for. Coming into Formula E as rookies is difficult for anyone, with challenges very unlike other series, from the compressed race day schedule to having to work at temporary circuits. But HWA certainly have the experience to be able to adapt – and the manufacturer–backed pressure to succeed.
Drivers: Gary Paffett and Stoffel Vandoorne
Gary Paffett is a hugely experienced racer and current DTM champion, with HWA. He comes to Formula E after completing last year’s Marrakesh rookie test and a longstanding interest in the series. While we don’t know exactly where he would be on-track, he’s a driver truly respected by other drivers and has potential to be highly competitive.
Stoffel Vandoorne comes to Formula E following a largely dismal two-season stint in Formula One. One of the most successful junior drivers ever, he took the GP2 title with an 150-point lead despite one round of the season being cancelled and has undoubtedly been more limited by his team’s performance than his own ability. Although as-yet-unproven, there are high hopes that Vandoorne could (as former champions Piquet, Buemi and Vergne have) find redemption and a return to the love of racing in Formula E.
Who could win in Season 5?
It’s almost a cliche to say that anyone can win in Formula E – especially as there certainly has been an order of running to the teams, in previous seasons.
What is definitely true is that anyone can lose. No matter how much of an advantage you may find at a particular track, a mistake that sends a car flying into a barrier can cost you a championship, as it did for Buemi in Season 3. And with no second cars this season, the risk of doing so between condensed sessions is even greater.
More than that, a simple miscalculation or mis-calibration in setup, under the pressure of a tight schedule, can leave an opportunity rivals are only too eager to step into.
Like the urban traffic it borrows the streets of, Formula E is about taking a chance when you get one – and in racing, that means also hoping it pays off.
Although we know that some cars will prove to have more efficient powertrains or better tyre management than others, the field is sure to remain close and – as proven when a backmarking Dragon took a podium in Zurich last year – the unpredictable is extremely possible.
How did we get here?
When Formula E was announced, no one knew whether it would work. It had some convincing aspects, from FIA involvement to a rambunctiously enthusiastic and politically witty CEO but electric race cars were not exactly a proven concept. Let alone a whole series of them.
Although some prototypes existed – and the history of electric vehicles goes back so far that the first land-speed records were set in them – the idea of creating a regulated, homologated championship full of them was the stuff of a mad publicity stunt at worst and an untested experiment at best.
Making basic cars, with underpowered batteries even by a cheap road car’s standard and limiting their power only seemed to emphasise that – how could this even really be called racing? At least, that’s what a seemingly endless queue of critics were keen to say.
Without the noise of an engine, Formula E’s first demo runs were compared to household appliances – vacuum cleaners and hair dryers that traditional motorsport fans were supposed to be unwilling to countenance. After Formula One had lost its pure combustion noise in the hybrid era, this was beyond the pale.
Formula One is over seventy years old. Since its inaugural season in 1950, many other series have tried to replicate the Grand Prix success – and failed. Regional championships like Indycar and Super Formula have thrived and a wide array of junior single-seater categories exist but there’s never been another that can get its teeth into the classic circuits and extract a future like the septuagenarian pinnacle of motorsport has.
It’s important to remember, few series survive. All the funding and drivers and locations in the world can’t guarantee you a second season – or even a first.
Formula E, from the outset, did things differently. Rather than staying safely loyal to classic European circuits, it headed to the streets of Beijing – China being the biggest electric vehicle market in the world – for its inaugural race.
It headed directly to new fans, in new cities, while other series struggled to get them to attend. Formula E set itself up from the start to engage fans online and to appeal to a new generation of technologists and green energy enthusiasts left behind by the sensibilities of more traditional motorsport.
Grand Prix racing had been falling out of favour with young people, locked behind TV paywalls and increasingly expensive to attend. Formula E came streamed directly from the internet and with one-day events allowing ticket prices to be barely a fraction of other series.
Generous sponsorship and increasingly brave manufacturer backing provided the series with the chance to grow. As well as cities’ need to promote green technology and change the way that we look at mobility, which made the series a natural fit rather than a logistical nightmare as it bid for places to race.
That shows in the venues Formula E has managed to secure – bringing motorsport back to the streets of Rome for the first time in 64 years and the first series permitted to race in Switzerland at all for six decades, following a total ban on motorsport.
This year Formula E will continue to bring new venues, countries and opportunities to showcase electric vehicle technology across the globe. The championship continues to grow – with partners such as Julius Baer having been with the series since the start.
Formula E’s achievements so far
- First ever FIA-endorsed, single-seater electric racing championship
- First ever FIA safety tested single-seater race car
- First ever international motorsport race on the streets of Beijing
- First manufacturer-developed powertrains
- First top-flight FIA championship to have a woman (Swiss driver Simona de Silvestro) complete a full season
- Championship decided by one point, during the final race, for the second time
- Formula E comes to Marrakech to join COP22, the UN climate change conference
- Formula E shares its events with AI racing series Roborace, with the self-driven cars running laps during the Eprix
- First race in New York since 1896
- The first race in Switzerland since motorsport was banned in 1955. Formula E brought racing back to Switzerland with the Julius Baer Zurich Eprix.
- The first street race in Rome for 64 years.
- First time a customer team has taken the drivers’ championship.
From humble beginnings to huge succes
Formula E is an odds-beater, an outsider bet. A fragile idea of a thing, it formed on a napkin in a Parisien restaurant – an agreement between FIA president Jean Todt and Spanish businessman Alejandro Agag that there should be an electric street racing series.
Scrawled with the enthusiasm that a wonderful meal – and perhaps several glasses of wine – gives, it says
Targeting – EV push electric, CO2 down
Todt//FIA should create “electric championship”
It’s then signed by Todt and Agag. Under the FIA president’s name, in what is unmistakably Alejandro’s handwriting, is an additional footnote: “I should be the promoter” and a smiley face.
The napkin still exists, hidden secretively in the restaurant it was written on in, like a relic that a keen Formula E enthusiast or journalist can hunt down.
It’s just a seven-year-old napkin, though, not a magic spell; the making of Formula E was on track. And this weekend, twenty tonnes of carbon fibre, battery chemicals, wires, rubber and human drivers will hit the streets again as Formula E does what it’s done from the start, being loud in difference rather than decibels.
It’s going to get very difficult not to listen.