Formula E for Beginners
In September 2014, the first ever Formula E race took place in Beijing’s Olympic Park. After four years of pioneering development, the sport entered its fifth year with a new car, new technology, and innovative new rules. We explain everything you need to know about all-electric street racing.
Formula E is an all-electric single seater racing series, backed by the FIA. Teams of two cars, and some of the world’s best drivers, race around city street circuits across the globe. Powered by fully electric batteries and motors, the world’s leading car manufacturers compete on a level playing field, guaranteeing close, unpredictable action and lots of overtakes.
This new form of motorsport all started at the first ever Formula E race, in Beijing’s Olympic Park in September 2014. Since then, Formula E cars have raced around iconic city centres in Zurich, Berlin, Hong Kong, LA, Santiago, and many more cities besides. In fact, Formula E can proudly lay claim to racing on five different continents during its current season.
The series is the brainchild of Spanish businessman Alejandro Agag, and FIA President Jean Todt. Having identified society’s need for cleaner air and lower carbon emissions, the two men devised Formula E. They believed that a technological race to develop electric car technology, through highly competitive racing on track, would yield real results in the shift from internal combustion to electrification of the auto industry. After four years of pioneering development, the sport recently entered its fifth year with a new car, new technology, and innovative new rules. Julius Baer has been a global partner from the very first race.
Each of Formula E’s teams has two drivers, with each driver piloting one car. The number of teams that compete can change from season to season, as new teams enter the series. In the sport’s fifth season there are 11 teams competing, but by the following season this number will grow to 12 teams and 24 cars.
There are two types of team in Formula E; manufacturer teams, and customer teams. The battery, chassis and bodywork are identical for all teams, making for an even playing field and producing very close racing on track. Manufacturer teams design and produce their own powertrain components, including an electric motor and a few other technical parts, and this is the main opportunity for technological development for these manufacturers.
Four years is a long time in Formula E, and in those few years the series has attracted some of the world’s largest car manufacturers, all hungry to lead the way in electric car technology. Walk down the pit lane and you’ll see the logos of Jaguar, Audi, BMW, Nissan, DS Automobiles, Mahindra, and Chinese electric car startup NIO, all adorning team garages. For the 2019/20 season expect to see two more famous names, as Mercedes-Benz and Porsche join the electric street party.
Customer teams can purchase complete cars from one of those manufacturers, and enter the series independently. In Formula E’s 2018/19 season, for example, the Envision Virgin Racing team competes with cars purchased from the Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler works team. In the previous season, Drivers’ Champion Jean-Eric Vergne took the title driving for customer team Techeetah, in a car bought from the Renault team.
With 22 fiercely competitive drivers on the grid in very closely matched cars, Formula E racing is both exciting and unpredictable. Alongside reigning champion Jean-Eric Vergne at the DS Techeetah team is Andre Lotterer - a 3-time Le Mans winner. Elsewhere on the grid the likes of Felipe Massa, Stoffel Vandoorne, Antonio Felix da Costa, Lucas di Grassi, Sebastian Buemi and Sam Bird make up one of the most talented driver lineups in motorsport. In the first four seasons there were four different champions, and every season so far has seen Formula E enter its final race weekend with the drivers’ championship still to be decided. It’s this kind of unpredictability that has drawn a young and adrenaline-hungry fanbase to the sport.
The talent in Formula E isn’t limited to the drivers, with motorsports legend Allan McNish heading up the Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler team, and some of the world’s most forward-thinking automotive engineers working in garages up and down the pit lane. Formula E is at the cutting edge in the fast-moving world of electric car technology, and the personnel behind the scenes are amongst the world’s leading experts in this developing field.
Beyond the drivers and engineers, the sport has attracted talent of another kind. The environmental ambition of the series has made it appeal to celebrities with a social conscience. Oscar-winner Leonardo di Caprio chairs Formula E’s Sustainability Committee, actor Chris Hemsworth having taken a Formula E car for a spin in more ways than one, and the likes of Kylie Minogue and Naomi Campbell enjoying the sights and sounds of a Formula E race in the past.
Formula E cars are fully electric, with a battery rather than a traditional fuel tank, and an electric motor instead of an engine. This means no exhaust pipes, no toxic particulates emitted, and a much lower overall carbon footprint than a traditional car with a petrol or diesel engine. In fact it’s thought that a Formula E car, and electric cars in general, convert around 80-90% of their energy into forward motion. A petrol or diesel-powered car is somewhere in the 20-40% range. Electric cars are inherently more efficient, and the technological competition taking place in Formula E is helping to push this efficiency figure even higher.
At the start of Formula E’s fifth season, a groundbreaking new second-generation car made its debut. With a design likened by some to the Batmobile, the car garnered huge press coverage when it was unveiled at the 2018 Geneva Motor Show. But the car isn’t just about aggressive looks - it’s also a technological miracle. The battery is a similar size and weight to the one fitted to earlier Formula E cars, but is capable of virtually double the energy storage. The cars are also able to harvest and recycle energy that, in a traditional car, would be lost as heat during braking. This makes the cars tremendously efficient, and the best part is that all of this technology is being applied by manufacturers to road cars that you or I might be driving in the next few years.
Don’t let anybody tell you that electric cars can’t be fast. A Formula E car’s power output is higher than ever before, with 250kW available in qualifying, and 200kW for the race. Peak race power of 225kW is available in all-new Attack Mode - more on that later. These cars will go from zero to 100 kilometres per hour in around 2.8 seconds, and on to a top speed of 280 kilometres per hour. Seeing the cars race at these speeds through city centres has become symbolic of a pioneering new era in motorsports.
The Gen2 car has been designed from the outset to produce close racing. That unusual rear diffuser provides downforce while still allowing the cars to follow each other closely. This means the racing will always be highly competitive, with loads of overtaking.
Even the car’s tyres are groundbreaking. Michelin provides all-weather grooved tyres, with low rolling resistance for efficiency. These tyres can be used come rain or shine, so there’s no need for intermediates and wets like in other motorsports. Each car gets just two sets of tyres per event, saving huge amounts of rubber over the course of a season, as well as dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the manufacture and transportation of multiple sets of less durable tyres. It’s this type of thinking that has established Formula E as a leader in the fight against the very real threat of climate change.
For many fans, the appeal of Formula E is that the races take place at the heart of some of the world’s great cities. Public streets close to traffic on race day so people can watch these emission-free cars hurtle around regular city streets. As well as being visually spectacular, street circuits make Formula E the ultimate challenge for a racing driver. Unlike at purpose-built racing circuits, in Formula E there are very few runoff areas. If a driver makes a mistake, more often than not they hit the walls and it’s race over.
The city streets produce high-stakes racing for the drivers, while also bringing practical benefits for the fans, and for the environment. By racing in city centres, fans can travel by public transport. This is one of countless reasons why a Formula E event has a very low carbon footprint compared to most events of a similar scale.
Each event contains far more than the circuit itself. There’s also a fanzone, known as the E-Village, where fans can get involved and learn about cutting edge electric car tech. There’s live music, street food, and entertainment, as well as a host of interactive displays from electric car manufacturers.
Fans can even set lap times on race simulators, and the fastest fans are invited back to compete in a virtual race against Formula E drivers. Driver autograph sessions give everyone a chance to grab a selfie with their favourite driver.
Formula E’s events take place over a single action-packed day, unlike in other motorsports where the action is often spread out over several days.
The on-track action begins bright and early with a practice session - this is the first time the teams and drivers experience the track. The rules mean that the driver probably hasn’t even set foot in his or her car since the last race. This practice session is the first opportunity for drivers to run at full power and experience driving over the bumps, manhole covers and tramlines that only exist on street circuits. As it’s the first time drivers will have experienced the circuit, this practice session often sees some spectacular near-misses and crashes, as drivers explore the limits of Formula E’s unforgiving street circuits.
Another practice session follows, and then we’re on to qualifying.
Qualifying takes place to determine the starting order for the race. For qualifying the cars are set to their maximum power output, with 250kW of electric power available to the drivers.
The drivers are divided up into four groups, based on championship standings - so the drivers at the top of the championship standings go into Qualifying Group 1, and the drivers at the bottom of the championship standings go into Qualifying Group 4.
Qualifying is made up of 5 sessions. The first 4 sessions see the different qualifying groups head out onto track so that each driver can set a lap time - and crucially, each driver usually gets just one flying lap to set their best possible time. One mistake on that lap will mean that driver will set a slow time, and will have to start the race from the back of the grid.
At the end of group qualifying, the six fastest drivers overall qualify for Super Pole. Every other driver’s starting position is then decided based on their Group Qualifying lap time. The Super Pole drivers go back out on track to set another lap time, and these lap times then determine the starting order of the first five drivers on the grid. Setting the fastest time in the Super Pole session not only means that driver gets to start the race at the very front, winning the Julius Baer Pole Position - but they also secure three valuable championship points.
So that’s Practice and Qualifying, but how do Formula E races work? The cars line up on the grid in the order determined during Qualifying. Unlike other motorsports, there’s no formation lap, meaning no chance for the drivers to warm up their tyres and brakes. This means the cars pile into turn 1 with the drivers unsure of exactly how much grip and braking power they’ll have - which is always a recipe for action!
Each race, known as an E-Prix, lasts for 45 minutes plus one lap. A 45-minute countdown clock starts ticking as the race begins, and once the 45 minutes are up, drivers must complete the lap the lead car is on, and then one more full lap. Whoever crosses the finish line after this, wins! Teams must be sure to correctly calculate and manage their energy usage and battery power. Failure to anticipate the likely number of laps could mean running out of power, so part of the race strategy is to make a series of calculations on energy usage. The cars are set to 200kW in race mode, with a short burst of additional power available to the five drivers who secure the most votes from the fans in the FANBOOST vote. This extra power can be used for a few seconds and is often deployed to attempt an overtake or to defend against an onrushing rival. Formula E is the only major sport in the world that allows the fans to directly influence the action. You can tell when your driver is deploying Fanboost, because the halo head protection device on their car will pulsate with magenta LEDs.
In the first four years of Formula E racing, a pivotal moment was the pit stops. Drivers would enter the pit lane around halfway through the race, and leap out of their first car and into a second car with a fully charged battery. In the four short years since Formula E began, battery and drivetrain technology has developed so that this mid-race car swap is no longer necessary. The cars can now run a full race distance on one charge. This opened the door for Formula E to introduce a different element of strategy for the teams and drivers to contend with, and what they came up with has shaken up the motorsports world.
Attack Mode is a higher power setting that each driver must use during every race. It ups the power of the motor from 200kW in race mode to 225kW in Attack Mode. To unlock Attack Mode, a driver must drive through the Attack Activation Zone, initially losing time and maybe even positions, BUT they immediately activate an additional power setting for several minutes, allowing them to attack again and overtake their rivals. The number of times that Attack Mode must be used, and the duration it’s available for, varies from track to track. It’s usually available for around 4 minutes, and generally needs to be used twice during a race. The teams and drivers only find out the specifics of this key strategic information 1 hour before the race, leading to varied strategies and differing approaches. It’s easy to tell when your favourite driver is in Attack Mode because their halo head protection device will pulsate with blue LEDs.
In its first few races it became clear that Attack Mode has a dramatic impact on both lap times and number of overtakes, contributing to some memorable Formula E racing. In Attack Mode a driver’s car becomes significantly faster, but it comes potential pitfalls – a driver might fail to pass fully through the Attack Activation Zone and miss out on activating the extra power mode, losing time while missing out on all of the benefits. Or their rivals might pick a more strategically shrewd moment to activate Attack Mode. One thing’s for sure – this new feature of Formula E racing is bringing yet more unpredictability and entertainment to an ever-growing fanbase.
Points are awarded to the first 10 drivers to cross the finish line. The driver in 1st place is awarded 25 points, and 10th place receives just one point, with the spots in between receiving gradually reducing amounts of points.
Of these top 10 finishers, the driver that sets the fastest lap time gets an extra point.
Three additional points are also awarded to the driver that sets the fastest time in qualifying, securing the Julius Baer Pole Position.
The driver with the most points at the end of the season becomes the new Drivers’ Champion, and the team whose two drivers collectively score more points than every other team are crowned as the Teams’ Champions. These are the aims of all drivers and teams, and winning a championship is the ultimate honour in Formula E.
In the first four seasons of Formula E, we went into the final weekend not knowing which driver would be crowned champion. The fifth season, currently underway, looks set to be equally competitive. It’s exactly this level of drama that is attracting fans to the sport in their droves.
Formula E was set up originally to help in the fight against climate change and poor air quality in cities – two of the biggest threats humankind has ever faced. Competition drives innovation, so by pitting the world’s largest car manufacturers against one another, Formula E is accelerating the development of much cleaner modes of transportation.
Formula E’s fifth season marked a watershed moment, with several manufacturers moving beyond electric concept cars and into full production. Jaguar’s I-Pace and Audi’s e-tron joined existing road cars like BMW’s i3, the Nissan Leaf, and NIO’s ES8 SUV and EP9 hypercar. With new electric cars soon arriving from DS Automobiles and Mahindra, the link between Formula E racing and road car development is clear to see.
But Formula E’s environmental efforts don’t end there. The 2018/19 season saw the phasing out of all plastic bottled water for both fans and staff at Formula E events, with reusable containers and free-to-use water filling stations taking its place. Even the cars are charged up using ultra-low emission MacNeil cycle generators, and the gaming arena in the fans’ E-Village is often powered by solar panels. The race calendar itself is structured to minimise air miles as much as possible.
So that’s Formula E, in a nutshell. You can find out where to watch all the action at FIAFormulaE.com, and if you are a social media user be sure to follow both Formula E and Julius Baer on all major platforms, so you never miss the latest updates from the world’s fastest-growing sport.