Set to Stun

For­mula E is swap­ping hy­dro­car­bons for elec­trons and at­tract­ing car mak­ers and ex-F1 driv­ers alike. But can bat­tery-pow­ered rac­ers re­ally take off?

Motor (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by GEORG KACHER pics RICHARD PAR­DON

Now in its third sea­son and gain­ing mo­men­tum, For­mula E of­fers a very dif­fer­ent motorsport ex­pe­ri­ence

For­mula E is all about en­cour­ag­ing and en­gag­ing new tal­ent and ideas

GRAND PRIX – the words con­jure images of open-cock­pit cars with barely re­strained power, their en­gines scream­ing to the heav­ens and as­sault­ing your eardrums with a ca­coph­ony of noise. Ex­cept we’re at a For­mula E grand prix, where the loud­est noise is the stac­cato ham­mer of the pit crews’ air wrenches.

We’re in Long Beach, Cal­i­for­nia, for the Fara­day Fu­ture ePrix. Where For­mula 1 fans are used to a haze of high-oc­tane fuel and hot mo­tor oil hang­ing over the track, here it smells of roasted al­monds, burg­ers and fries, and the sea. Fans chat freely as the cars race by, the whine of elec­tric mo­tors oc­ca­sion­ally over­pow­ered by the screech of brakes as tyres bite into the con­crete. It’s a cu­ri­ous sound, usu­ally drowned out by the roar of brak­ing petrol en­gines.

With a 28kWh Recharge­able En­ergy Stor­age Sys­tem (RESS) sup­ply­ing a capped max­i­mum of 170kW (lifted to 200kW for qual­i­fy­ing) and 230Nm to the driv­e­train, these pe­cu­liar elec­tri­cal cre­ations will do 0-100km/h in just un­der three sec­onds, and go on to a top speed of 217km/h. They’re con­structed of ul­tra-light car­bon fi­bre and alu­minium, to a min­i­mum weight limit of 888kg. While F1 fans may point out that ‘real’ F1 cars can do as much as 375km/h, for­mer F1 driver and cur­rent For­mula E com­peti­tor Nick Hei­d­feld tells me: “The track is nar­row and there is zero run-off. You couldn’t go much faster through what is es­sen­tially mid­town with the traf­fic lights switched off.”

In its first sea­son, the teams were all sup­plied with Spark-Re­nault SRT 01E rac­ing steeds – chas­sis by Dal­lara, McLaren mo­tor, Wil­liams Ad­vanced En­gi­neer­ing bat­tery sys­tem, Hew­land five-speed gear­box and Miche­lin tyres. Now in its third sea­son, it’s still a fairly stan­dard de­sign but teams are able to in­stall pow­er­trains from dif­fer­ent man­u­fac­tur­ers. How­ever, given the still rapidly evolv­ing tech­nol­ogy, lit­tle things make a big dif­fer­ence – it of­ten comes down to small de­tails like sus­pen­sion ad­just­ment ac­cord­ing to Aguri team prin­ci­pal Mark Pre­ston.

With the re­stric­tions on cars be­ing loos­ened, teams and man­u­fac­tur­ers are now free to ap­ply their own in­no­va­tions to their ma­chines; for ex­am­ple, any­thing from one to five gears in a 'box with a hous­ing made of cast iron, alu­minium or car­bon fi­bre.

Of course, a lot comes down to the driver as well. If they con­serve their car’s en­ergy, they may be able to stay out one ex­tra lap be­fore chang­ing cars. Chang­ing? Yes, as amaz­ing as these elec­tri­cal won­ders are, they’re still ham­pered by a limited bat­tery ca­pac­ity, so it’s much eas­ier – and faster, more im­por­tantly – to jump

Stag­ing its races in city cen­tres, motorsport has never been as en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly as this

out of one car and into an­other rather than swap the bat­tery dur­ing the race. Just as with F1 pit­stops, mo­ments gained or lost dur­ing this mad race to swap cars is of­ten the de­cider in whether some­one as­cends to the top of the podium or watches the cham­pagne spray­ing from be­low.

How­ever, while pit mishaps have added a thrill of sus­pense to the races, the manda­tory stop will be dropped when the next-gen 250kW mo­tors ap­pear in 2018, mean­ing driv­ers can go for longer with­out chang­ing cars.

Motorsport has never been as en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly as this. In ad­di­tion to bat­tery-pow­ered cars, For­mula E stages its events ex­clu­sively in city cen­tres where read­ily avail­able pub­lic trans­port sup­ports the zero-emis­sion theme. Sadly, that means Aus­tralian fans are go­ing to be wait­ing a while be­fore this par­tic­u­lar sport makes its de­but Down Un­der.

But what re­ally makes this for­mat spe­cial is the level of in­ter­ac­tion be­tween fans and driv­ers the or­gan­i­sa­tion en­cour­ages. Rather than spend­ing hun­dreds of dol­lars on a be­wil­der­ing va­ri­ety of ac­cess tick­ets like F1, For­mula E charges roughly $100 for a fam­ily ticket that grants ac­cess to the eVil­lage (Parc Ferme) where driv­ers gather for au­to­graph ses­sions with fans, as well as a seat in the grand­stands flanked by video screens and ac­cess to a new in­ter­ac­tive world of motorsport that tar­gets the smart­phone gen­er­a­tion.

For­mula E is all about en­cour­ag­ing and en­gag­ing new tal­ent and ideas. For­mula E founder Ale­jan­dro Agag is all for the bur­geon­ing mar­ket of in­no­va­tive young thinkers. “In the next five years, tech­nol­ogy is go­ing to ex­plode,” he says. “I’m not only talk­ing chas­sis, bat­ter­ies, mo­tors and elec­tron­ics here. Global dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion is the next rev­o­lu­tion. Mil­lions of young peo­ple will fol­low For­mula E by pair­ing their com­pet­i­tive mind­sets with the new dig­i­tal op­por­tu­ni­ties. To­day, we have 20,000 users per day, 15,000 more than in 2014. Next year or the year af­ter, we may have five mil­lion.”

From an op­er­a­tional per­spec­tive, For­mula E is a cu­ri­ous mix of sea­soned warhorses and am­bi­tious young rook­ies. For­mer F1 me­chan­ics and of­fi­cials rub shoul­ders with young soft­ware nerds, elec­tron­ics wizards, bat­tery en­gi­neers and so­cial me­dia high­fly­ers. Hans-Jur­gen Abt, whose driv­ers fin­ished first and third in Long Beach, views this race se­ries as “a sig­nif­i­cant bridge to vol­ume pro­duc­tion". Why? "Be­cause it is way ahead of tra­di­tional car de­vel­op­ment in terms of cool­ing tech­nol­ogy, soft­ware ex­per­tise, per­for­mance elec­tron­ics, ve­hi­cle in­te­gra­tion and bat­tery man­age­ment. At the same time, For­mula E is cast­ing a spell over a young, fast-grow­ing and well­funded web-fo­cused au­di­ence. The new busi­ness

The race comes down to the skill of the driv­ers, not the power out­put of their en­gine

op­por­tu­ni­ties which ma­te­ri­alise in the wake of Ap­ple, Tesla and For­mula E should be rea­son enough for ev­ery ma­jor au­to­mo­tive man­u­fac­turer to se­cure a seat in this event.”

In­stead of aim­ing for the ex­treme costs F1 re­quires to run, For­mula E is all about sav­ing money and run­ning a race that’s both en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly and light on the wal­let. Fara­day Fu­ture al­legedly paid only $500,000 to spon­sor the event, which is broad­cast all over the world, though it’ll still be a while be­fore fans will be watch­ing it on prime time TV. Stan­dard­ised parts in the cars save on cost but teams tackle sav­ings as well.

“From a com­mer­cial point of view, one of the key at­trac­tions of For­mula E is the bud­get re­stric­tion,” says com­mer­cial di­rec­tor of Dragon Rac­ing Kevin Smouth. “While an F1 team has up to 150 peo­ple on its pay­roll and spends up to $100m per sea­son, we have be­tween 10 and 15 staffers and a kitty that holds no more than $6m. The most ex­pen­sive spare part in For­mula E is the bat­tery. It costs close to US$100,000 to re­place, but it rarely goes hay­wire.”

The cars are set up on Thurs­day, with ride height, spring rate and tyre pres­sures all be­ing cal­i­brated. Test­ing oc­curs on Fri­day, of­ten re­sult­ing in pre­cise ad­just­ments be­ing made in prepa­ra­tion for the main fea­ture at 4pm on Satur­day af­ter­noon. By Sun­day the ve­hi­cles have been loaded back onto the team trucks and coun­cil work­ers are restor­ing the sur­round­ing city streets back to nor­mal in prepa­ra­tion for the Mon­day rush, al­most as though it never even hap­pened.

Prac­tice on Satur­day morn­ing is short and straight­for­ward. Nel­son Pi­quet Jr – a for­mer F1 driver and son of a three-time F1 world cham­pion – isn’t par­tic­u­larly op­ti­mistic about his chances. “Our car is too heavy,” he says, point­ing at his blue and black mono­posto. “To­day, even a mir­a­cle won’t help.”

Weight is of the essence, though equally the right strat­egy is es­sen­tial. “Ide­ally, you get off to a good start, then con­serve en­ergy and try to keep the ri­vals at bay,” Pi­quet says.

When all go-faster op­tions have ex­pired, the last hope is FanBoost, a live on­line vote that re­wards the three most pop­u­lar driv­ers with an over-the-air power boost not un­like the push-to-pass ef­fect we know from F1, po­ten­tially chang­ing the re­sult in a blink of an eye and a tap of a fin­ger on a touch­pad.

Of­fi­cial safety driver Bruno Cor­reia slips into his BMW i8 pace car, tight­ens his safety har­ness and goes through his usual pre-race rou­tine. Ra­dio? Check. State of charge? Check. Flash­ing lights? Check. Cor­reia has no choice but to go 10-tenths as soon as he en­ters the cir­cuit. “That is not a prob­lem dur­ing the out lap, when I lead the field to the grid,” he ex­plains, “but in case of an ac­ci­dent, I can only go re­ally fast for six or seven laps be­fore the bat­ter­ies die on me.”

Rac­ing purists need not throw up their arms in protest – For­mula E isn't the new F1, and that's quite all right

At 4:04pm in this idyl­lic par­adise, 18 cars take off like a multi-coloured swarm of bees, the wheel­spin­ning scream of tyres blast­ing into the grand­stands be­fore it all set­tles down to a loud whine that flicks through the wave­lengths with ev­ery gearshift. With uni­form chas­sis, mo­tors and body­work, a bor­ing ePrix is im­pos­si­ble as the race comes down to the skill of the driv­ers, not the power out­put of their en­gine.

Ex­cite­ment is an un­der­state­ment as the pack races around a cir­cuit filled with nail-bit­ing crowded chi­canes that force prover­bial-tight­en­ing over­takes. Like F1, fastest laps al­ways oc­cur at the end of the race – not be­cause of light fuel loads but be­cause as the che­quered flag ap­proaches, ev­ery­one gives up on econ­omy and squeezes the last kilo­watt-min­utes out of the bat­tery packs.

Unique to plug-in rac­ing is the en­ergy re­serve dis­play shown along­side the tim­ing in the steer­ing wheel. It’s im­por­tant as two or three per cent more juice can make a big dif­fer­ence, ei­ther as a power boost for a late at­tack or to squeeze in that ad­di­tional lap be­fore the change-over.

The safety car did come out dur­ing the fran­tic if au­rally sub­dued race but iron­i­cally, given the high-tech na­ture of the event, the video screens had died, which left ev­ery­one in the dark.

Nat­u­rally, with the cut­ting-edge na­ture of the still-evolv­ing tech­nol­ogy, there is plenty that can go wrong. If there’s a prob­lem with the high-volt­age elec­tri­cal sys­tem, the green light in front of the driver turns red, prompt­ing ev­ery­one to take ex­tra care be­fore even touch­ing the car. And there is some old-time tech­nol­ogy still find­ing a use in this world – as cars en­ter the pits, mar­shals blow whis­tles to warn the me­chan­ics – a sim­ple so­lu­tion to the low-noise dan­ger of elec­tric cars in the mod­ern world.

The race was run and done be­fore we had a chance to open our sec­ond beer, Swiss driver Se­bastien Buemi tak­ing the che­quered flag for Re­nault e.dams.

I left Long Beach on some­thing of a high af­ter the ePrix ex­pe­ri­ence. Rac­ing purists need not throw their arms up in the air in protest at this elec­tri­cal up­start – For­mula E isn’t the new F1, and that’s quite all right. This new breed of open-cock­pit mad­ness is far more friendly, open and bar­rier-free, with more in com­mon with a coun­try fair than an in­ter­na­tional road race. No lu­di­crous fees for tiered en­try, no closed-off ar­eas re­served for stars and high so­ci­ety, just the fans, the driv­ers and the pas­sion for the sport. As the field opens up to more teams and more tech­nol­ogy, so­cial me­dia and the prospect of in­creas­ing lev­els of user-driven in­put like the cur­rent FanBoost draw­card driven by any­one with an idea and a smart­phone, the fu­ture looks bright for this emis­sion-free spark.

Clockwise from be­low: FE at­tracts all man­ner of spec­ta­tors, in­clud­ing 911 tun­ing leg­end Mag­nus Walker; vic­tory cel­e­bra­tions are one thing that will never change; with costs kept to a rea­son­able level pay driv­ers are ab­sent in FE, with a tal­ent-packed grid of ex-F1 and Indy­car driv­ers; of course the pace car would be a hy­brid TREAD LIGHTLY Sus­pen­sion is dou­ble wish­bones, twin Koni dampers, tor­sion bars and ad­justable anti-roll bars while wheels are 18 inches wrapped in be­spoke Miche­lin rub­ber

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