Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche have re­cently con­firmed fac­tory teams for For­mula E; DS, Jaguar and Re­nault are al­ready signed up. evo vis­its the Paris eprix to see the attraction


Per­for­mance-car mak­ers are now flock­ing to join the elec­tric sin­gle­seater series. We head to the Paris eprix to find out why

MY FIRST OB­SER­VA­TION of For­mula E is that the Abt team’s me­chan­ics are mainly hip­sters. Sec­ond is that it is sur­pris­ingly good to watch and, bizarrely, you hardly reg­is­ter the lack of en­gine noise. In its place is a weird whirring noise and tyre-squeal, par­tic­u­larly when a driver has got it wrong and is strug­gling to get his 800kg sin­gle-seater back into shape. If I think back over 40 years of watch­ing mo­tor­sport, it is the snapshots of a ma­chine on the limit through just one cor­ner that stay in the mem­ory. The ul­ti­mate was John Mcguin­ness at the bot­tom of Bray Hill at the Isle of Man TT; an­other was watch­ing Martin Brun­dle through the Porsche Curves at Le Mans in his Toy­ota GT-ONE; then there was Jac­ques Vil­leneuve flat through Copse at Sil­ver­stone. A For­mula E car doesn’t make the top ten, but it’s higher up the list than I ex­pected. That it’s on the list at all is a sur­prise to me.

What is also a sur­prise is how long it has taken some man­u­fac­tur­ers to join the FE party, es­pe­cially those with an EV or two in their pro­duc­tion-car range. Re­nault, DS and Jaguar are all cur­rently rep­re­sented. Within the last few weeks Audi has con­firmed it will take over the Abt team and run it as a full fac­tory en­try for the 2017-18 sea­son. Days later BMW an­nounced it too was up­ping its com­mit­ment by tak­ing over the An­dretti team it is cur­rently a part­ner of from sea­son 5 (2018-19). For sea­son 6 (2019-20) Mercedes will also join the grid, ditch­ing its DTM com­mit­ments to do so. That’s quite a roll call, one that will be even stronger when Porsche leaves the World En­durance Cham­pi­onship at the end of this year to join For­mula E in 2019, too.

I have come to the Paris round of the FE cham­pi­onship with an open mind. No point in do­ing other­wise, as I could have stayed at home and said this series is bor­ing, point­less and too quiet. But then I would have missed out on a week­end in Paris in beautiful weather. And this is FE’S great­est sell­ing point: the races are staged in city cen­tres, which means they’re easy to get to. Not only that, but it’s an easy sell to the fam­ily be­cause there are plenty of other things to do while not watch­ing the rac­ing, such as sit­ting out­side a cafe with a beer and watch­ing the world go by, or shop­ping for hand­bags that cost as much as a Du­cati Pani­gale.

The Paris cir­cuit it­self couldn’t be in a more stun­ning set­ting. It runs around Les In­valides, the col­lec­tion of build­ings that con­tains the army mu­seum and the tomb of Napoléon. As far as I know, there are no sig­nif­i­cant tombs within the in­field at Snet­ter­ton. The track in Paris is very nar­row and only 0.75 miles long, so you don’t have to wait long for the cars to come by, even if their top speed is no more than 130mph. Not sur­pris­ingly, there’s a safety fence around the whole cir­cuit to pre­vent an er­rant rac­ing car from fly­ing through a cafe win­dow and land­ing in your steak tartare.

You need to be within sight of one of the TV screens to know what’s go­ing on dur­ing the race, but then that’s no dif­fer­ent to be­ing at Sil­ver­stone. Few cir­cuits give you a

com­plete over­view and the only ones I can think of that do are the Brands Hatch Indy lay­out and Ly­d­den Hill.

Time for a wan­der. Third im­pres­sion: For­mula E seems to be free of the bull­shit that has in­fected F1. So far, I have been un­able to spot my favourite su­per­model in the pits or any mem­ber of a boy-band. The dirty, un­washed pub­lic is much more wel­come and there are reg­u­lar au­to­graph ses­sions with the driv­ers. There are a lot of free view­ing ar­eas and there are ten grand­stands with tick­ets way be­low tra­di­tional Bernie prices.

The first time we see the cars in action is in the first prac­tice ses­sion (there are two, fol­lowed by qual­i­fy­ing and then a ‘Su­per Pole’, then later the race it­self, all on the Satur­day; some other ci­ties re­peat it all again on the Sun­day, too). Apart from the safety para­pher­na­lia, the pit garages look sim­i­lar to those in any high-level series, with the usual bank of com­put­ers with boffins sit­ting at them. We’re with DS Vir­gin Rac­ing. The team’s driv­ers are Sam Bird and José Maria López, who each have two cars for the race – the cars’ bat­ter­ies don’t cur­rently have the ca­pac­ity to last the full 45-lap race dis­tance, so driv­ers change cars part way through.

There’s a lot to learn about FE, es­pe­cially if it’s just come onto your radar. The cars use a Dal­lara de­signed and built chas­sis (although a company called Spark at­taches its name to it) and the bat­tery and elec­tric mo­tor come from Wil­liams and Mclaren Ap­plied Tech­nol­ogy re­spec­tively. From the 2018-19 sea­son on­wards, Spark will sup­ply a new chas­sis that’s 40kg lighter and more aero­dy­nam­i­cally ef­fi­cient, the bat­tery con­tract will switch to Mclaren and the teams will be free to use an elec­tric mo­tor of their choice. And the same will hap­pen with the bat­ter­ies from 2020-21. It’s these rule changes that ex­plain the sud­den in­ter­est from the big man­u­fac­tur­ers.

Cur­rently the bat­ter­ies can store up to 28kwh of en­ergy. The new ones will hold 54kwh, which will not only speed things up on track but will also put an end to the silly mid-race change of cars that driv­ers cur­rently have to do.

When the driv­ers change cars dur­ing the race, they have to be in the pits for a min­i­mum of 60 sec­onds to en­sure there’s no ex­cuse for them not be­ing prop­erly belted up. There’s a lot of equip­ment in the pits that I’ve not seen be­fore, such as a long pole with a hook on the end. This, as you may have read in Richard Porter’s col­umn a cou­ple of is­sues ago, is used to re­move a me­chanic from the car if he’s be­ing zubbed by hun­dreds of volts. Pre­sum­ably it’s not pos­si­ble to get your pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives mud­dled up, but the me­chanic plug­ging the car in wears a sort of weld­ing mask in case of sparks, and in­dus­trial rub­ber gloves.

Experience has told me that if you want to get the story, you’re much bet­ter off talk­ing to the me­chan­ics than team prin­ci­ples or PR peo­ple. Most of the DS Vir­gin span­ner­men are ex-vir­gin F1 team. So what’s it like span­ner­ing these elec­tric rac­ing cars?

‘Not a lot dif­fer­ent to work­ing on F1 cars,’ is the re­ply from one young oily rag we speak to. ‘We never touched the en­gines on F1 cars any­way, so the lack of a con­ven­tional en­gine makes no dif­fer­ence to us. There’s no clutch to work on, which is great. We don’t get paid quite as much as we used to in F1 but the qual­ity of life is way bet­ter be­cause there are fewer races. I know quite a few F1 me­chan­ics are keen to get into For­mula E for ex­actly this rea­son.’

While the cars are out in qual­i­fy­ing, we take a walk around the last few cor­ners that lead to the pit en­try. Turn 8 is a right-han­der at the end of a long straight. It’s quite some­thing. Plas­tic rum­ble-strip has been laid down on the in­side of the turn and nearly all the cars take a bite at it and get air un­der their tyres. The driver then has to bring the car un­der con­trol for a sharp left-han­der.

A tight track and the con­stant worry of us­ing up too much juice make pre­cise driv­ing es­sen­tial. ‘It’s ex­tremely chal­leng­ing,’ says Bird. ‘About a hun­dred times more dif­fi­cult than kart­ing. You’re con­stantly fid­dling with brake bias, for ex­am­ple, be­cause when you’re in re­gen­er­a­tion mode you have to wind the brak­ing bias to the front or you’ll lock the rears up as they’re al­ready brak­ing them­selves.’

The noise thing is ob­vi­ously a key talk­ing point, too. ‘If you want a bit of noise you can al­ways go to Santa Pod,’ says my me­chanic friend. It’s a good point. Three-time Le Mans-win­ner Allan Mc­nish is wan­der­ing around the pits and also makes a good point: ‘You just couldn’t run a V8 race car in this en­vi­ron­ment; it wouldn’t be al­lowed. We’re hav­ing enough trou­ble with noise at cir­cuits like Croft, let alone run­ning open ex­hausts on a street cir­cuit.’

There are other in­ter­est­ing peo­ple knock­ing around the place. Da­mon Hill, for one. ‘I don’t know much about this,’ says Hill, ‘but it’s cer­tainly very in­ter­est­ing. Nice to be in Paris in lovely weather.’ Quite. We also bump into a man called Rick Bates, who is the FIA’S man in charge of safety. Bates is a mad-keen rally man and has mo­tor­sport in his veins. He’s also a logistics master who in a pre­vi­ous ca­reer was in­volved in or­gan­is­ing the Lon­don Marathon. I ask him about FE’S pos­si­ble re­turn to the UK.

‘I re­cently had a meet­ing in Lon­don with some key play­ers,’ he says. ‘Half were for it and half weren’t. It’s dif­fi­cult. Manchester and Liver­pool are des­per­ately keen but the For­mula E or­gan­i­sa­tion is Lon­don-ob­sessed and doesn’t un­der­stand the depth of cul­ture and his­tory of in­no­va­tion and in­ven­tion in the north.’ Cer­tainly we need a bet­ter venue than Lon­don’s Bat­tersea Park.

Mc­nish makes an­other fun­da­men­tal point: FE hasn’t re­placed any other sport. ‘If you want to lis­ten to loud en­gines then you can go to a his­toric race meet­ing like Good­wood.’ It’s true: the best day’s spec­tat­ing I’ve had in years in­volved fly­ing out to the Le Mans Clas­sic to watch evo’s own Dickie Meaden driv­ing a Lola T70 in anger. I wouldn’t travel specif­i­cally to watch a For­mula E race, but if there was one in an in­ter­est­ing city and I fan­cied a week­end break, then I might com­bine the two.

‘There’s a lot to learn, es­pe­cially if FE has just come onto your radar’

Above: one of the fans with four-time F1 cham­pion Alain Prost, now a team man­ager at Re­nault e.dams. Above left: lots of view­ing ar­eas are free


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.