FORMULA E IN PARIS
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