Why For­mula-e needs to go faster

Tech Advisor - - NEWS -

Petrol­head Jim Martin

Ren­joyed switch­ing to bat­tery-pow­ered rac­ing. But the tech needs to im­prove

ecently some­thing new and never seen be­fore hap­pened in cen­tral Lon­don: 10 motorsport teams de­scended on Battersea Park as it was con­verted from a place of tran­quil­lity into a rac­ing cir­cuit.

Strangely enough, it was the eclec­tic mix of jazz and dance mu­sic pump­ing from the track­side PA sys­tem that broke the si­lence, rather than the cars. Be­cause, you see, this is For­mula-e.

E stands for – you guessed it – elec­tric. The se­ries is all about pro­mot­ing the sus­tain­abil­ity of zero-emis­sion ve­hi­cles to the watch­ing public and the cars emit lit­tle more than a high-pitched whine as they scam­per around nar­row street cir­cuits.

The Lon­don E-prix was the fi­nal event (two events, in fact) of a long sea­son that be­gan way back in Septem­ber 2014 in Bei­jing. There’s just one event per month, which means fans have had to be pa­tient be­tween races. How­ever, For­mula-e needs to up its game if it’s to con­vince peo­ple of the ben­e­fits of EVs and to win a big­ger au­di­ence.

The main prob­lem, one among many, is speed. While the iden­ti­cal Re­nault cars are ca­pa­ble of up to 140mph, they just don’t look that quick on track. Even less so on TV than up close in the flesh.

Plus, they sound like a group of ra­dio­con­trolled cars be­ing played with by kids in a car park. It will take longer for petrolheads to come around than it has for the switch from V8s to V6 tur­bos in F1. For­mula-e bosses might pre­fer to build a new au­di­ence and avoid com­par­isons with F1, but given the num­ber of ex-F1 rac­ers in the se­ries as well as some of the teams, it’s un­avoid­able.

For­mula-e races lack the ex­cite­ment you get from other rac­ing se­ries, caused by a va­ri­ety of fac­tors. The lack of speed is partly due to the na­ture of the nar­row street – or park – tracks, but also be­cause driv­ers have to con­serve bat­tery power.

Why For­mula-e needs to go faster

It’s par­tic­u­larly odd that the de­ci­sion was taken to make races twice as long as bat­ter­ies can last. This doesn’t paint elec­tric cars in the best light: a lack of range is still one of their big­gest lim­i­ta­tions. Driv­ers have to pit around lap 15 and jump into a sec­ond, fully charged car. (For safety rea­sons, there’s a min­i­mum pit-stop time mean­ing there’s none of the fran­tic ac­tion you get in F1.)

It would have made more sense – to me at least – to have two shorter sprint races where bat­tery power isn’t such a worry. The car could then be recharged be­tween races.

Don’t get me wrong. I thor­oughly en­joyed my day at Battersea Park watch­ing the race, meet­ing some of the driv­ers and get­ting up close to the cars in the pit­lane. It may also have been more easily ac­ces­si­ble – to me – than Sil­ve­stone, but it wasn’t as ex­hil­a­rat­ing or spec­tac­u­lar as be­ing at the Bri­tish Grand Prix (even the prac­tice).

This, though, is just the start for For­mula-e. As bat­tery tech­nol­ogy im­proves, it will be in­ter­est­ing to see whether the two-car dance is re­tained or race dis­tances are in­creased. I can imag­ine some will pre­fer the for­mer in or­der to see driv­ers us­ing the max­i­mum speed and per­for­mance of the car with­out hold­ing back to save energy.

What­ever hap­pens, I hope For­mula-e can prove ben­e­fi­cial to the de­vel­op­ment of the elec­tric cars we’ll all be driv­ing in a few years’ time. There are flashes of bril­liance in the Tesla and BMW i8, but un­til bat­ter­ies don’t de­grade to the point their range is close to use­less, and prices come down, I for one won’t be mak­ing the switch.

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