Why Formula-e needs to go faster
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.