The inaugural FIA Formula E Championship begins Saturday, September 13th in Beijing. It’ll be the first of what should be ten rounds spread across the world between now and mid-2015.
Formula E is the first big global push to race electric cars, full-scale cars not models, with the aim of helping accelerate the technical development of the cars, motors and battery technologies, as well as promoting the benefits of electric cars to the public. To aid the latter goal the series will race primarily on street circuits in major cities, though there are some exceptions.
Street races they may be but these are not some poky little city cars. These are proper racing cars.
The first season is the proof of concept. Can a capable electric power unit with all the necessary batteries and paraphernalia be successfully fitted to a traditional single-seater open-wheel formula car? Can 10 teams come along and race that car with two drivers in cities around the world? Can the batteries and all the tech be shipped around the world with all the regulations on battery transportation? Can you easily bring together so many big-name partners?
That’s why in the first season the car is standard. It features a lot of new technology, but it’ll be the same car and power system for everyone. In later years, maybe as soon as next year, the rules will be opened up and development will really begin.
This first-year car is built by Spark Racing Technology with some pretty hefty partners. The chassis is from renowned single-seater specialists Dallara. The electric motor is from a sister company to the McLaren F1 team (Wikipedia suggests it is the system from the McLaren P1 road car). The batteries are from Williams Advanced Engineering, a sister company to the Williams F1 team. Renault.. seem to be badging it! I’m not sure what else Renault do here. And finally, the tyres are from Michelin, uniquely for open wheel racing they are 18″ treaded tyres not racing slicks.
So far, so good. The cars have all been fitted together, they’ve been run by the ten teams at Donington Park in several test sessions. The next stage is to run a racing season. That begins tomorrow.
In the second and third seasons the rules are scheduled to be opened up. Teams will be allowed to develop the motor, the batteries, the electronics and bring in other suppliers. This is when it gets interesting! Expect the likes of Mahindra and Venturi to build their own engines and batteries. This is when everyone hopes the real technological push will come. The cars should end up getting faster, run for longer, be recharged more quickly.
In year one the cars can only race for 25 minutes before needing a recharge, yet the races are 45 minutes long. So they need a pit stop. But obviously it isn’t (yet) possible to simply recharge a battery in 10 seconds as you would at a pit stop for fuel. The cumbersome solution is to have two cars per driver, and the driver will jump into another car! It isn’t an elegant solution but it is a necessary one (mind you, they could have 2x 25 minute races..).
The idea behind this is to demonstrate the progress. This season establishes a baseline for the technology as it stands today. After the rules are opened up, perhaps by year three or four, the cars might be capable of doing the full 45 minutes without a recharge or a pit stop. Perhaps the speeds will increase, and perhaps the technology will get smaller so the cars aren’t as rear-heavy as they are this year (think of the weight of the batteries!).
So don’t be put off by the car-hopping madness. It is done deliberately. In 5 years’ time when Formula E is doing hour-long races with no stopping we’ll look back at 2014 and laugh at how ridiculously primitive the technology was that drivers had to change cars after 20 minutes. That is the whole point of Formula E, to prove how rapidly this stuff is improving.
For full line-ups and bios have a read of links I’ll share later on. The teams include:
Amlin Aguri – from the remnants of former F1 team Super Aguri;
Andretti Autosport – top IndyCar team, formerly into sportscars and used to run the US A1GP team;
Audi Sport Abt – run by Abt Sportsline of the DTM;
China Racing – the former A1GP and FIA GT team, who have a bit of help from Adrian Campos who has tons of experience in GP2 and is now in WTCC;
Dragon Racing – IndyCar team;
e.dams-Renault – an arm of the crack DAMS outfit which have won practically everything there is to win in European open wheel feeder and development series. Alain Prost involved too;
Mahindra Racing – Indian team from the manufacturer which is into electric tech. I think they’re being assisted by Carlin Motorsport which is another top team in GP2, WSR and F3;
TrulliGP – Jarno Trulli of all people is running a team as well as driving for it. Has assistance from Super Nova (GP2, etc) as well as Drayson Racing from whom he bought the team;
Venturi – electric car manfucturer, backed by Leonardo di Caprio;
Virgin Racing – Richard Branson just had to get involved, and seems to include some of those who set up the Virgin F1 team (the team that became Marussia);
Jarno Trulli, Katherine Legge, Antonio Felix da Costa, Sebastien Buemi, Nicolas Prost, Franck Montagny, Lucas di Grassi, Nelson Piquet Jr., Oriol Servia, Jerome d’Ambrosio, Karun Chandhok, Bruno Senna, Nick Heidfeld, Stephane Sarrazin, Jaime Algesuari, Sam Bird;
Sadly not present is Mike Conway who is a demon on street courses. Also not present at Beijing is da Costa busy on DTM duty, Takuma Sato acts as super-sub.
Teams championship: e.dams
On driver line-up I’d say e.dams with Prost & Buemi, Virgin with Alguersuari & Bird, and Venturi with Heidfeld & Sarrazin are my favourites for the teams titles in that order (though I could easily swap Venturi and Virgin). I’m tipping e.dams for the teams title.
Drivers championship: Lucas di Grassi (Abt)
It is impossible to call a champion driver at the moment but I do think it’ll be one of this six or Abt’s Lucas di Grassi, and Lucas has done prior work on these cars and knows all about energy usage from his job driving Audi’s Le Mans cars. Mixing it with them for wins and podiums will be Mahindra’s Senna & Chandhok, Aguri’s Katherine Legge and Andretti’s Franck Montagny. The others are either not good enough or drive for teams I don’t particularly rate.
Future of the series:
It looks very promising. It seems more organised than even A1GP when that started and that did look good, I was a fan, until it ran out of money and it all unravelled. That’s the real danger, running out of money after a promising start. Even if that does happen it will have made a difference, Formula E is making a contribution to automotive technology and not just running around in Lolas with flags on. I really do think the main reason people are sceptical of FE is less because of the tech and more because of the failure of A1GP, of Superleague Formula, of the Superfund series that never got going, even of FIA GT1. Starting and maintaining a global or continental racing series is very, very difficult.
When & Where?
Race 1 is at 8am UK time on ITV4, Saturday 13th September.
22 November: Putrajaya, Malaysia;
13 December: Punta del Este, Uruguay;
10 January 2015: Buenos Aires, Argentina;
14 February: TBC;
14 March: Miami, Florida, USA;
4 April: Long Beach, California, USA; (1 week before IndyCar)
9 May: Monaco; (2 weeks before F1)
30 May: Berlin, Germany;
27 June: London, England;
Practice, qualifying and race all happen in a single day. The series has chosen to race exclusively on Saturdays for some reason.
I Need More Info!
You’re in luck, the excellent Marshall Pruett of the also excellent Racer.com has put together a trio of previews.
– Firstly you need the Formula E “101”.
– Then ask Katherine Legge how it is drive it.
– Finally, Pruett and FE’s TV expert and IndyCar legend Dario Franchitti take a look at the entrants.
You can also read the previews at NBC Motorsports Talk:
– Chris Estrada’s basic guide to Formula E.
– Tony DiZinno’s driver and team breakdown.
EDIT – I also recommend BadgerGP’s 50 Things You Probably DIdn’t Know About Formula E.
And of course the site that has been tracking the series for the longest is Current E who have a ton of features and is the go-to place for information.
Well there’s the FanBoost concept, where you go to a website and vote for a driver to have an overtake assist for a few seconds. (Voting closes before the race starts.) I’m not voting because sport should be about talent and work, and fans’ involvement should be restricted to cheering from the sidelines.
How To Watch
In the UK all the races are live on ITV4. Please remember the races are held on Saturdays, it’ll be easy for that to catch us out. ITV4 will have highlights if you miss the races and I’m sure they’ll be on ITV Player. Highlights will also be on BT Sport.
In the USA the races will be on the FOX Sports channels.
The world feed will feature Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti on commentary with Nicki Shields in the pits. Additonally, ITV4 will have Jennie Gow presenting and Marc Priestley as analyst.