Sparking electric dreams: All you want to know about Formula E

The cars are similar to other single-seaters, with an open cockpit (protected by the ‘halo’), front and rear wings. The tyres, supplied by Michelin, are all-weather grooved tyres.   | Photo Credit: Formula E

What is it?

Formula E is a single-seater championship in which cars are powered by an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine. The series, which began in 2014, is the brainchild of current FIA president Jean Todt and Spanish businessman Alejandro Agag. One of Formula E’s founding principles is the promotion of sustainable mobility. It looks to do this by capitalising on the requirement of major automotive companies to develop electric vehicles.

So, how does this work?

The cars are similar to other single-seaters, with an open cockpit (protected by the ‘halo’), front and rear wings. The tyres, supplied by Michelin, are all-weather grooved tyres. The cars are powered by a lithium-ion battery pack, which stores the energy. The power-train includes the motor, the inverter and the gearbox.

For the first four seasons, the battery pack had a capacity of 28 kilowatt hour (kW-h), which meant drivers had to swap cars during a race to cover the distance — so a pit stop involved a driver hopping out of the first car and getting into a second. From the 2018-19 season, the battery capacity has been increased to 54kW-h — now, a single car can, and must, be used for the entire race (45 minutes plus one lap after the leader crosses the finish line).

The cars used by all teams are built by Spark Racing Technology in collaboration with Dallara, while the batteries are supplied by McLaren Applied Technologies. The decision on the power-train is left to the individual teams.

What does a racing season involve?

The current season — Formula E’s sixth — has 12 teams battling for the championship over 14 races or E-Prix, hosted in 12 cities (Diriyah and London are double-headers). To control costs and minimise disruption to the host city, the traditional race weekend is compressed into a single day: Saturday (the second race of a double-header is held on Sunday).

There are two practice sessions (of 45 and 30 minutes’ duration), followed by a one-hour qualifying session at mid-day and the race later in the afternoon. Since most of the races are held on street circuits, qualifying is done in four groups of six drivers each, with six minutes to set their laps. The top six then proceed to the ‘Super Pole’ shoot-out to determine the first three rows of the grid.

Formula E uses the FIA’s standard points system for the top 10 finishers — 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 — and awards extra points to the pole-sitter (3), the fastest driver in qualifying (1) and the driver who sets the fastest race lap (1).

Is there anything else I should know?

The series has a couple of gimmicks designed to help it stand out and engage with fans. There’s ‘Fanboost’, pioneered by Formula E, where fans can actually influence a race. Five drivers, who are voted for by fans online and on social media ahead of the race, get an extra 30kW of power to use for a five-second burst, to overtake or defend. Then there’s ‘Attack Mode’, introduced last season, in which a car can drive through a designated, slower part of the track, off the racing line, to collect extra power. This introduces a risk-reward element to the equation: risk losing time at one stage of a race for the reward of using the extra power when the driver thinks it’s most needed.

How does Formula E compare with Formula One?

At its core, Formula E is like any other form of motorsport, with vehicles raced at fairly high speeds. But although the electricity-powered cars are futuristic marvels of technology, they aren’t as quick as Formula One cars. And given that the races are run on street circuits, which are slower than purpose-built venues, they lack some of the ‘wow’ factor associated with high-speed overtaking and racing. There is another side to that, however: Formula E is held on the streets by design, to take racing to the people; most purpose-built venues are located a fair distance from a city’s centre. So, watching a race can be a more convenient and intimate experience for some fans. For motor-heads, the sound of an E-Prix is less satisfying than a Grand Prix — Formula E cars are quieter than F1’s race-tuned engines.

Just how quick is a Formula E car?

A Formula E car can hit a top speed of 225kmph, considerably slower than the 360kmph an F1 car can clock. The average pace of an E-prix, at about 100-110kmph, is half that of a GP. A Formula E car (335bhp) also produces about a third of the power an F1 car (1,000bhp) does.

Does the presence of Formula E affect F1?

It’s difficult to say. F1 is definitely at a crossroads as it tries to navigate the challenges of staying entertaining and competitive while keeping the big manufacturers involved for the marketing and R&D benefits. A lot depends on how the automotive industry evolves, as it moves away from fossil fuel-powered vehicles. As yet, there isn’t an obvious direction — there is no consensus on whether electric cars are the best solution for the road; hybrids and hydrogen fuel cells are a part of the mix, too.

F1 has gone down the hybrid route, but despite the presence of Ferrari, Honda, Mercedes and Renault, it isn’t clear whether developments in the sport will have any relevance for road cars. But F1 remains the pinnacle of motorsport — the fastest cars on earth, driven on the jagged edge. As long as it can retain that thrill and keep costs under check, F1 will stay racing’s main-event.

What does the future of Formula E look like?

Formula E is growing by the year — it claims it’s the fastest growing motorsport series, but keep in mind that it’s from a smaller base than most other events.

Although it isn’t close to being on the level of F1 or Moto GP, it has slowly but surely attracted some of the biggest automotive brands. The current season saw the entries of Mercedes, which has been dominating F1, and Porsche. They join the likes of BMW, Audi, Nissan and Jaguar. India’s Mahindra has been a part of the championship since the first season.

From this season, the series is one of five official FIA World Championships, recognition of its manufacturer support and global spread, as it’s raced across more than three continents. The new status will help in encouraging new teams and sponsors. The presence of former F1 drivers has helped increase the sport’s visibility. But this has also created a perception that it only attracts those who can no longer get an F1 seat — something it will want to change as it grows further.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 10:36:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/motorsport/sparking-electric-dreams-all-you-want-to-know-about-formula-e/article30473288.ece

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