Drivers look to FE future
Formula E’s rapid growth has attracted a wealth of talent to the series
Andre Lotterer was a bit sniffy about Formula E when the championship first started in 2014. A driver enjoying the thrill of racing high-powered LMP1 machinery in the World Endurance Championship – and turning out in Super Formula in Japan for fun on spare weekends – didn’t see the attraction of the FIA’s electric vehicle championship.
But times change. The three-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner, who will race for the Renault-powered Techeetah team in Formula E’s fourth season, is part of an influx of top drivers from other disciplines into the series in 2017-18. It’s partly a case of needs-must as drives in other championships, the WEC included, dry up. But there’s also the ascent of FE to a position where it can be regarded as one of the top categories of racing outside Formula 1.
Formula E has become a destination for established names such as Lotterer and his Porsche LMP1 team-mate Neel Jani, but also for a band of younger drivers on their way up.
“The cars don’t have 1000bhp, but they are very challenging for the tracks they race on,” says Lotterer. “What it doesn’t offer in terms of speed, it offers in competition. There are already a lot of top drivers and the series is only going to get stronger as more manufacturers come in over the next couple of years.”
Their number includes Lotterer’s current employer, Porsche, as well as Mercedes.
“My target throughout my career has been to race with a good team against other top drivers, the best drivers possible,” continues Lotterer. “Formula E is the best place for me to do that right now.”
Alex Lynn, who has won himself a full-time race seat with DS Virgin Racing after a season in a test and reserve role, has a similar view. As a young up-and-comer, FE was high on his agenda as he started to look beyond F1 when he came towards the end of his second season in GP2 in 2016.
“I made a conscious effort last year to make a beeline for a seat in FE,” says the 24-year-old, who tested for Jaguar ahead of the start of season three. “The level of manufacturer coming into it, and the level of driver already in it, shows what the championship is becoming.
“For some of us like myself who didn’t have the opportunity to go to Formula 1, it is our chance to make a name for ourselves in a championship that is hopefully going to become something huge. There is always a prestige where the big manufacturers are and that, firstly, draws you in and, secondly, drives you to become a force within it.”
A DRIVER’S FORMULA
Lotterer was impressed and excited by the challenge of driving his Techeetah Spark-Renault Z.E.17 on his first acquaintance with the car at the official Formula E pre-season test at Valencia in October.
“The car keeps you very busy, and I’m sure it is going to be even more exciting when we are racing between the walls on the city tracks,” he says. “These cars are pretty hands-on; driving one is much less of an exact science than driving an LMP1. The driver has a big input and perhaps can make much more of a difference.”
Reigning Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi is thankful for that.
“The FIA has done a pretty good job in keeping it about the driver,” says the Audi Sport Abt man. “For instance, FE doesn’t have fly-by-wire braking like an LMP1. That makes it much more complicated for the driver. You have to turn the brake bias knob forwards or backwards during the race. It is extra complex. I would say these cars are more difficult to drive than an LMP1 car.”
TOUGH FOR NEWBIES
Jani, who has joined the US Dragon Racing team for the coming season, reckons newcomers such as himself and Lotterer will be up against it as they compete with the established stars of the discipline when season four kicks off in Hong Kong at the start of December.
“An FE car is totally different from any racing car I have ever driven in terms of brake feel,” says the Swiss. “It will be a very steep learning curve for guys like me and Andre.
“Every season of FE you’ve missed puts you further on the back foot. You can’t give away two or three tenths any more – you have to be on it all the time. I have the utmost respect for the challenge I’m facing. It’s going to be tough, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Lynn agrees with those sentiments, even though he claimed pole for race one in New York on his debut for DS Virgin in the summer.
“The drivers who participated in season one, my team-mate Sam Bird being one of them, had it tough,” he says. “The championship and the technology involved was in its infancy and they didn’t have the systems we do now to help the drivers get to the end of the race on the power available. They were really free-styling it and that has given them a wealth of experience that makes them really good FE drivers.”
Di Grassi, however, points out that with the advances in technology have come advances in simulation. That and the fact that half the tracks FE visits in the coming season will be new will, he says, help level the playing field.
“With the level of the teams now and the level of simulation and the amount of simulator work you can do, a driver should be able to adapt quickly,” reckons the Brazilian. “The teams have optimised how to warm up the brakes, how to get the regeneration done, how to shift the brake distribution – all of those parameters. That means it should be easier for a newcomer than in, say, season two.”
STATUS QUO MAINTAINED
The official Valencia test in October – the first and only collective pre-season Formula E run-out for the teams – proved little. Except, perhaps, that the old guard of the Abt/Audi team and e.dams, which is set to undergo a branding change from Renault to sister marque Nissan, are still on top, though with an ever-closer chasing pack.
The Valencia circuit – an FIA Grade 1, Formula 1-licensed track – has little to do with a temporary, and almost universally bumpy, Formula E venue, even with one and then two temporary chicanes inserted into its main straight. The high-grip surface also took a toll on the grooved Michelin FE tyres. That means few conclusions can be drawn from the three-day test.
“It is difficult to understand who is quick and who is not from what happened at Valencia, because it is a track so different from everywhere we race, except for maybe Marrakech,” said di Grassi. “One thing we have learnt is that everyone is very close on the grid. We have at least seven teams that could eventually win a race this season.”
For the record, Oliver Turvey was fastest on both track layouts in his Spark-NextEV NIO Sport 003. He ended up just one hundredth quicker than e.dams Renault driver and season two champion Sébastien Buemi on the faster of the configurations used on day one and then seventh hundredths faster than the Swiss driver on the two-chicane layout.