Uprated car, more power, revised format, fresh drivers: here’s all you need to know ahead of the start of season five of the evolving all-electric series
The pimply, headstrong teenager that had gate-crashed the motor sport world four years ago has matured and become independent.
This is the view of Formula E’s founder and CEO Alejandro Agag, who has steered the all-electric racing series through the first phase of its history since it was conceived in 2011, and began racing in late 2014.
“Formula E truly comes of age this season, it has grown up,” he tells Motor Sport. “When we started we could not finish the race with one battery, but finally after four years the technology has evolved in a way that now the whole race can be done with one car.
“It [the series] is just as significant, if not more significant, than when we first started out in Beijing four years ago.”
Agag’s business, political and visionary skills have been tested to the absolute maximum over the last few seasons. But the rewards have gone way beyond even the former politician and race team owner’s wildest dreams.
“People laughed at us for the first few years, they really did, but we don’t hear that so much now,” says Agag.
From an initial target of attracting three manufacturers by the time its second generation of cars was launched, the expectations have surged quickly as more and more brands have come forward.
In 2019 Formula E finds itself with an enviable host of manufacturers now fielding teams – Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Venturi, DS, Mahindra and Nissan will compete against each other in 2018-2019, with Mercedes and Porsche joining in for 2019-2020. Mercedes’ long-term sporting partner HWA will join the field this year, using a Venturi-supplied car to learn ahead of the company’s factory entry in a year’s time.
The marketing opportunities for manufacturers are obvious. There is no magic new doctrine. They want to go racing to sell their current and future electric cars all over the world.
So the time is very much now for Formula E – and BMW perfectly illustrates this as it comes to the grid as a full factory effort this season.
The main reason it has done so is precisely because the latest cars can now go to a full race distance of 45 minutes plus one lap.
“We always said that when the championship could run with a format that showed one car was sufficient for completing a race then we would look at it,” said BMW Motorsport boss Jens Marquardt. “We did, and we came. ”
The FIA has done its due diligence
well in regards to ensuring a battery that can encompass the necessary energy to ensure one car/one driver races can be made reality.
The hardware, in terms of the battery cells, comes from Californian company Atieva but is managed, manufactured and produced by McLaren Applied Technologies.
It gives almost double the useable energy compared to the old unit, and sits in a more central position in the car giving a more efficient centre of gravity.
Indeed, efficiency is once again the watchword for Formula E and not only in the powertrain stakes.
Aerodynamically the new Gen-2 car is both visually and technically striking. With the emphasis being on reducing drag and creating grip via a huge diffuser, the car has a very different look.
This is largely down to the covered wheels and the lack of a conventional rear wing. Instead there is a dihedral winglet solution at the rear, which again gives a futuristic aesthetic and creates the majority of the car’s downforce.
But perhaps the most intriguing change from a pure engineering point of view is the introduction of brake-by-wire systems, which are fitted on the rear axles. FE cars to date have featured two different ways to brake: the traditional mechanical braking system, where a hydraulic system affects the rear axle, and regenerative braking, where an electric motor puts in some of the work to slow the rear axle and in doing so recharges the battery using recovered kinetic energy. Drivers have had to switch between the two styles via a brake bias switch on the steering wheel and manage the balance in races. Using electronic brake-by-wire will make that system automated this year.
“We are now effectively breaking the hydraulic link between the brake pedal and the rear axle,” says Jaguar’s head of technical, Phil Charles.
“The driver can brake with the pedal and the brake-by-wire system is free to fill in the amount of regenerative torque desired on the rear axle (up to a specified power limit). This means you brake more effectively (two axles rather than one) and recover more energy.
“Both our drivers will have more power to shape the brake bias profile and they won’t manually have to follow the regen level with hydraulic brake bias changes any more. So it will be easier for them to drive the car.”
Races will now be timed, over 45 minutes plus one lap, instead of the set lap distance format that has been used so far.
Within the new format will be a timed period of the drivers choosing as and when they can trigger an attack-mode power boost from within the cockpit.
An extra 25kW (about 34bhp) will be on offer for an as-yet unspecified period of time. The FIA will notify teams and drivers of the specifics on when and how it can be used shortly before each race.
Fans and TV viewers will know when the car is using the extra power with a special lighting system that will display a colour on the halo safety device.
“I think it is fair to say that the race format changes are quite large and so the early races will definitely be interesting,” says Charles.
“Over time it is likely that we will converge approaches as we build understanding, but I am sure at the start of the season there will be various methods applied, some exciting races and potentially some shock results.”
The leap in the all-round technical package for the Gen-2 cars is extensive but it is also relevant, as Charles explains.
“History tells us that motor sport pushes technology very fast,” he says. “To that end, a lot of what we learn with the Formula E project can be transferred to our future electric road cars in anticipation of Jaguar Land Rover offering an electrification option with all model lines from 2020.”
The quality of the season five line-up runs deep. With Audi having taken full advantage of its extra seven-day allocation of testing, due to its customer-supplying status, Lucas di Grassi and Daniel Abt have every possibility to continue the form that helped them claim four of the last eight race wins from last season.
Gone are some of the old guard such as Nico Prost and Nick Heidfeld and coming in are a pair of young ex-Formula 1 talents, Stoffel Vandoorne (HWA) and Pascal Wehrlein (Mahindra)
And, of course, Felipe Massa will make his debut with Monégasque manufacturer Venturi.
Also returning is the highly regarded Robin Frijns. The Dutch driver joins Sam Bird at the newly named Envision Virgin team, which becomes a powertrain customer of Audi.
Five British racers will also start the campaign with Alexander Sims (BMW), Gary Paffett (HWA), Oliver Turvey (NIO) and Alexander Albon (Nissan) joining multiple race winner Bird.