Sparks of Inspiration

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The wraps are off Formula E’s all-new electric racing car. But will it shock or run out of charge when it hits city streets in 2014?

“Everything is about to change,” ran the (unintentionally) foreboding slogan on the giant screen. Marketing topspin, of course. We all know there’s plenty of life left yet in the trusty fuel-burning internal combustion engine. Nevertheless, the drive for alternative power sources, offering those twin watchwords of the 21st century – greater sustainability and efficiency – inevitably goes on. And in September, on the opening morning of the Frankfurt Motor Show, the wraps officially came off the latest and perhaps most daring development in the quest to make such alternatives exciting to the public.

Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you the mouthful that is the Spark-Renault SRT_01E single-seater, the racing car that will be fully charged to bring life to the world’s first all-electric motor racing series, the FIA Formula E Championship, in 2014. (Do you pronounce the underscore? We’re not sure.)

At this point, we can almost hear the groans emitting from the majority of households that take Motor Sport. A race series for electric cars? Well, that won’t last more than five minutes. Literally. And how can you have motor racing without a glorious, octane induced soundtrack? The whine of electric motors and eerie tyre scrub can be a novelty when combined with boundless torque. But 20 of them shushing around a track? No thanks.

But wait. Before you turn the page, we happen to think the concept of Formula E is genuinely intriguing, especially given the heavyweight companies that are supporting it, encouraged by the world governing body’s enthusiastic blessing. FIA president Jean Todt was on hand to reveal the car in Frankfurt and considers its birth a key achievement of his first term in office as he seeks re-election.

Yes, this Formula E should be taken seriously – and when the first race takes place in September next year, it might also just make for exciting motor racing. Forget the flannel of it rivalling Formula 1. That’s not the intention and it’s not remotely likely. But it is certainly different from anything else we’ve yet seen.

The car has been built by a new company called Spark Racing Technology set up by Frenchman Frédéric Vasseur, the man behind leading GP2/GP3 race team ART Grand Prix. Vasseur has led a small design team heavily bolstered by the support of Dallara, which has provided the carbon fibre and aluminium monocoque. Aside from its safety-induced wheel protectors, outwardly it appears conventional, as it was meant to. To be taken seriously, this had to look like a purposeful modern racing car – and it does. But of course, it’s under the skin where the real interest lies.

McLaren is responsible for the powertrain and electronics, Williams has provided the battery and the whole system has been integrated and overseen by Renault. As a list of suppliers goes, that’s not too shabby. Then there are the fascinating tyres developed by Michelin, to which we’ll return later, high-profile sponsors such as DHL and TAG Heuer, plus Indycar’s defending champion Andretti Autosport signing up to take part. Every week, it seems, the drip-feed of news from the Formula E PR machine gives a little more.

Formula E is the brainchild of Alejandro Agag, a former rising star in Spanish politics and a businessman with a glittering CV. In partnership with Flavio Briatore, it was Agag who brought F1 back to Spanish TV screens 10 years ago to capitalise on the ‘Alonso boom’ his country was experiencing. He also joined the ex-Benetton team principal, Bernie Ecclestone and Lakshmi Mittal – one of Britain’s richest men – in their purchase of Queens Park Rangers football club, serving as chairman before selling it on to Caterham boss Tony Fernandes. In racing, he runs the Addax GP2 team named after his investment banking concern. He’s charismatic, influential and, on the evidence of Formula E, an original thinker.

In Frankfurt, Agag explained the format the series will utilise over 10 rounds, all of which will take place on street circuits within some of the world’s major cities.

“The FIA World Council will confirm the format on September 27 [after Motor Sport closed for press], but it is already pretty much defined,” he said. “There will be two cars per driver and the races will probably last about an hour, if you count all the pitstop time, the formation lap and so on. So about 50 minutes of pure racing. And there is a very interesting element to the format.

“The cars won’t be identical in terms of power. One will have slightly more, while the other will have slightly less but have greater range, which is very easy to do with electric cars. You can tune how much power you want into the motor. The driver will choose when he wants to use the sprint car and the endurance car, so strategy will play a key role. There will also be at least two pitstops, so not everyone will stop when the battery is flat. They will stop because of the strategy they want to play.”

Agag admits that drivers switching cars mid-race is hardly ideal and not exactly true to the message of sustainable motor sport. But in 2014 battery technology will not have developed far enough to offer the range to complete a race of any decent length with a single car, at least at serious speeds. In five years, technology might catch up, aided by lessons learnt in Formula E. But for now Agag has made a feature of its shortcomings.

In MotoGP, riders switch bikes in wet/dry conditions rather than changing the tyres on their machines, so it has a precedent. To ensure drivers are strapped in safely, pitstops must last a minimum of 30 seconds, so the process shouldn’t be too chaotic.

The McLaren-sourced main motor and its ancillary control unit weigh in at just 42kg – much lighter than an internal combustion engine. The technology here is relatively simple, as the electrical current activates magnets to turn a rotor and create kinetic energy. Typically with high-power motors, cooling has been a key consideration.

As for the races, inner city street tracks have been chosen specifically because towns are an electric car’s natural environment. Peter van Manen, managing director of McLaren Electronic Systems, said: “Electric vehicles being used in cities is inevitable. As more people move into the cities, which they are doing every year, we need to have this step change in efficiency. We’re already seeing that with the increase in the use of hybrid vehicles, so the timing of having a racing series that promotes that is right. Part of it is starting to win the hearts and minds of people that they are not just being responsible driving electric vehicles. There is a little bit of fun involved as well.”

Again, the PR machine has been efficient in drip-feeding the cities that have been chosen to host the 10 rounds, each held over a single day to minimise disruption for urban populations.

“We are coming out with a calendar confirming the cities at the forthcoming World Council meeting,” says Agag. “Some of them are already confirmed, such as LA, Miami, Berlin, Beijing and Buenos Aires. And London is still on the list. We have three circuit options in London, so it’s not defined yet. It’s taking a bit more time because there are different administrations to agree on different things. In Beijing you agree with the mayor and that’s it. But we’ll now start in Asia and London will be the last race of the season, to give us more time to set everything up.”

As a spectacle, the cars promise to lap at F3 pace, while only emitting about 80 decibels from electric whine and tyre scrub. In qualifying trim they will run to the maximum
power output of 200kw, which equates to 270bhp. The Spark will reach 100kph from a standing start in just three seconds, with an achievable maximum of 225kph (140mph).

In the races, output will be restricted to 133kw, or 180bhp, but a ‘push to pass’ button to help overtaking on tight, twisty street circuits will add a blast of 67kw to give them a limited dose of full power.

With relatively low levels of downforce and drag for a single-seater, the cars should slide on their specially developed Michelin tyres. The rubber is ground-breaking and, if the French manufacturer has its way, could point towards the future of all racing tyres in open-wheel racing – including, perhaps, F1.

Slick tyres have been left behind in favour of a tread pattern that will perform in both wet and dry conditions (although a full wet will be available for torrential weather), promising durability and energy efficiency. In the wake of recent talk that Michelin could replace Pirelli as F1’s tyre supplier in 2014, the tyres can be taken as an indicator of what the brand believes is best for Grand Prix racing’s future. It has spoken of a need for bigger, 18-inch rims to bring F1 in line with road cars – and this is the size of Michelin’s Formula E tyres.

Fat slicks look more ‘racey’, but their relevance to the rest of the world is zero. And relevance is another key watchword right now when it comes to the future of motor racing.

So what do you think? Intrigued, horrified – or simply indifferent? Whatever your reaction, Formula E simply can’t be ignored. It should also be noted that it’s not intended to be another dull one-make formula. Beyond the launch season in 2014, it will become an ‘open’ formula welcoming other suppliers of chassis and power technology. The aim goes way beyond creating yet another race series: this is about developing automotive technology that could eventually affect us all in our daily lives.

Let’s give it a chance.

Damien Smith

Ex-F1 racers targeted for first series

Experienced hands will be needed to get the most from this silent but swift new breed

The 10 Formula E teams will run a pair of drivers each, all of whom are expected to be experienced racers. Factory Audi sports car racer Lucas di Grassi (above) is the test and development driver, and expects to give the Spark its track debut in November. With instantaneous torque and engine braking, drivers will have to adapt to handling characteristics they’ll have never experienced before.

“We are looking for ex-F1 drivers, top-level drivers from different categories,” said di Grassi. “We have a lot of people interested like Karun Chandhok, Bruno Senna and many others.

“We need good, professional, high-level drivers. More than the car itself, which will be tricky to drive, the format of the weekend will not allow for rookies because you’ll have a limited amount of time behind the wheel. On city tracks, which are already much more difficult than standard circuits, you also have to plan your strategy very well and drive efficiently. You have to do many things in a short period of time, and that takes experience. And with this format, you will also have to set up two cars differently. The teams will have to hire experienced drivers.”

A showcase for the modern age

Formula E bosses hope to develop cars and interactive technology in parallel

Before the Frankfurt launch of the new Formula E car, Alejandro Agag hosted an event in Berlin, announcing new sponsor Qualcomm, a growing force in the communications and electronics industry. The new series offers the company a platform to attract and interact with fans using new and existing technology.

One of the major technological advancements Formula E will utilise is Qualcomm’s Halo Wireless Electric Vehicle Charging system. Already embraced by Renault and proven on Drayson Racing’s land speed record car earlier this year, Halo will be fitted to FE ’s safety cars from the first race. The technology will then be available to teams in the near future.

“The vision,” said Andrew Gilbert, Qualcomm’s executive vice-president of European innovation development, “is dynamic charging, replenishing the batteries while the car is moving. So there would be a racing line and a charging line, which would eliminate the need for pitstops and car changes.

“The technology would remain in the host cities, giving them the option for electric taxis and buses.”

Providing infrastructure such as this could be vital in convincing the world’s cities to welcome an upstart race series to their streets. But it’s not just local government that Formula E has to win over, it’s the general public. That’s where mobile technology comes in. Race fans will be able to interact with the cars using mobile ‘augmented reality’ apps such as Blippar to scan the car and see under the bodywork. The eventual plan is to be able to stand on a street corner in a host city and view highlights from that part of the track on your phone. These are bold moves, but if they are a success at this level then we could see similar interactive technology in other series in the future.

Even with all these potential advances, Agag still emphasises the sporting side. “You need really cool, fantastic, fun racing. But that’s the part I know about, it’s achievable. The rest? We’ll find out more in time.”

Alex Harmer

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