International news

The electric age dawns
Prost/Heidfeld shunt provides talking point in China | By Gary Watkins

The new FIA Formula E Championship hit the headlines at the first time of asking in Beijing. The inaugural round of the 2014/15 series was big news courtesy of a last-corner accident that sent Nick Heidfeld’s Venturi Spark-Renault electric racer flying into the debris fencing.

The talk after the first ‘ePrix’ wasn’t of the electric powertrains, energy consumption and the limited speeds of the cars, but of the racing. And that must make it a success. Formula E did what it was designed to do: it delivered exciting zero-emissions racing into the heart of the city.

The incident involving Heidfeld, who escaped from his wreck with nothing more than a sore calf, and e.dams driver Nicolas Prost was the final, climactic instalment of a pretty decent 25-lap race around the 2.146-mile Olympic Park circuit in the Chinese capital. The cars were for the most part reliable and only three drivers were penalised for using more than the 28kW/h of energy available to them from each of the two cars they used over the course of the race.

Heidfeld and Prost created the headlines, Abt driver Lucas di Grassi made history as the first winner of an international motor race for electric cars and Franck Montagny did more than any other driver to prove that Formula E cars can overtake, even on a tight circuit interrupted by four chicanes.

The Andretti Autosport driver came from eighth on the grid to finish second. Like di Grassi, there was a certain amount of good fortune to his result given that Prost, like Heidfeld, was unable to take the chequered flag, but Montagny pulled off a series of passing moves on his way to the podium.

Daniel Abt crossed the line in third, but his efforts to stay ahead of a hard-charging Virgin driver Sam Bird, who’d gone a lap longer in his first car and was consequently able to push harder in his second, forced him over the energy limit. That came with a 57-second penalty and dropped him to 10th in the final classification.

The Spark-Renault SRT_01E proved reliable over the course of the one-day race meeting. Karun Chandhok dropped two places in his Carlin-run Mahindra entry courtesy of an overheating battery and lost out on a potential podium, while gear selection problems prevented Jarno Trulli getting off the line.

The biggest technical setback was caused by the fragility of the Spark-Renault’s Hewland gearbox casing in minor brushes with the barriers. Formula E ran out of spares, which meant that there was no race-ready second car for either Trulli or e.dams driver Sébastien Buemi.

ExCeL enters London frame

The ExCeL exhibition centre in East London has emerged as Formula E’s fallback option for the London championship finale, scheduled for next summer. ExCeL’s interest in hosting the race, which was tentatively announced for Battersea Park, was confirmed by Formula E chief executive Alejandro Agag during the Beijing event.

Agag described the ExCeL circuit, which would include an indoor section through one of its multiple exhibition halls, as a “real option” for the event. “At the moment we are working on Battersea, but they are both great venues and could put on a fantastic race in London,” he said.

It has emerged that the proposed circuit at ExCeL, which is located between Canary Wharf and London City Airport, was inspected by a delegation including representatives from the FIA and the MSA on the same day that they visited Battersea.

Agag also admitted to what was meant to be a top-secret test of a Formula E car on the Battersea circuit layout, at 5am one morning in August. The run, undertaken by di Grassi, was designed to assess the suitability of the park’s roadways for racing.

The plans for Battersea have not moved on dramatically since it was confirmed in June as Formula E’s preferred option.

A spokesman for the local Conservative-controlled council explained that an informal consultation was still being undertaken with interested parties, including residents, and that a final vote was not scheduled until the end of October.

This corroborates Agag’s comments in Beijing about when he expects a decision. Only once the relevant committee votes on the issue, and it has been rubber-stamped by the council’s executive, could the planning process begin. That in itself could take two to three months.

The race is scheduled for June 27 2015.

New circuit for Monaco

Plans for a different take on the Monaco street circuit have been revealed by Formula E. CEO Alejandro Agag has talked about a circuit that would turn hard right at Ste Dévote, after the start-finish straight and then run parallel with – and in the opposite direction to – the section of grand prix circuit from the chicane to Tabac.

A hairpin located in the vicinity of the chicane, immediately after the tunnel, would then bring Formula E cars back onto the regular circuit to create a track of approximately two kilometers or 1.2 miles. Agag described it as a “very good circuit”.

Should this layout not prove workable, it is understood that Formula E would race on a circuit measuring less than a mile. This would incorporate the start-finish straight, the new right-hander at Ste Dévote, the swimming pool section and Rascasse.

World status in the air

Formula E could bid for world championship status when the time is right, according to Alejandro Agag.

The series’ intent is to attract manufacturers as its regulations are loosened over the coming years. Presently supplied by McLaren Electronic Systems, powertrains will become free in 2015/16 and the batteries, currently produced by Williams Advanced Engineering, the year after.

“You cannot be a one-make world championship,” Agag said. “We hope to attract manufacturers, meet the conditions and hopefully the FIA will grant us world championship status.”

For this, Formula E would need four manufacturers. Renault (a technical partner, a sponsor of the series and a backer of the e.dams team) and Indian manufacturer Mahindra (whose team is run by Carlin) have both expressed an interest in producing their own powertrains in the future. Audi also has an involvement through its support of the Abt team, while BMW admits that its deal to supply support vehicles is a statement of its interest in Formula E.

FIA president Jean Todt did not rule out world status for Formula E, describing the series as one of the governing body’s “strong assets”.