The motor game is changing, thanks to Formula E pioneering electric, virtually silent racing cars. As we look back at the E World Championships, Rory FH Smith asks, is this the future of the sport?
Before 2012, the world of motorsport was a familiar affair. Racing cars were four-wheeled machines with a steering wheel attached to a sizeable internal combustion engine. The format – or Formula, shall we say – had barely changed since Henry Ford mass-produced it back in 1908 with the Ford Model T. But when Alejandro Agag, Jean Todt and Antonio Tajani, sitting president of the European Parliament, sat down to dinner together in Paris six years ago, Formula E, the world’s first all-electric racing series, was conceived, marking a significant turning point in motorsport history.
This year, the Formula E World Championship returned to its birthplace for the second time since the series started. Down in the paddock, nestled in the elegant gardens of Les Invalides, the usual smattering of garages, mechanics, cars and drivers can be found amid plush inner-city surroundings, and yet, “it’s so vastly different from any other racing, in so many ways”, says DS Virgin Racing team driver Sam Bird. Why? The cars are virtually soundless.
Powered by a rechargeable battery pack (think an industrial-size version of the one that powers your phone) that can store up to 28kwh of usable energy, all-electric racing machines can summon up to 250bhp. From standstill, they can hit 60mph in three seconds on their way to a top speed of 140mph, which – on narrow city streets – is more than enough to cause trouble, as Lucas di Grassi and António Félix da Costa painfully found out after their collision on race day in Paris.
Translating all that power to the road is the job of a set of 18-inch, bespoke Michelin treaded tyres. In contrast to other forms of motorsport, these specially designed tyres can be used come rain or shine and last for a full day of racing, meaning it’s less about tactical tyre changes and more about driver skill.
Since the inaugural season in 2014, Formula E has set out to accelerate the development of electric road car technology for the benefit of the everyday driver. Within the space of three seasons, the teams have gone from using standardised power plants to developing their own designs and cars this year, including punchier power packs that can last the whole race next year. “The data we’ve collected in the past 18 months in the Virgin DS race car will be filtering down to the new DS7 Crossback road car in the coming months,” says Bird. “Through Formula E, manufacturers learn about energy efficiency and managing energy to put into hybrid and electric cars in the future.”
Thanks to its emphasis on Mother Nature and quieter races, Formula E has been welcomed into some of the world’s most iconic city centres.
"Through Formula E, manufacturers learn about energy efficiency and managing energy to put into hybrid and electric cars in the future" - Sam Bird
“We go here [to Paris], to New York, to Montreal, to Berlin and, up until last year, we went to London,” says Bird. With cities like Rome, São Paulo and Santiago being added to the calendar for the next season, Formula E is steadily making its way to more people around the world, fulfilling its promise of bringing world-class racing to the doorsteps of urban populations.
While the narrow city circuits ultimately restrict the outright performance of the cars, the lack of run-off areas and iconic surroundings make for quite a spectacle. Seeing 20 charged-up racing cars zoom past icons like the Eiffel Tower is something no racing series has managed to achieve, despite Bernie Ecclestone’s best efforts to secure a London Grand Prix during his tenure.
“As a British driver, I’d love to see another ePrix in London,” says Bird. I’ve heard some mutterings of other possible routes in London – the words Pall Mall came up – but whether that’s true or not, I’m not certain.”
Aside from the impressive city backdrops, since the first World Championship in 2014, the newcomer series has focused on other methods of engaging fans. Novel new strategies such as FanBoost, which lets fans vote for their favourite driver through social media, resulting in a real-world power boost on track for the three most popular drivers, has met with mixed reactions. But however gimmicky it may seem, the effort to bring racing to new audiences is admirable – something that will no doubt be playing on the mind of Formula One’s new CEO Chase Carey.
With season three already put to bed and the next starting in December 2017, “Formula E is here to stay for the long term now”, says Bird. “It has survived the first couple of years, which is always important with a brand new series, and the fact that more manufacturers are involved than in Formula One means it will definitely stay.”
With more technical innovations, new tracks and even the possibility of new teams lined up for next season, the newcomer has taken on the motorsport establishment and fared well, while ruffling a few feathers in the process.
What we’ll see in the coming years is largely unknown, with most developments locked away in race team headquarters’ laboratories, but if the past three years are anything to go by, then the future looks bright indeed.
Outside of the sport, as more civil authorities – such as France – declare bans on combustion engine cars over the next 25 years, we could well see all-electric motorsport become the norm.
With other countries likely to follow in France’s footsteps, petrol-powered motorsport is in danger of gradually being confined to the pages of motorsport history, in favour of its sparky young nephew.