What is Formula E?
A Formula One racing event is a roaring concert of spark plugs, pistons and exhaust pipes. The Formula E brings a new sound. The cars are not silent and placid like economy EVs. Rather, they tear around the track with a whistling, humming scream somewhat like a turbine-powered hydroplane or a distant jet. The noise is alien and intriguing. It makes you want to learn more.
The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) is destroying the world’s preconceptions about electric cars in F1 style with the Formula E Championship. Launched in Beijing on the 13th of September, 2014, Formula E is a league of electric powered, single seat race cars. Its mission is to educate the planet on the potential of electric vehicles while delivering visceral racing action.
In its inaugural season, the Formula E is keeping it simple for its ten teams. All the cars are the same. Every driver pilots a Spark-Renault SRT_01E. The chassis was built by Dallara. The motor was designed by McLaren and is the same one from its P1 hybrid supercar. It is hitched to a five-speed gearbox developed by Hewland. The battery was made by Williams. Michelin is the official tire sponsor.
The aluminum and carbon-fiber body has the classic minimalist winged look of an F1 racer. Top speed of the Spark is 140 mph with a 0-60 of 3 seconds. The motor produces 200 kw, or 270 horsepower. The 28 kw/h lithium ion battery weighs 660 pounds including the safety case. The entire car is built to the same strict safety standard of any F1 car.
Spanish businessman and politician Alejandro Tarik Agag Longo is in charge of the show. He is involved in many sports businesses. He is part of the group that owns the Queens Park Rangers football club. He owns the Barwa Addax GP2 Series racing team. He and his partner Flavio Briatore acquired the Formula One television rights for Spain. He is also involved in some of the biggest sponsorship deals in F1.
Agag calls the Formula E a “disruptive motorsport”. He said, “Absolutely everything is new and pioneering. We’re trialing the unknown – the beginning of the electric motor sports era.”
The first Formula E season travels from Asia to South America, the United States and Europe before concluding with the championship in London. Each race takes about 45 minutes and is held on city streets with laps of around one to two miles. Race day begins with practice sessions and then time trials to determine starting positions.
Unique to Formula E events is the car swapping. Driven aggressively, the cars will run out of power in about 30 minutes. So halfway through the race, the drivers pit and climb into a freshly charged car.
Critics ask why the cars cannot be recharged or batteries traded instead of entire vehicles. While showcasing the virtues of electric cars, Formula E is also displaying their weaknesses.
Each car takes around an hour to recharge. The race won’t wait for that. In order to be safe, the batteries are well constrained and sealed. Removing one swiftly is just not possible. Building the battery to be easily changed would jeopardize the safety of the driver.
So for now, they change cars.
Formula E wouldn’t be very green if their cars ran on electricity sourced from coal power plants. In order to ensure the cleanliness of their power, the league brings its own chargers.
Aquafel Research built a pair of generators that load into a shipping container and follow the cars around the world. Essentially they are modified Cummins KTA50 diesel engines. But they don’t run on diesel anymore. They are powered by sea algae glycerin, a by-product of biodiesel creation.
The generators produce very little NOx and particulate matter. They don’t smoke. They run much cleaner on glycerol than they do on petroleum diesel. The machines need less maintenance and are more efficient.
The generators can charge twenty cars at once in one hour, delivering 850kw or enough power for 2000 homes.
At a Formula E press conference Agag and Sir Richard Branson, sponsor of the Virgin team, drank shots of the same sea algae glycerol that powers the generators.
The Formula E knows that innovation takes time, so they are opening up the sport incrementally. Everyone drives the same car in year one, but season two will grant the teams a bit of freedom. They will still be given the same Spark chassis but will be allowed to tinker with the motor, inverter, gearbox and cooling system.
The trend will continue as the sport grows. Eventually teams will be able to craft their own cars with unique components. Strict F1 safety standards will remain in place, but perhaps in-race charging or battery swapping will be possible. Teams will debate whether to carry a heavier battery that will last the whole race.
Similar to the “Race it on Sunday, Buy it on Monday” days of NASCAR, racing will drive innovation. Technologies and parts developed to win races will trickle down to the average commuter.
Automotive advancement is not limited to professional race teams. Motorsports push their fans to drive faster and better. It urges them to learn and get their hands dirty in their garages. The next generation of gear-heads will be rebuilding electric motors, optimizing batteries, reprogramming controllers and experimenting with aerodynamics.
The Formula E has the power to change minds. While many believe electric vehicles to be sluggish commuters, racers know the thrill of instant horsepower and on-demand torque. The rumble and rev of a V8 will become old-fashioned. The invigorating whir of a rotary electric motor will spark the hearts of car fanatics.
Electricity could come from edible algae goo. A child could point at a tail-pipe and ask: “What’s that?”
- Formula E Car by Maurizio Cefariello
- Formula E Building by Stuart Allen