Formula E Begins To Fulfill Its Promise

Electric car racing has become major league as the Formula E series begins its fifth season.

The fifth season of the Formula E racing series started on December 15 on a temporary street circuit in Ad Diriyah, Saudi Arabia. The series is officially called the ABB FIA Formula E Championship. This season marks a number of significant changes for the all-electric racing series, including an all-new car, new host cities, and a cadre of new drivers including several Formula 1 veterans and some hungry, young newcomers. This season will also see more OEM involvement including teams from Audi, BMW, Jaguar, and Nissan, with Porsche and Mercedes-Benz poised to jump into the series next year.  

For the first four seasons, Formula E teams were required to make a pitstop approximately halfway through the race, during which time the drivers changed into a fully charged car to complete the race. Although it was perhaps exciting for the fans to watch a driver hop from one car to another, it left an overall impression that electric cars were thus limited in their range.

BMW Andretti Formula E

BMW/Andretti won the first race of the 2018/2019 Formula E season in Saudi Arabia. (Image source: Formula E)

Double the Range

In this new season, the battery pack has almost doubled in size to 54 kilowatts (kW) and is built by McLaren Applied Technologies with battery cells provided by Lucid Motors. The larger pack, along with a few other changes to the cars, allows them to cover an entire race distance without the need for car swapping. The powertrain requirements remain the same—a single electric motor powering the rear wheels through a transmission. But the maximum allowable power has increased to 250 kW (335 Hp), up from 180 kW (241 Hp) in race mode. Regenerative braking performance has also increased to a maximum of 250 kW, up from 150 kW under braking. The new cars are significantly quicker than the first generation machines.

The New Gen 2

The new second generation (Gen 2) Formula E car, known as the Spark SRT05e, is built by French company Spark Racing Technology with assistance from long-time Italian racecar manufacturer Dallara. The chassis, tires, and batteries are the same for each car, but teams are free to develop their own motors, gearboxes, and electronics, which explains why several major car manufacturers are on-board with the series. The stresses and pressures of racing could provide a boost to the development of their electric vehicle (EV) technologies.

Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY

The Jaguar I-PACE eTrophy racing series for production electric vehicles had its first race in Saudi Arabia as a support series for Formula E. (Image source: Jaguar)

For the Fans

Of course, the main reason that car companies go racing is for exposure to the fans. The Formula E series rules help the spectacle with several gimmicks that aid in making the racing less predictable. Fan Boost provides brief periods of extra power to three drivers, based on their social media standing. There will also be Attack Mode zones on the track—areas off the racing line that can provide extra horsepower for a predetermined time. The races are now run to a 45 minute time limit, plus one extra lap after the time has expired.

Saudi Arabia Starts the Season

The first race of the 2018/2019 season in Saudi Arabia was won by BMW Andretti driver Antonio Felix Da Costa, just holding off last year’s series champion Jean-Eric Vergne (driving for DS Techeeta). The Saudi Arabia race weekend also saw the debut of the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY race series, a support series for Formula E using race-prepared versions of the all-new electric Jaguar I-PACE sport utility vehicle. This is the world’s first production-based, all-electric championship. The inaugural race was won by New Zealand’s Simon Evans.

The 2018/2019 Formula E series will be a 13 race series, visiting 12 cities around the world. This will include new races in Bern, Switzerland and Sanya, China, while the race in Santiago, Chile will race in a new location. The season finale—a double header—is once again scheduled for New York City on July 13-14.

Improving Technology

There is an adage that racing improves the breed. In the early days of automotive development, when racing cars closely resembled their road-going cousins, this was certainly the case. More recently, however, racing cars have become more akin to spaceships and the connecting threads have unraveled. Car companies promise that their racing programs directly impact their road cars. But often, those promises are left unfulfilled. As car makers become involved in the development of electric drivetrains that can withstand the rigors of racing—and especially now that Formula E cars can cover a full race distance—it is possible that everyday EVs made for the street will also improve and benefit from such racing programs.

Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

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