Formula E, Electric Racing: Part One, What is it?

A new form of open wheel racing is about to start. For the first time since Champcar and A1GP died, fans of open wheel racing will have a third major series to watch. I am talking of course about Formula E. Electric powered open wheel cars are going to take to the streets of ten major cities from the fall of 2014 through the spring of 2015. Or at least that is the plan. If you’ve been paying attention at all to the racing world this off season you have probably heard about Formula E.  I will admit that I initially wrote this off as something which wasn’t worth my time. However I recently have started to do some research and come around. I want to make one thing clear; I do not consider electric racing the “wave of the future.” Nor do I think Indycar/NASCAR/Formula One should try and copy the environmental racing format of Formula E.  However if you take Formula E for what it is, electric open wheel street racing, it might be a very interesting racing series. Or it could end up as a total disaster. We’ll know more for sure when the first race starts this September. This is the first part of a planned three part series on Formula E. Today will be a brief overview of Formula E as well as an in-depth look at the cars and teams. The next entry into the series  (which will not be the next post on this blog) will discuss the tracks, event formats, and drivers. The final planned entry will be largely editorial and discuss the potential pitfalls and successes which could make Formula E a great racing series, or a great farce.

Formula E will consist initially of ten races held on a variety of street courses from the fall of 2014 through the spring of 2015. The series plans on all of it’s events being one day only; practice, qualifying, and the race will be done on the same day. The list of cities which will host a race is ambitious, but it remains to be seen where they actually will race. Will Formula E cars be screaming through downtown LA or Long Beach? Or will the Formula E cars end up in the parking lot of a major mall? Ten two car teams will compete for both a team and driver title. Indycar fans should note that alongside Andretti Autosport and Dragon Racing a number of current and former Indycar drivers plan on participating. Formula E is an FIA run series like Formula One or the World Touring Car Series. The cars are still in testing with the first event planned for September of this year. The website is very nice and contains plenty of information about the championship, cars, and format. It was a major source in writing this article and I highly recommend reading it for yourself if you are interested in Formula E.

The cars are the most intriguing part of the series. The cars look good. In fact one of the major reasons that I became more interested in the series was because the cars look similar to some of the Swift concepts from the (rigged) 2012 Indycar car design competition. One of the biggest issues most people have with electric cars is the lack of range and the time it takes to recharge them. Unfortunately this is an issue which will plague Formula E.  The entire event (practice, qualifying, race) takes place in the course of a single day, but there will be a two hour break after qualifying to recharge the cars. The cars will have to make two pitstops during the  hour long race, and each time they do the drivers will change cars. So at least initially “range anxiety” is alive and well in Formula E.

Formula E cars will have 200kw’s of power which means about 270 horsepower. The cars will be limited to a top speed of 140 mph, which seems awfully slow for an allegedly major league racing series. More disturbingly during the races cars will be limited to 133kw, which means they’ll only produce 180 horsepower! The cars will have push to pass during the race at least.  Some may try and absolve Formula E’s lack of power by discussing the power to weight ratio of the cars. Sadly involving power to weight only makes things worse. A Formula E car will weigh at least 800 kilograms. According to Indycar.com and the use of google’s converter (from  pounds to kilograms) an Indycar in road course format weighs about 714 kg. An Indycar makes between 550-750 hp and weighs less than a Formula E car! I think it’s a fair question to ask whether or not these cars will move. They are “limited” to 140 mph but perhaps the reality is that the cars couldn’t go much faster if they wanted to! 

The cars seem too slow for a major league racing series. I can only hope that they race well when put on the track. Some have argued that slower cars make for better racing; Formula E will give us a chance to test that theory.  To Formula E’s credit they claim the cars will be able to accelerate from zero to sixty (actually 62mph) in three seconds which somewhat reassuring. There is the possibility that the regulations will be changed as testing continues. The first season will consist of spec Sparc-Renault’s with a Dallara chassis but from the second season on the series plans on running an “open championship” format where teams can build their own cars. This will either make the series significantly more interesting or mean that one team will win every race. Perhaps this will help solve the power and weight issues with the cars.  Maybe someone will even develop a car which can go an hour without pitting!

The cars are not silent, but they do not sound particularly good either. Perhaps the sound will be changed as time goes on. It is a tough decision as a number of modern cars use artificial sounds to enhance the engine notes (watch Top Gear) which can improve the car. At the same time it can be a bit fake. Formula E cars probably should not sound like a NASCAR V8. I do not have an answer, but I can say that the current sound is probably not the best solution.

All ten teams have been announced. Most notably for American fans Andretti Autosport will compete in Formula E (as well as a bunch of other series), and Dragon Racing has left Indycar to focus solely on Formula E. Drayson Racing, formerly of the ALMS, will also compete in Formula E. China Racing, who were rumored to have an Indycar program (but never actually appeared for the Indy 500), will be a Formula E team. Super Aguri of Formula One fame has been revived and made the cut for Formula E. They have not announced who will drive for them but it is worth noting Takuma Sato is in the “drivers club.” Considering how much success Sato had with Super Aguri in Formula One his return to the team seems likely. Unsurprisingly Richard Branson’s Virgin Racing will join Formula E. Oddly enough Audi will have a presence in Formula E with their DTM team Audi Sport ABT competing under that name. India will be represented by Mahindra Racing. Venturi Racing is notable because the actor Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the owners of the team. French driver Alain Prost is the co-owner of e.dams which is a French team.

Which teams will be championship contenders and which ones will be backmarkers? Or will there be true parity? We’ll know more when the drivers are officially announced. Obviously drivers like Sebastien Bourdais, Oriol Servia, and Bruno Senna are likely to be much more competitive than some of the other potential drivers. As an American and an Indycar fan I hope that Andretti Autosport will be the top team. This does appear likely; Andretti Autosports is an established competitive team which likely will be using skilled open wheel drivers. On the other hand they are not located in Europe and may have too many racing programs to devote the time necessary to dominate Formula E.

For the second season a number of teams have announced their intent to construct their own car. China Racing, Drayson, and Venturi all plan on developing their own car for the second season. Other teams may throw their names in as well. Currently Dragon and Andretti have not announced an intent to build their own cars. Of the three companies who plan on unleashing their own cars Drayson appears to have the edge since they’ve built their own electric race cars for a few years.

Formula E is an ambitious undertaking. It’s really not that long until the first race sometime in September.  Will the series be ready in time? I tend to think so because it’s got so many major partners involved, from Andretti to Mclaren to Renault to Williams. However it is something to keep an eye on just in case things start to turn into USF1 or the proposed Green open wheel series that was suppose to replace Champcar. Overall Formula E appears to be an interesting idea fraught with potential pitfalls.  The cars look good but seem underpowered. Ultimately we won’t be able to judge the quality of racing until we see multiple cars on track together. That is what truly matters; can Formula E create a third, exciting major open wheel racing series?

One last thing, check out Indycar Minnesota  where I participated in Matt’s Around the Horn roundtable feature about Indycar. This should be published tonight, if you are reading this make sure to check it out!

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Posted on February 10, 2014, in Formula E and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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