Formula E, Electric Racing: Part Two, Tracks and Drivers
This week Triple League Racing will break down Formula E’s drivers, tracks, and event format. If you missed last weeks column go read it now.
Formula E’s event format is compact, to put it nicely. The plan is to have the entire race weekend condensed into one day. This decision was made to help the cities which will host the ten street courses that make up the Formula E schedule. There are some in the wider racing world who support the idea of one day race weekends due to the potential for lower costs and greater efficiency. One day events also are more action packed for fans. Indycar fans might be able to spot one issue with this idea. As we’ve seen a number of times in Indycar street courses can have problems. The design may not work in real life, and there can be issues such as bumps and light rail tracks which cause unforeseen problems. When it happened at Sao Paolo or Baltimore Indycar was able to fix it (not always well) because they had time between the first practice (typically Friday) and the race (Sunday). Indycar had issues with this; what’s going to happen if a Formula E track has a problem which isn’t discovered until the first practice?
Formula E will have an hour long practice session. Each driver will be able to change cars during this session. This one hour session is the only practice session at these courses so crashes or red flags could be disastrous for many. For the practice session cars will be at full power, as they will also be during qualifying. Qualifying won’t use the knockout format of Indycar or F1. Nor will it allow cars onto the track whenever they want. Instead each driver gets two hot laps to post a qualifying time. There will be multiple cars on the track but they will be sent out with a gap between them. The drivers will be released based on fastest practice time.
Races will last roughly an hour which is about how long a MotoGP or WSBK race lasts. Unlike those series, Formula E will have pit stops. Two of them. Each pit stop will see the drivers change cars. Presumably cars will be charged between the first and second pit stop. During the race cars will run in “power saving mode” with less horsepower. More power will be available via a push to pass system. As I said last week that seems like a mistake with cars which are as under-powered as the Formula E cars. The fact that the cars have to be changed twice and raced in power saving mode does not help change the perception of electric cars either.
In fact there are a lot of problematic parts to the format proposed by Formula E. Teams will get four cars for two drivers. This seems fine until you realize that both cars are needed for the race. What will happen if you crash in practice or qualifying? All the races are street races, and the amount of track time will be incredibly limited. What will happen if you crash one car in practice or qualifying and it cannot be fixed? From a racing standpoint two pit stops in under an hour seems a bit excessive. It might make the race less predictable, but it could also spread the field out. On top of that there could be issues with the drivers having to handle two different cars during the same race, and the teams may find that very challenging to set up for. Of course with only an hour practice at each track there may not be a lot of setting up to do.
We know what cities Formula E will race in. The season will start out in Beijing and then move to Malaysia. Afterwords it will travel to South America and race in Rio De Janeiro, followed by Uruguay, then Buenos Aires. Of those Uruguay is the most surprising. Interestingly the series will basically work its way down the Atlantic coast of South America. After this the series will fly north and race twice in the United States. First Formula E will run around Los Angles. Then it will travel across the country to Miami. Formula E will then wrap up its season with three races in Europe; Monte Carlo, Berlin, and London. This ambitious schedule will start on September 13th, 2014, and end on June 27th, 2015.
Formula E will race exclusively on street circuits in these cities. I am not a huge street racing fan, but those ten cities are certainly diverse and interesting. What is not clear is where in the cities they will race or what the tracks will look like. The website describes them as taking place in “city-centre’s” which may imply they will be along prime destinations within those cities. That would be very cool. However I cannot help but wonder if the reality will be much different. Where in LA will they race? Will it be through the center of the city? Will it be along the streets of Long Beach? Or will it be in a parking lot of a major hotel or mall? In almost every instance the question is going to be whether Formula E gets prime destinations in the cities they race in, or are they pushed around to the outskirts and parking lots? I assume Monte Carlo will be held on the Monaco GP circuit but I could be wrong. Also how long will the courses be? I assume we will see something Indycar like in length ( 2 miles or less) rather than longer layouts like the F1 street courses at Valencia, Sochi, or Singapore. With just how low on power these cars are I wonder if what we will actually see is something even shorter than Indycar. May Formula E end up racing on short circuits like karting and Global Rallycross use? Whatever they end up using it will be interesting to see what the end result is, and more importantly how the racing is.
It appears the Formula E drivers club is filled. There are 24 drivers on the list for 20 spots. 4 drivers will end up as reserve drivers. I do not know for sure which ones will be which. Audi ATD has announced Lucas di Grassi and Daniel Abt (who is related to the team owner). They are the only team which has officially announced their driver. However we can be pretty confident in a couple other drivers and their teams. Marco Andretti will clearly be at Andretti Autosport. Sebastian Bourdais basically confirmed that his plan is to race with Dragon Racing, as he did in Indycar. I assume the Indian driver will race with the team from India, the Japanese drivers will join Super Aguri (especially Sato) and that the Chinese driver will be at China Racing. I could obviously be wrong on these, but they make a lot of sense. Outside of that nothing is confirmed or too obvious to me, but someone more familar with some of the teams might be able to connect some dots. I cannot tell which other Indycar driver is likely for Andretti Autosport and if Dragon will use two Indycar drivers.
Indycar is well represented in the drivers list. Nine out of the twenty-four drivers have recent Indycar experience. Indycar drivers include Andretti and Bourdais, along side Katherine Legge, Oriol Servia, J.R Hildebrand, Takuma Sato, and Conor Daly. The other two drivers with Indycar experince are Frank Montagny and Robert Doornobs. I certainly hope the first seven Indycar drivers are part of the primary group of drivers. For me the two non Indycar drivers who are most interesting are Bruno Senna and Ben Collins. Collins was the Stig on Top Gear for a long time while Senna is related to the famous Aryton Senna. I thought he was a talent in F1 and he was one of the few F1 drivers (non Superstar) I wanted to see come over to Indycar. A number of the other drivers are ex-F1 drivers/test drivers. They are not especially notable for talent or success (at least to me), but perhaps Formula E can be their redemption. Although Formula E will run a lot of races during the off season it will also overlap with Indycar (maybe), WEC, and Formula One’s 2014 and 2015 seasons. Again we do not know how that will work. Will drivers with primary rides in other series not race here? Will they skip their main series? How will being in Formula E affect them in getting a ride in 2015?
It is hard to know at this point which teams and drivers will have an advantage in Formula E. It will be a spec series so what is going to determine who is competitive and who fills the field? Or will we see true parity? From the drivers side it appears that the ability to quickly learn new tracks will be incredibly important. It seems to me out of the currently announced Drivers Club Sebastian Bourdais has the edge. He has an incredible amount of talent and a lot more wins than most of the other drivers in the field. That all works out great if Dragon has a team capable of backing his talents up. Perhaps more importantly he is used to street courses, and should be able to get up to speed very quickly. Really, the street course focus should favor any Indycar driver in the field. That’s why I think the seven Indycar drivers are likely (if ride buying doesn’t occur) to get a seat because they have raced in something which presumably has some similarities to Formula E. Oriol Servia is another driver to watch out for. Marco, Conor, J.R, Katherine, and Sato all should have a chance to do well. Doornbos raced in Champcar which should help him with the street courses. Bruno Senna is a fairly talented driver and I could see him doing very well. Ben Collins is the second oldest driver in the field (Servia is the oldest) but diverse experience (including being the Stig) may help him adapt to the various tracks and cars. Which drivers run the full season and which are left on the reserve list could have a major impact on the interest level in the series.
Formule E’s format and schedule are potentially fraught with peril. Indycar has shown us the risks of street racing, and they at least have a full weekend to work with. Formula E has a day. The format seems like a serious issue to me, but we will not know for sure until the series starts racing. Indycar fans do not seem to have much choice about watching this series. There will be two American races, three American drivers, the ex-Stig, and a number of other Indycar drivers. Not only that the Indycar drivers should be very competitive. If you are a fan of Indycar you have to watch this, at least at first. Luckily you will be able to; Fox Sports 1 will broadcast all ten races in the USA! The question is what will you end up watching? Will it look like Indycar, Karting, Rally cross, MotoGP, or something else? Will the racing be great or will the various rules and formats ruin it? We’ll have to tune in and find out this fall!
Next week I’ll end this series on Formula E with a very editorial article focusing on Formula E.