Jason Barlow20 June 2014

World exclusive: Top Gear drives a Formula E car

Is this the future of motorsport? Jason Barlow investigates...

The man who race engineered Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso is currently fiddling in the vicinity of my gentleman’s area. A lower quality gentleman’s area than he’s previously known, for sure, but as the Formula E is a single-seater, the safety procedure is necessarily top drawer. Which is a polite way of saying that I may never walk in a straight line again. 

Will it be worth it? Well, we’re mighty excited by Formula E, the long anticipated all-electric race series, due to kick off in September in Beijing. It’s being touted as the future of motor racing, but as this year’s brave new F1 era continues to court controversy with its muted soundtrack and emphasis on efficiency, can we really learn to love a series that makes no real noise at all? Today, TG.com brings you a world exclusive first drive of the car, so we’ll be a step closer to answering that key question.

The signs are promising, not least because some of motorsport’s biggest guns are involved. Dallara has engineered the carbon/aluminium chassis, McLaren's electronics division is supplying the powertrain and control electronics, the 200kW batteries are from Williams F1’s advanced engineering department, and the sequential gearbox is from Hewland. Renault is tasked with safely integrating the whole lot, while Michelin has developed a new type of all-weather treaded tyre. Spark, a sister company to the ART GP2 and F3 outfit, has spent the past two years designing and developing the car. And the whole thing is presided over by Alejandro Agag, a former politician turned motorsport entrepreneur who has more fingers in pies than he actually has fingers and Ginsters have pies. 

Formula E has set up camp in Donington which, while not exactly Silicon Valley, now has a dedicated cell bravely – and swiftly – carving out a significant new sporting era. The teams will all be based there, when they’re not zipping between some of the world’s most exciting cities to race on new street circuits. Including Punta del Este in Uruguay, whose national football side you may be vaguely aware of. 

Earlier this week, too, former F1 driver Jarno Trulli confirmed that he’s bought his own team, and will line up in TrulliGP alongside other big names such as Bruno Senna, Jaime Alguersuari, Franck Montagny, and Karun Chandhok, driving for the likes of Andretti Autosport, Alain Prost, Virgin, and Audi Sport ABT. This is racing aimed at the so-called smartphone generation, and they’ll even be able to tweet extra energy to their favourite driver during a race. 

Right now, however, the teams are just taking delivery of their chassis’, many of which are currently sitting in front of me in Formula E’s central hangar. Behind them sits the main development car, currently being pored over by a man from McLaren, two men from Williams, and Theo Gouzin from Spark, the guy who took the car from a white paper proposal to reality, and who has engineered Romain Grosjean, Adrian Sutil and some guy called Sebastian Vettel. To the right of them, a handful of battery packs are waiting for installation. They look huge, each weigh around 320kg, including their own cooling gubbins, and serve as an instant reminder that this really is frontier stuff. 

‘The car is fully developed, so hopefully we will have no more headaches,’ Theo tells me. ‘But packaging the battery has been demanding. The Williams guys have a lot of experience in this area, with their own KERS and the work they did on the Jaguar CX-75. They pushed us on some of the areas, so there have been several iterations along the way. The goal of the championship is really to involve more people in this technology, to progress battery tech, make them lighter and more efficient.’ 

The electric motor and inverter are from McLaren’s P1, but upgraded in the Formula E as they’re the sole motive power source rather than part of a bigger hybrid powertrain. In essence, there’s the battery, a governing ECU, the motor, and the inverter, which takes a torque request from the ECU and gets the motor spinning. The inverter sits on top of the motor – they’re surprisingly compact compared to the battery pack – and each has its own cooling system, the McLaren supplied bits on the left-hand side, the Williams part on the right. Peak power is around 276bhp, top speed limited to 150mph, and the car can hit 62mph in under three seconds. 

‘McLaren has learnt a lot from this project,’ says race engineer Anthony Jaconelli. ‘It’s a simpler process if you’re using a smaller motor and you’re not trying to get a lot out of it. But this is a powerful competition installation, so it’s working much harder. The Formula E has a direct drive to the gearbox, so we’ve worked hard to improve low speed driveability via a mix of hardware and software tweaks. We need to speed the motor up and slow it down in order to get the drive through the gearbox, and getting it to react at those sorts of speeds is very impressive.’

I scratch my head. Is it as complicated as it looks and sounds? 

‘Yes,’ says Anthony, bluntly. 

As is getting comfortable in the tub. Although the Formula E generates less downforce than an F3 car – the FIA didn’t want the teams spending big money chasing incremental aero improvements – the brief was to create a proper, full-blooded single-seater. It certainly feels like one. With the belts having dispatched my gonads to different postcodes, the helmet and HANS device in place (it’s test driver and Audi Le Mans runner-up Lucas di Grassi’s, complete with Las Vegas LEDs – thanks Lucas), and the protective cockpit sides in place, it’s initially very claustrophobic. There’s an additional element here: electricity. The car’s battery pack is encased in a carbon sandwich, and there’s a triple layer safety system. But a green light ahead of me will go red if it all fails, and if it does I have to climb out across the nosecone and jump down. Keep one foot in the car and one on the ground, and I will literally be toast. 

Here we go, then. The wheel has a flickering LED display, monitoring all the usual parameters. Beneath it sit a series of rotary knobs, the most important of which remaps the ECU to serve up full qualifying power of around 276bhp, or the race mode’s 200bhp. I opt for that, until I’ve got used to things. The car weighs about 890kg with me on-board, so it should be quick enough, especially around Donington. 

At least it’s dry. I had a massive moment through Craner Curves in the wet the last time I was here. But the Formula E is immediately amazingly easy to drive. No need to worry about getting temperature into the tyres, of course, although left-foot braking is always a bit of an issue at first. No need, either, to worry about getting into a big aero zone, given the relative lack of downforce. Just push the accelerator and hang on. 

It’s fantastic. The chassis is great, and it’s clear that on a dry track you’d have to be really going some to overwhelm those Michelins. McLaren’s efforts on the driveability are apparent, and it just goes and goes without any sort of glitch. 

Do you miss the sensation of pistons in cylinders, and frantic internal combustion? Not as much as you’d think. The Formula E actually emits a perceptible sci-fi whir, and the rush of air around the open cockpit and tyre roar fill in the sonic gaps. Half a dozen laps in, I realise how much more there is in this thing, and what a hugely promising basis for a new type of racing it provides. In truth, it could probably use more power, which will come as the teams get to grips with the technology. The FIA apparently wanted the tyres to last a whole season, but there’s probably a bit too much grip there. Slippery new street circuits that have never ‘rubbered-up’ and a load of race-hungry ex-F1 drivers should see to that. 

Even the Formula E guys don’t know exactly how the series is going to play out. There are known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, as politicians like to say. But one thing everyone involved is agreed on is that motor racing is about entertainment. Round One is in Beijing on 13th September. We’re officially excited.

Pictures: Matt Howell

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