Why Formula E is here to stay

Close racing, lots of oversteer and a noble intention: FE's future looks bright

Two years ago, as Syrians were forced by the million to escape, tens of thousands ended up in Berlin. A temporary centre was set up to house them in the historic but disused Tempelhof Airport. Part of that was a giant sturdy marquee on the apron. As it happened the refugee pressure eased and the wood and canvas structure went unused.

Until now. It was spotted by Alejandro Agag, promoter and owner of Formula E. He had it fitted out with posh casual furniture, glossy food stations and banks of big-screen monitors. This is ‘Emotion’, the equivalent of Formula One’s Paddock Club, where the sponsors and guests are fed and watered before the races.

But even so, Emotion needed only two-thirds of the marquee. They were going to blank the rest off. Until someone had a bright idea. Send the cars through it, highlighted by strobing LEDs. A sort of tented Yas Marina.

Words: Paul Horrell

With a stealth that befits its literally quiet nature, Formula E is solidly growing. Growing in confidence, too – it feels no need to act like a normal race series.

There’s solid commitment from sponsors and entrants to go on beyond season five, and we’re only in season three now. The cars are three seconds a lap faster than in season one.

The crowds are swelling towards capacity – mind you the promotors are careful not to erect too many grandstands. It was about 10,000 for the Berlin race, at €50 (£45) a ticket.

It’s not unexciting to watch. The racing is close, there’s overtaking. With all the hairpins, lost traction and oversteer are frequent and easy to spot.

Jeopardy runs high, too. There’s no room for mistakes. Each driver needs both his cars in perfect condition. He uses two in a race remember, because the battery is flat half way through. Practice is brief, qualifying briefer, so car set-up needs to happen in very short order. Then its down to one full-power max-pressure ‘super-qualifying’ lap for the top five.

But no, it’s not very fast and not at all loud. That said, it looks faster than it is because it’s happening on tight tracks in between unforgiving walls, which the best drivers brush with supernatural consistency.

Some seriously handy drivers populate the sharp end of the grid: Seb Buemi, Lucas di Grassi, Nick Heidfeld, a Piquet and a Prost. Several have been persuaded to stay season after season. Teams are run by heavyweights too: Alain Prost and Michael Andretti among them.

More and more car makers are in, and their involvement is deepening. Next year Abt-Schaeffler-Audi becomes a full works Audi team, for instance. Among European makers, Renault, Audi, Jaguar, DS, and BMW all have their names on cars and their actual technical input is deepening. From growing markets there are NIO (nee NextEV), Faraday Future and Mahindra.

It’s a global series, with a race in New York too, though there are so far precious few fans and scant media interest there.

Agag still wants another London race, but a visibly London street race down the Mall and past Buckingham Palace – Mayor Khan is in favour. Agag wasn’t happy with the promenade through trees in Battersea Park for the season one closer. Anyway, Battersea residents grumbled. He’s aghast. Nowhere else do the locals object.

The series already turns over €100 million for Agag’s company Formula E Holdings. The money-go-round goes like this. FEH promotes the meetings, builds the pits and the circuits. They have to scratch-build the tracks of course, with a whole bunch of concrete barrier and crowd-protection fencing, because they run in cities.

FEH gets its money from big sponsors – Michelin, DHL, Visa, a Swiss bank called Julius Baer – who like the resonances of green, high-tech and innovation. And another parcel of cash from the teams, who pay for logistics, electricity, and the pits.

Agag says FE’s fans are a very different crowd from your petrol motorsport lot. Younger, for a start

The teams buy a standard chassis, with fixed aero, tyres (it’s the same tyre whatever the weather), and the 200kg battery which has 28kWh useable capacity. That makes for close racing, says Agag. Right enough. On the first race of the Berlin double-header, Lucas di Grassi in a Abt-Schaeffler-Audi was quicker than Jose Maria Lopez in a Virgin DS by a not-fixed-honestly 0.001sec.

Agag adds that the teams are keen to keep much of the cars uniform for another reason. It keeps costs down. “If you open up the battery, the sky’s the limit for cost.”

Audi’s motorsport boss Dieter Gass says a season of Formula E costs about a quarter what his company was spending on Le Mans racing every year. But then some midfield Formula One teams don’t spend more than Audi Le Mans money.

Manufacturers like joining a close series. If one dominates, some of the rest walk away. Sometimes, with nothing left to prove, the dominant one leaves too. That’s why Audi left Le Mans. Or so it says.

Even so, the teams now have more technical freedom than in year one. They run their own motors, and gearboxes, and rear suspensions. Some use single-speed, some three-speed boxes. Some have three but don’t use them at every track. One actually uses twin motors. Power, though, is fixed, at 170kW (231bhp) for racing, with 200kW (270bhp) for a qualifying lap.

Spectators can follow the car’s energy flow in forensic detail. Screens show exact motor output power and regeneration plus remaining energy – the thing that’s nursed so tenderly by every driver. Some of the front runners really did drop from one percent battery level to zero on the final straight.

Really the voodoo in Formula E is the software for ekeing out the battery. And the driver’s skill in doing the same. Sure for a banzai quali lap they drive flat-throttle, flat-brakes. But in the trace their top speed might well be half-way along a straight not at the end, so they can make maximum use of regeneration, and coddle their battery temperature too. It’s why good Formula E drivers are rather boffiny.

It was battery temp that did for di Grassi in the first Berlin race. It forced him to ease off while in front. So he got passed by Mahindra’s Felix Rosenquist just before the half-way car-swap. His second car was doing the same, but Nick Heidfeld in the other Mahindra couldn’t get past and finished in third.

Ah yes, the half-way car swap. It was designed so they could have a TV-friendly 50 minutes of racing, and many people laughed at the idea. But now it’s a part of the strategy that adds spectacle, intrigue and excitement.

In the next day’s race, Rosenquist was a clear leader, but as he departed the pits after his car swap he almost crashed into his team-mate Heidfeld who was just arriving. The stewards afterward gave Rosenquist a penalty for ‘dangerous exit’, dropping him to second and handing the race to Buemi in his Renault.

In season five the cars get a 56kWh battery, enough for the whole race. But Agag says they’re still looking for an authentic reason to have a pitstop. Michelin doesn’t want them pitting for tyres though: it wants its rubber to look durable. Throwing away mountains of tyres runs contrary to the series’ green image.

Agag says FE’s fans are a very different crowd from your petrol motorsport lot. Younger, for a start. FE brings the race to them in the cities rather than getting them to traipse out to a field in the middle of nowhere. Its quietness is the very reason it’s allowed into cities, so there’s no point missing the sound of race engines.

Exposure is growing and FE looks here to stay – against most peoples’ gloomy early prognosis. But it must grow a whole lot more if it’s going to satisfy the car makers’ accountants

Never mind the silence of the cars, it’s the time gaps between their appearances that’s the real problem. After every brief episode of shakedown, practice and qualifying comes a yawning wait for recharging. So far there’s no support action on the track, only a ‘village’ of sustainable-motoring-related attractions that’s part science museum and part county fair.

Agag says he wants to get some support racing. Robo-racing is likely, he says. Or a one-make series of electric production cars. Drones. Pushbikes maybe.

Again, none of those things are fast and none noisy. But then, Agag says he’s not trying to compete with conventional high-speed, loud motorsport.

Audi’s Gass admits it has to be a long game because right now the ratio of money spent to exposure gained is unfavourable. Exposure is growing and FE looks here to stay – against most peoples’ gloomy early prognosis. But it must grow a whole lot more if it’s going to satisfy the car makers’ accountants.

And so we’re at Tempelhof. An immodest complex place originally built as the “World Airport” by the Nazis. Then it was used for the Berlin Airlift, the airbridge that supplied the besieged western part of the city at the start of the cold war. Now it’s the site of a racetrack that’s part of an effort to make history in a whole other way.

Agag’s ambition is lofty. “Our total objective is to promote electric road cars worldwide.”

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