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Formula E: is the electric series here to stay?
As Sebastien Buemi wins the title, TG looks into the future of the sport
The second season of the FIA Formula E championship came to a bizarre conclusion at London’s Battersea Park earlier today, with Renault e.dams driver Sebastien Buemi clinching the title after a fierce battle with rival Lucas di Grassi.
A collision between the two drivers just moments after lights out left them out of contention for the race win, but having lined up on the grid level on points, the pair were left to settle the championship by fighting for the two bonus points that came with setting the fastest lap of the race.
Buemi eventually prevailed with a time of 1:24.150s, allowing him to succeed maiden champion Nelson Piquet Jr despite finishing 12 laps down on race winner Nico Prost.His victory rounds off a mixed year for the series, which was rocked by the cancellation of June’s Russian ePrix after organisational problems forced the FIA to abandon the event.
While the last-minute calendar change reflects rather poorly on the sport, it would be wrong to say that Formula E is struggling to establish itself. Pending final approval, next year’s finale will take place in New York, while additional races are planned for Hong Kong, Marrakech and Montreal next season.
So is EV racing here to stay, or will it simply fizzle out?
Well, as a certain Mr Rory Reid demonstrated on TGTV a couple of weeks ago, electric technology is gradually approaching the point where it can begin to challenge the market dominance of the internal combustion engine.
That means major manufacturers will be pushing like crazy to build electric cars that meet that demand, whenever it kicks in.
And if you’re looking to push the boundaries of technology, motorsport is a great avenue in which to pursue those developments.
“The main thing that we are understanding right now that is that what is going into mass production in terms of technology is clearly a generation behind what goes into a racing car,” says Dr Pawan Goenka, Executive Director at Mahindra. “In a racing car you are not so concerned about affordability or cost. It doesn’t have to last four or five years, it has to last for one hour. You take that technology and you make it reliable, long-lasting and affordable for mass production road cars.”
So will participating in Formula E give the likes of Mahindra, Renault, Audi and Citroen an advantage further down the line? “Yes, undoubtedly,” answers Goenka. “Because the kind of consultants that you’re working with for Formula E are at the cutting edge.”
Currently drivers must change cars half way through each ePrix because the range doesn’t amount to a full race distance, although improvements to the batteries and energy recovery systems will mean each driver will need only one car after next season. Whichever way you look at it, that’s progress.
When the series began the teams were provided with identical vehicles, although as each season passes fewer and fewer components will be standardised. This season the competitors were allowed to design their own powertrains and gearboxes, with several solutions brought to the table.
“Some manufacturers went with a single, big motor, some went with two,” explains NextEV driver Nelson Piquet Jr. “Some people went with different gears, some people went with single gears. There’s all kinds of different builds that the manufacturers have been creating.”
It’s the kind of environment that will give carmakers invaluable knowledge when it comes to building road-going vehicles further down the line.
Away from the technical side though, there are issues that the sport will have to address. Some of those aspects are a natural consequence of being a fledgling series, others are less so.
Take this weekend’s venue at Battersea Park as an example. The tight, tree-covered circuit doesn’t exactly lend itself to spectator viewing, and the lack of action on track throughout the day means there’s a heavy emphasis on other attractions, such as live music and racing simulators.
Then there’s the issue of noise. Or in this case, the lack of noise. Unintimidating for a younger audience it may be, but the whir of an electronic motor isn’t usually a sound that stirs the soul of a purist.
What about from a driver’s point of view? Does it detract from the thrill of racing? “I think it’s different,” says Oliver Turvey, Piquet’s teammate at NextEV. “But they’re fun cars to drive, and you can throw them around a little bit. It’s always close racing and it feels like any other race car. You’re always driving to the limit.”
Last year entrepreneur Richard Branson said that Formula E would “overtake” Formula One in terms of popularity within five years. That claim is optimistic to say the least, and the fact that F1 is making efforts to get louder instead of quieter suggests that an ePrix won’t be a direct rival to a Grand Prix for some time yet.
But that doesn’t mean EV racing doesn’t have a role to fill. Piquet says he has “no doubt” that the future will be electric, because “most of the big cities are going that way.”
He continues: “Governments are passing new laws and giving more incentives to companies who are building electric cars. Naturally that’s just going to force people to go to electric driving.
“Imagine a Tesla that has double the autonomy in about five to ten years’ time. There’s not going to be a reason why not to have a car like that.”
He makes a valid point. As long as electric tech is in demand, Formula E will be around for a while yet.