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Has Formula E now reached a tipping point?

Formula E kicks off with a fascinating race in one of the world’s craziest cities

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Hong Kong is the venue Formula E has been chasing since the series’ inception two years ago. This intense, densely populated metropolis is surely the closest thing the planet has come to realising Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The perfect backdrop for the self-styled ‘future of motorsport’, or a soulless, soundless racing sci-fi dystopia – it depends where you stand on pure EVs, and their fitness for competitive purpose.

As the teams arrived on the island, a typhoon warning had been issued, raising the prospect of the first wet Formula E race in its two-year history. In the event, the storm blew itself out, although 85 per cent humidity and 32° heat were challenging enough, for the teams and 30,000 spectators alike. Hong Kong has long envied neighbouring Macau’s motorsport status, and expectations were as high as the skyscrapers framing the track for its first-ever race.

The city locations and street circuit set-up are two of Formula E’s main USPs, and Hong Kong lobbed a number of tricky variables into the arena. Panasonic Jaguar Racing driver Adam Carroll has raced pretty much everything in his career, and the ultra-quick Ulsterman usually says it like it is. “It’s very bumpy out there,” he told TopGear.com a few hours before the race start, “I mean, properly hairy in places. Around here, on a tight little street circuit, trust me when I tell you that 200kW is enough to keep you on your toes. This is proper racing for sure.”

Carroll and team-mate, rising GP2 star and Mark Webber protégé Mitch Evans, are Formula E newbies this season. Jaguar’s decision to go racing again, after a 12-year absence, in an electric race series seems to have galvanised the entire pit-lane. In the run-up to this first round, Mercedes also announced it has taken up an option to race in season five, while BMW is expected to confirm a full works entry. McLaren has also been awarded the contract to produce the batteries from season five, the point at which they’ll have the capacity to do a full race distance. This will end one of Formula E’s perceived weaknesses: the need for each team to run two cars.

That said, it was the mid-race car swap that actually turned the Hong Kong e-Prix on its head to deliver one of the most unpredictable and fascinating races in the young series’ history. Nelson Piquet Jr had started from pole position in his NextEV, and settled into a comfortable lead against teammate Oliver Turvey, DS Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird, and Renault e.dams and reigning Formula E champion Sebastien Buemi. Further back, ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport driver Lucas di Grassi and his team-mate Daniel Abt were both shown the black and orange flag to pit for repairs to deranged bodywork after various altercations. Bird and fellow DS Virgin driver Jose Maria Lopez tripped over each other, Lopez eventually crashing into the barrier alongside the tricky chicane. Piquet had to take evasive action to avoid collecting the Argentine and tapped the barriers after locking his brakes. He didn’t damage his car, but the incident dropped him to third place.

Lopez’s mishap triggered the safety car, and as that coincided with the pit-stop window, team strategy and energy management all suddenly came to the fore. Bird, who pitted with his battery almost totally depleted, then had a problem getting his second car going, while di Grassi, who had started 19th, vaulted up the grid to finish second behind Buemi. Ex-F1 driver Nick Heidfeld also showed his experience and guile by making up four places on the first lap, with some ballsy late braking, to take the final podium position.

“We had identified a window when we knew we could pit,” Buemi said. “I was surprised that Sam did not come in. But I’m happy with how it went – it was very tough. In the first car I didn’t have the pace to go much quicker, but in the second car I was much more competitive.”

Panasonic Jaguar Racing’s Team Principal James Barclay pronounced himself reasonably happy with the team’s debut, despite Carroll finishing 12th, and Evans having to retire with and electrical gremlin that threatened to damage the entire powertrain.

“Our pace was good. We really didn’t know where we’d be ahead of the race; the Donington test wasn’t that conclusive,” he told me. “Now we know we’re in a pretty good place in terms of performance. We’re also very good on our energy management. Adam’s one of the best at knowing when to lift and coast, and he’s great under braking. Mitch was quick, too. We were a bit mugged by the safety car to be honest, but overall we’re happy.”

TopGear.com was in Beijing for the inaugural Formula E race in 2014, and we’re impressed with the way the series is developing. There are some clever people in the pit lane here, and tellingly an increasing number of Formula One faces are starting to appear in key places in the championship’s infrastructure. Critics still carp about the lack of noise, although that’s more of an issue for the television coverage, and the cars could definitely use more grunt to improve the spectacle. But that’s coming, and the fact that more OEMs are in Formula E than F1 is a sure sign of where boardroom heads are at. Of course, it’s vastly cheaper than F1, and the barrier to entry is much lower. Keeping costs under control will be a challenge for the organisers from season five, when the teams are fully free to develop the entire car, but the lower costs mean that the paddock area is devoid of F1’s mobile HQs and the focus is firmly on the tech.

“Is that a bad thing?” Williams Advanced Engineering asks. “This is probably the most relevant motor racing programme to road car development. There are learnings from other categories, but what I’m stressing is, ‘most relevant’. Simulations, weight reduction, thermal management, regenerative braking… the rate of progress is now phenomenal and these will all play out quickly. Legislation will push that along, too. You can already see what’s happening in some major cities in their efforts to curb emissions and improve air quality. I know some people just don’t get it, and everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I still love other forms of motorsport. I grew up with sports car racing and Le Mans, but Formula E has definitely got a place.”

Richard Devenport, a research and performance manager for Jaguar in Formula E is convinced that electrification tipping point is imminent. “Motorsport drives innovation and always has. We don’t have years and years of experience with electric motors. With ICE, there’s been 120 years – you iterate, you move on. I’m looping what’s going on here back into JLR as it’s happening. I don’t wait until the end of the year and make a big report. If it’s worth doing, I’m on the phone the next morning.

“This technology is now moving at a crazy pace. Think of it in terms of the way mobile phones changed in the early Noughties, the upgrades that were going on. That’s the state of play in electric vehicles at the moment. There’ll be a point when battery range will optimise, probably at around 300 miles. Then range anxiety will disappear, and the focus will switch to the drive aspects, and to reducing weight. The next few years are going to be absolutely fascinating.”

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