The Formula E electric car race in Brooklyn this weekend may be the slickest sporting event in the Big Apple this year. It’s a look at the future of auto racing. It’s on the waterfront of the city’s hippest borough, with the Statue of Liberty and Wall Street in the background. Formula E has much of the sophistication of Formula 1 but without the throbbing noise of unmuffled engines and the crowded races that draw in five to 10 times as many people.
With the improvement in battery technology, Formula E now runs as a nonstop race without the need to change cars halfway through. And the Saturday and Sunday races are preceded each day by a sedan race (top photo) using nearly identical Jaguar i-Pace electric cars — little modified from what Jaguar dealers sell to the public.
What Is Formula E?
Parts of the world are concerned about climate change, emissions and air quality, yadda-yadda. So FIA, the governing body of motorsports, wants to get ahead of the climate curve and promote a form of motorsport that looks toward a cleaner form of racing in the kinds of cars we’ll be — possibly — driving in the near future. That means electric vehicles. Formula E, E for electric, formed five years ago under the umbrella of FIA, the governing body for much of motorsport.
Note: Do not confuse FIA, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, which governs world motorsport, with FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the governing body of world futbol/soccer. The difference? One is seen as a bunch of old men, autocratic rules, and a lot of money changing hands whereas the other … uh, never mind. To their credit, FIFA doesn’t have vuvuzelas any more and FIA never did.
To the untrained eye, Formula E cars look like open-wheel, combustion-engine Formula 1 race cars — or, for that matter, the Indycar racers that mostly run in the US. They run on the power of lithium-ion battery packs. There was one set of rules for seasons 1-4 and another for the current season 5, which concludes this weekend in the US. Some parts of the car are specified to save costs, such as the kevlar-and-carbon-fiber body, OZ wheels, Michelin tires, the motor, and the McClaren Applied Technologies battery. The power inverter spec is open and so is the race strategy.
Reports have the current cars costing about $ 900,000 to build (€800,000) versus about $ 445,000 (€400,000) for the first-generation. The current cars develop 335 hp and weigh 900 kg or an Orwellian 1,984 pounds. But there’s no power steering and the drivers’ arms get a workout. They reach 60 mph or 100 kph in about 2.8 seconds, about the same as a Formula 1 racer, but the top speed is way different, about 175 mph (speed governed) versus 235 mph.
No More Changing Horses in Midstream
The biggest change for season 5 is the bigger battery that allows cars to go the entire distance of the race. Batteries had been 28 kilowatt-hours (kWh), but now for 2018-19 are 54 kWh. The races had been 80-100 kilometers or 50-60 miles, or 33-46 laps depending on the circuit length. Now there is a fixed race time of 45 minutes plus one lap. (Which is roughly what the previous races took.)
At roughly the halfway point, drivers used to pull into their teams’ paddock area tents, unbuckle, and step into identical second cars. Except for fans sitting in certain areas of the grandstands (photo above), there was a half-minute where the car was gone from view. For most of the first years, there also had been a mandatory time-in-pits rule of about 30 seconds (depending on the track), so drivers didn’t skimp on properly fastening their safety harnesses. Needing two cars good for only 25 minutes of racing was not good PR for electric vehicles, and that has changed for this current season.
How much are 28 kWh and 54 kWh? The original Nissan Leaf had a 24 kWh battery good for about 84 miles. Now the Leaf batteries are 40-62 kWh, rated at 150-226 miles. The Tesla Model 3 has three batteries: 50 kWh (220 miles rated range), 62 kWh (240 miles), or 75 kWh (264 miles). The longest-range Tesla Model S, the 100D, has a 100 kWh battery and, with battery and software enhancements, has raised its EPA range from 335 to 370 miles. The street version of the Jaguar I-Pace has a 90-kWh battery and an EPA range of 234 miles. So even the newer Formula E battery isn’t that big compared with longer range production cars.
Much of the battery technology derives from the smaller energy recovery systems in Formula 1 cars that add an extra 160 hp or 120 kW to the 1.5-liter V6 F1 engine’s 700 hp. (F1 cars actually capture energy from the deceleration and from exhaust gas heat.) For more than a decade, Formula 1 has used forms of hybrid power.
Drivers say Formula E cars are simpler to drive in many ways than Formula 1 cars. But easier still isn’t easy. The driver continually runs calculations in his or her head about battery consumption and when to charge ahead versus hold back. The driver is backed up by some dozen people in the paddock monitoring race telemetry. The driver gets some, but not all, of the available information. Interestingly, the track signage tells fans — but not the drivers — how much power is left. The goal is to finish with a minimum amount of power left in the batteries.
As to whether you should care: The research into battery technology and energy recovery has direct applications for passenger cars; EVs specifically, but also hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Racing is an especially important way to test thermal management of batteries and charging.
Extra Shots of Energy During Formula E Races
In Formula E, drivers can boost power temporarily. One way is gimmicky, called Fanboost. Formula E fans vote online, up to six days before the race, or during the early stages of the race, for their favorite driver. The five most popular drivers in the voting get an extra five seconds of power that can be used, in one shot, to make a crucial pass in the second half of the race. (It’s unclear if Russian trolls have taken an interest in these elections.) By the rules of Fanboost, you can vote once a day.
New for the current season is Attack Mode: It gives every driver an extra 25 kW of power and it must be used during the race. To activate, the driver goes outside the racing line (but still on the track) and — shades of Mario Kart — loses a bit of time in order to gain the attack mode advantage later. The number and duration of Attack Mode activations are announced to the teams an hour before the race, which requires frantic juggling. LEDs built into the “halo bar” over the driver’s head — the roll bar/stiffener in many open wheel cars — indicate the modes. Attack Mode for TV viewers includes a virtual overlay of the activation zone area, much like how first-down markers are shown for US football.
The three power levels for current cars are:
- Base power output (2018-19) – 200 kW / 268 hp.
- Attack Mode – 225 kW / 302 hp. Halo bar LEDs glow blue.
- Fanboost – 240-250 kW / 322-335 hp. Halo bar LEDs glow magenta.
Now, a Supporting Race: eTrophy
For the fifth season, a supporting race was added, the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy for nearly showroom stock sedans (actually, SUVs) prepared by Jaguar Special Vehicle Operations. The races run on the same urban tracks as the Formula E cars. Because every car is a Jaguar, the winning car will be a … Jaguar. It also helps Jaguar build cred for the I-Pace. The I-Pace already won a trifecta of sorts in annual awards: World Car of the Year, World Car Design of the Year, and World Green Car. Not to mention ExtremeTech’s own Car of the Year award.
Compared with the Tesla Model S, the I-Pace is happy running lap after lap on a racetrack (as delivered from the factory), where Teslas, until recently, grew wheezy after just a lap or two. Teslas are capable of insanely fast acceleration; just don’t try to do it 10 times in a row.
“Electric cars are clearly the way of the future,” says Bryan Sellers, one of the eTrophy drivers. At 36, he has a quarter century of racing experience behind him. You don’t need a driver’s license to race; many drivers start with karting in grade school. He is the first American to win an eTrophy race, winning in Hong Kong in March.
The Brooklyn Weekend’s Races
This is the final weekend of the 2018-19 Formula E ePrix and Jaguar eTrophy series, in Brooklyn’s Red Hook waterfront section that is quickly transforming from seedy to you-can’t-afford-it. There will be two races, Saturday and Sunday, with practice, qualifying, and a race each day. You can pay anywhere from $ 12 for admission to more than $ 1,000. If you’ve been to other big auto races — the Indianapolis 500 once got 300,000 attendees — Formula E Brooklyn is much more human-scale. Among other things, when a race series is building, everybody goes out of their way to be accessible to fans.
Formula E has 11 teams, each with two cars. As automakers recognize the need to promote EVs, and now that a single car and battery goes the entire race, more big names are in the race series, including Audi, BMW (formerly as Andretti Motorsport), Jaguar with Panasonic, Mahindra (big elsewhere), Nissan (previously as Renault). Mercedes-Benz and Porsche join Formula E for the sixth season that begins this fall. All the series needs now is a US-flag automaker.
The New York race is unique with not one but two days of racing. It’s the only US stop on the world tour that covers Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, and other parts of North America (Mexico City, but no longer Montreal, Long Beach, or Miami). All are on urban public circuits.
Ironically for a sporting event involving motor vehicles, the better way to get to the track is by public transportation rather than driving and parking. Pack sunblock. No need to pack hearing protection: The cars at 80 dB are significantly quieter than Formula 1 cars, although you can then hear hard braking, suspension bounce, the body contact (it’s a narrow track), and the wind whistling over the cars at speed.