When Formula E was announced in 2013, motorsport fans were quick to judge.
"You mean there's no noise?" was the most prevalent skepticism. "They change cars during pitstops?!" was a common condescension. Yet, last July the second championship concluded, and I dare reckon to say the sport is quickly becoming a favorite to watch.
For those unfamiliar with the details of the series, I'll try to simplify it all into a couple nifty paragraphs for you.
In an effort to be more conscious of our environment and to potentially help develop new technology for the burgeoning electric car industry, the FIA created Formula E — the world's first all-electric racing series. The cars in the first season were Frankstein-esque creations that involved the McLaren P1's electric motor, a battery developed by Williams, and a chassis designed by Dallara to be built by Spark Racing Technologies and Renault. Races are mostly held on city center street courses, with locations ranging from London and Berlin to Miami, Long Beach, and Buenos Aires. The two practice sessions, qualifying, and the race are held all in the course of a day, rather than the traditional race weekend schedule. The points system is similar to other FIA series — 25 points for first, 18 for second, 15 for third, and so on. Three points are given to the pole sitter and two points are given to the driver who sets the fastest lap of the race.
The ePrix itself lasts around 50 minutes. At the moment, the batteries do not last the duration of an entire race, so instead of a pit stop for fuel and tires, the driver physically gets out and climbs into another car with a charge that'll last the second half. The Michelin tires are grooved and capable for both wet and dry running, with each car limited to just one set for all sessions. But the tires aren't the only element drivers have to manage.
"It's as much about endurance as it is about overall pace," says Thomas Biermaier, motorsport director for ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport. ""Here we have to play with the energy. We have to lift for 25% of the whole lap to survive with the amount of energy available in the battery." It's no wonder that around half of the drivers that race in FE currently share their driving responsibilities with a team in the World Endurance Championship (WEC).
Nobody knew what to expect from the new championship, so each race was a surprise in the first season. In the first race we learned how safe the Spark-Renault SRT_01 racecars were when Nick Heidfeld was thrown into a barrier at high speed courtesy of Alain Prost's son, Nicholas. Then there was the moment Nelson Piquet Jr. won at Long Beach, 35 years after his father claimed an F1 victory at the same venue. There were seven different winners - a far cry from modern Formula 1. Then the championship came down to a nail-biting finale when Sebastian Buemi lost the championship by one point to Piquet Jr. The season came off as a success with even the CEO of FE, Alejandro Agag, admitting that they were lucky to have a compelling maiden season. The pressure was then on for the second championship, and thankfully the FIA decided to make some changes to spice it up further.
For the second season, power was increased by 20kW, but the most exciting modification was that manufacturers were allowed to create their own drivetrains: the e-motor, inverter, transmission, and cooling system. As a result, eight of the nine teams developed their own drivetrain, with transmissions ranging from one-speed to five-speed based on engine efficiency. This evolution eliminated the spec-racing element of the series to create something more dynamic like F1. But would the championship be as exciting as the first?
Sebastian Buemi in the Renaut e.Dams car struck first at the series opener in Beijing, capturing pole, setting fastest lap in the race, and winning the ePrix — the first a driver to do so in the series. Then Lucas DiGrassi in the ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport car won the next race, and a championship battle was underway.
Throughout the season the two drivers traded wins with textbook driving performances. Three other drivers scored victory: DS Virgin Racing's Sam Bird, American team Dragon's Jerome D'Ambrosio and Buemi's teammate, Nicholas Prost (son of 4-time F1 champ Alain). Every race had moments of great wheel-to-wheel racing and dramatic accidents that kept the racing fan glued to their seat.
Come the last race of the season, both Buemi and Di Grassi were equal in points, with the advantage going to Di Grassi having had more podium finishes. At the beginning of the race, in an echo of Senna/Prost's 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, Di Grassi collided with the back of Buemi's car, momentarily handing him the championship. However, both drivers limped their cars back to the pits to swap into their second cars. Because of the premature swap neither car would have enough energy in the battery to finish, so both drivers were pushing hard for the crucial two points given for fastest lap. Buemi's fastest lap proved to be the quickest and he won the championship by just the three points allotted for fastest lap.
Next season brings some new enhancements. Battery weight will increase to allow for more energy as the series plans to have cars capable of withstanding the whole race without the need for a car swap by season five. While the battery weight increases, the overall weight of the car will be decreased by around 17 pounds. Power output will stay at 200kW for next season, but will be increased to 220 for season four, and 250kW in season five.
Arguably most exciting, Jaguar is entering professional motorsport after a twelve-year absence, by fielding a factory works team in FE.
"It is my belief that over the next five years we will see more changes in the automotive world than in the last three decades," said Nick Rogers, Group Engineering Director for Jaguar Land Rover in a press release. "The future is about being more connected and more sustainable; electrification and lightweight technologies are becoming more important than ever as urbanization continues to increase. Formula E has recognized and reacted to these trends and the championship's exciting and pioneering approach is the perfect fit for our brand."
This investment in the series by another big manufacturer will hopefully open the doors to others (Tesla, Toyota?) as a means of developing road-relevant electronic technology on the track. In recent times, BMW and Nissan are rumored to be showing interest in the near future.
While the sport is appealing, other manufacturers may just be waiting in the wings for the time being, until the technology is ready for road-use application.
"We started from new. We're learning and learning," says Biermaier in regards to the tech needed to run in FE after much motorsport success in other racing series with ABT. "In five years time we can take parts from these cars and put them into cars for the road. But right now it's too early."
The sport has also brought ex-F1 racers back into open-wheel racing after a long absence. Jacques Villeneuve raced in the first three rounds of the second championship, while Scott Speed returned for two races in the first season, finishing second in his first race.
"It's certainly a very exciting motorsport right now because it's so different and new," says Speed. "New manufacturers are getting involved and parts are open to development. It's been fun to follow."
Speed even admits to having a slight itch to return to the series.
"I still do the occasional test-drive and who knows, maybe in the future I'll end up running in it," says Speed. "It's certainly still on the radar very much. With Andretti Autosport having a team (Speed currently races for Andretti in Red Bull Global Rally Challenge) it makes it very easy to stay involved from an arm's length."
If the last two championships have been nail-biters without the rule changes being made for future seasons, the next seasons of FE could very well prove that it's the racing series of the future.