How Formula E is driving the electric cars of the future
As the fifth season of the battery-powered racing series opened in Riyadh, we speak to drivers and other key players about its impact on the vehicles that we buy
You only have to look at the line-up for this season of Formula E, the world's top all-electric racing series, to see how much it means to road-car manufacturers: Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Nissan were all on the grid for the fifth season's opening round, the Saudia Ad Diriyah E-Prix in Riyadh, on Saturday. Porsche and Mercedes are due to join that quartet for the 2019 edition.
Many of the planet's largest household-name carmakers are lining up to get involved – and in doing so, use Formula E as a high-profile research-and-development arena for future vehicles bought and driven by us regular folk. Additional evidence comes via the fact that McLaren's Applied Technologies arm is behind the batteries used by Formula E cars, while a new supporting single-manufacturer series, the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy, uses the road-going electric SUV as its basis.
Indeed, Panasonic Jaguar Racing driver Mitch Evans, 24, provided a direct personal link. “I drove the I-Pace quite early on when it was a concept car,” he explains. “I also did a drag race against a Tesla – and won. So I've done quite a lot with it – and for sure I'd like to have one parked up in my garage.
“A lot of the feedback that I give to my technical team [in Formula E] will then get passed on to Jaguar Land Rover. At the moment, both in the automotive industry and the motorsport industry, electric motors are developing at a similar rate, so a lot of the information and the technology, you can use it either way. The future cars you'll see on the road, you'll start to have a bit of a direct impact from what we've learnt in Formula E.”
His teammate, former Formula One driver Nelson Piquet Jr, 33, agrees. “Efficiency, the power-train, the hardware, the way we do things – these are all things that we learn and we end up giving the 'secrets' to the engineers who are going to build cars for the industry. Then they try to find ways to adapt that to integrate that into the road cars.”
Antonio Felix da Costa won the Ad Diriyah E-Prix for BMW i Motorsport. The Munich manufacturer says: “The main driving force behind BMW i Motorsport is the development of innovative technology in the field of electromobility. The Formula E project is already providing valuable impetus in the development of [BMW concept] iNEXT and the next generation of BMW i models. The borders between production and motor racing development are more blurred at BMW i Motorsport than in any other project.
“Formula E is a perfect test lab for series production development. The same engineers who developed the series drive for the BMW i3 [electric car], for example, are also working on the Formula E project. Findings from Formula E flow directly into the development of future series production drive-trains.”
Not that every Formula E driver has been entirely convinced of the benefits of electric cars in their daily lives. “I don't drive electric cars [away from the race track] yet because I am afraid if I need to travel I don't know how it's going to be – the gas station to recharge – so this is still for me not something that is 100 per cent right,” says former Formula One star Felipe Massa, 37, who began his debut season in Formula E in Riyadh with the Venturi team. “But I think in terms of performance and everything, it's pretty similar to a 'normal' car.”
In contrast, one racer currently embarking on her senior motorsport career, Emirati talent Amna Al Qubaisi, who was testing for the Audi-aligned Envision Virgin Racing team this weekend, had experienced her family's Tesla before clambering behind the wheel of a Formula E car.
It's not only the carmakers that have earmarked Formula E as a developmental must, meanwhile – Michelin is the series' tyre provider and has produced a new Pilot Sport tyre for season five of the championship. “Formula E plays a fundamental role in technical terms,” says Serge Grisin, Michelin Motorsport's Formula E programme manager. The tech gains from these racing tyres, in areas such as weight reduction, are also “fundamental”, he says, in the tyres used by electric and plug-in sports cars to increase their range.
“Formula E serves as a laboratory to evaluate and sign-off the new technological solutions. Every time we visit a new track, we acquire valuable new information. This was certainly the case at the Saudia Ad Diriyah E-Prix, where the grip levels and temperature at the challenging circuit put our Formula E tyre to a big test.”
Single-seater motorsport's pinnacle, Formula One, may be gradually attempting to provide more real-world relevance, but it has been beaten off the start line by its electrified sibling. As the charged issue of making our cars more environmentally friendly continues to dominate the thinking of automakers the world over, Formula E represents the most guilt-free, yet highly competitive, racing out there. And there is every chance the next new car you buy will benefit from its technological smarts.
Updated: December 16, 2018 07:08 PM