Back in 2014, when FIA (FédérationInternationale de l’Automobile) rolled out that Formula 1 cars will be using a new, less powerful engine specification, the majority of the F1 world cried foul. Everybody who watched a couple of races each season knew the reason, or heard it, more like it. One of the best things about watching F1, live or on the television, is the sound. The zooming of V8 engines was ever-present in the race. It’s the sound of power in F1, and to reduce the heart of the cars to move with the times was one of the most unwelcome announcements in the sport in years.
It wasn’t the foulest development that season, as that place was reserved for the “noses” of the cars. They were particularly heinous, as it made the car look more phallic than usual.
So, as an avid Formula 1 fan, when Formula E was announced, I didn’t meet it with optimism. One major reason, that still stands today, is that it removes 90 percent of what I love about F1. While I can’t lampoon the sport for not attracting talent and personalities that makes F1 intoxicating, it also doesn’t help that the sport’s governing body billed it as “safe.” Nonetheless, I’ve grown to like the electric wing of the Formula motorsports not for the sport itself but because of its advancement of technology that will help shape our world.
Green-Powered Wild Engineering
When I first saw FE cars, I was amazed. These designs were just blueprints to old F1 heads, meaning that we never saw these kinds of cars built. But Formula E is nothing if not technologically ahead. The smaller engine that these cars need to house made way for some spectacular automotive architecture. Whereas F1 cars are almost naked in their pursuit of lightness, Formula E cars house their tires under massive wheel arches. It makes for an outstanding wing design, but you doubt if this will ever work for an F1 car. Some of the concepts for Formula E cars even look like the Batmobile, and what could be more important than that?
But then again, FE had to work with what it’s given. These cars have to race on race-modified city streets. That’s a complete departure from the picture-perfect tarmac of F1 tracks, which makes a job of an FE driver very different to that of an F1 driver. While Red Bull drivers are in complete control of their environment, save for the very sudden precipitation, FE drivers have to contend with differing road states.
Then, there’s the car’s engineering. To say that an FE car is different from an F1 car is an understatement. The ERS-K, or KERS, is a minor detail in a complex map of F1 cars. In FE, there’s no formal name for an energy-regenerating feature within the cars, or “regen” according to current FE champion Lucas di Grassi. That’s because it’s built within the engine’s system, which is electric. It’s a feature becoming common among hybrid cars, where energy generated by actions like braking and steering are recovered to recharge the battery or provide power where it’s necessary. So, with a system innate to an FE car, it will affect the way FE drivers operate the car. First, it influences the braking performance of the car. During the first year of the sport, there were cars that were spinning out from braking in a straight line. This leads to the second point, as the battery will lose regen when it hits 55C and won’t harvest energy until the temperature reaches 60C. This back-and-forth is also a common occurrence in F1, as the braking power of every car depends on how hot the tires are, which can only happen if the car is going fast. Like 300km/h fast.
To summarize, FE drivers can’t go all out because they may lose regen, which will weaken their braking power, at a critical turn in the race. They also can’t go all out because they are running on battery power, which runs out once in every race so drivers have to get a second car. I let out a chuckle when I first saw that FE drivers change cars because I thought it was a cheap imitation of Le Mans, but then I realized that lithium-ion batteries haven’t improved for so long. It was in the fifth race during the 2016 season when I realized that FE teams depended on routine heavily. That’s when it seemed that the races started to feel like F1 races. The bosses talked about marginal temperature differences, driver feedback, steering accuracy, like all sorts of things we hear when Martin Brundle interviews F1 bosses.
Before long, though, the novelty of FE wore off and I started focusing on the races themselves. But I couldn’t get used to the wheezing sound. It was visible that FE cars are much slower than F1 cars, but nothing could have prepared me for how quiet the races are. Sometimes, I thought that the commentators were making up for the lack of noise in the race.
So, I decided that there’s nothing remarkable about FE races. But, in terms of real-world effect, FE technology could have significant effect on what automotive technology will become dominant in the future. With that, I started paying more attention to Formula E than I thought possible.
About That Regen Technology and the Battery
This year, FE cars will be using a bigger battery provided by Williams Advanced Engineering. It didn’t make shockwaves outside the sport, but this means that drivers don’t have to switch cars anymore because the cars have twice the range they had last season. More importantly, however, this just advanced battery technology for consumer electric cars by a considerable margin. Tesla equips the Model S of batteries up to 85 kWh. If Williams can shrink their already-impressive 385-kilogram lithium ion battery for FE cars, which goes without saying is more power-dense than Tesla’s battery, then they could help extend the range of electric cars.
The regen could be an even bigger deal than the battery because of its recuperating potential. Every car performs actions that generate a lot of energy. The mere turning of the wheel generates a lot of force, force that’s currently being wasted. Wasted because with regen, it could provide power where it’s needed. Whether it’s braking power, recharging the battery of powering up ambient features of your car, it could make cars sustainable. It’s also possible to fit solar panels onto cars nowadays, so who’s to say that we’re not close to self-sustaining cars? It’s the dream, never having to pollute our cities while driving.
These are the reasons why I’m so riveted by technological developments in Formula E. I can see myself driving a car with FE technology all over, as opposed to driving a car with F1 accoutrements. How useful is a low-drag body kit and a spoiler that’s wider than the car going to be?
Years of watching the rally championship, F1, and the V8 supercar championships haven’t made me numb to less than extreme racing, after all. And I’m glad to say that I’m a fan of Formula E. Being a fan also means caring a lot about what they can bring to the wider world, and from the looks of it, they’re going to leave a much bigger footprint than F1 currently does. Environmentally, at least.