I grew up with motorsport, lived and breathed it all my life, a passion that culminated in working in the sport for two decades. I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world to watch motor racing, report on its heroes, covering everything from grassroots club racing to Formula 1. And everything in between.
My passion knew, still knows, no boundaries. If it has an engine, and men and women strap themselves in in the pursuit of speed and the chequered flag, then colour me a fan.
The 2019 F1 season got underway in Melbourne last weekend, and try as I might, I still struggle to come to terms with the hybrid formula that seems dull and muted when compared with what once was. The howl of a screaming V10, the thunder of a howling V8, the cacophonous baritone of a flat-12 crammed into the backs of Ferraris of old, are some of the most blood-curdling sounds to ever grace a race track, worth the price of admission alone. By comparison, today’s 1.6-litre turbocharged hybrid V6s sound like a wasp with just one wing.
Which is why it might seem incongruous that I was completely enthralled by my first Formula E experience in Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago.
For those who don’t know, a quick Formula E for Dummies: Simply, it’s the new all-electric open-wheel formula established by the FIA (the governing body of pretty much all motorsport) . Now in its fifth season, Formula E seeks, in its own words “to serve as a competitive platform for global car manufacturers and mobility providers to test and develop road-relevant technologies.”
It’s a valid mission statement, certainly in terms of ‘global manufacturers’ who have flocked to the hi-tech series like no other.
This season, Nissan, Audi, BMW, Citroen (through its DS sub-brand), Mahindra, Jaguar, Chinese carmaker Nio, and electric hypercar manufacturer Venturi are all vying for the championship, held over 13 street circuit races in 12 of the most iconic cities in the world. They will be joined next year by Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, underlining the series’ importance to manufacturers.
“Formula E was a very obvious choice because of our electrification program,” Nissan’s head of motorsport Michael Carcamo tells CarAdvice at a media briefing at the Hong Kong E-Prix. “It really was motorsport in line with the product and aligning with the vision of the company.”
This season marks the debut of the Gen2 Formula E racer. And it provides a beacon of how rapidly, not just the series, but electric mobility, is developing. The first-generation car, in use from 2014 until last year, suffered from the limited range of its 28kWh battery. That meant drivers couldn’t complete the 45-minute-plus-one-lap race distance without changing to a second car.
But with the Gen 2’s 52kWh battery, those mid-race ‘refuelling’ stops have been eliminated, the new car capable of completing a full race distance.
Some tech specs for those who like to know such things: The Gen2 chassis is designed and built by Spark, in conjunction with the FIA, and while its futuristic visage looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, it’s actually a functional form designed to promote closer racing by minimising turbulence for the following car.
Underneath that movie-star body, lurks an all-new 52kWh battery pack, sourced from McLaren Applied Technologies (yep, that McLaren) good for a maximum power output of 250kW in qualifying and 200kW in race trim. The battery takes 45 minutes to charge to full capacity. Charging is conducted through a diesel generator powered by biofuel, further underlining the series’ sustainable credentials. That biodiesel is so clean, according to Nissan’s PR manager Anna Teslik, you can drink it.
Teslik admitted she had in fact, done exactly that. “It’s kinda sweet,” she reveals of the taste.
All that power is sent to the rear wheels exclusively and can help propel the Gen2 Formula E car from 0-100km/h in just 2.8 seconds with a claimed top speed of 280km/h. It’s properly quick, then.
While the chassis and battery (as well as wheels, tyres and brakes) remain spec across the grid, the major freedom each manufacturer enjoys is the powertrain. And therein lies the appeal for manufacturers.
“One of the nice things about the series is they help focus the attention on the EV portion which is the powertrain,” says Carcamo.
“Batteries are obviously part of an EV solution but in a motorsport context it would just be us fighting each other in terms of battery development. Yet in powertrain development - the actual motor, inverters, transmissions, control systems - that’s where there is a lot of value to be added and that’s the most road-relevant from a development standpoint.”
Motorsport has always been a testbed for technologies that eventually find their way into road cars, so it’s a logical jump for Formula E to provide that testbed for electric mobility. The lessons learned on the track will be applied to road car technology, much like the tech in Formula 1 has done for decades. It’s easy to forget things commonplace in today’s road cars, like turbocharging, ABS, traction control and adaptive suspension all had their genesis in Formula 1 cars.
Any comparisons to F1 are odious, though. One common complaint about Formula E echoing through the chambers of dissent is the lack of noise. And while it’s true watching motorsport where exhaust notes are non-existent is slightly surreal, that lack of aural delight doesn’t detract from the spectacle, not when viewed live.
Again, I find this incongruous even as I bemoan the lack of exhaust note dribbling from current F1 cars.
The cars are difficult to drive, more so in the slightly damp conditions on offer in Hong Kong. That theoretical top speed of 280km/h didn’t get a nudge on the tight concrete-lined canyon of the Hong Kong street circuit, but in-car telemetry showed a peak at 207km/h.
The drivers are genuine talents, a mix of ex-F1 drivers (10 drivers on the grid have raced at the pinnacle of motorsport), with smattering of champions in lower open-wheeler categories and as well as two-time (and reigning) German touring car champion Gary Paffett. These aren’t nobodies in the Pantheon of motorsport, and their experience shows on track, where the racing is close and exciting.
And it’s competitive. Formula 1, if it is being honest with itself, would kill for a record like this: Four seasons of Formula E have seen four different drivers from four different teams crowned champions. And this season is shaping up to offer more of the same with the five races so far won by five different drivers from five different teams. A nice change from the Mercedes/Ferrari/Red Bull hegemony of recent F1 seasons.
Formula E is not Formula 1, never will be. Nor is it trying to be. Instead, it takes a different approach to motorsport, a pioneering step towards the future of electric mobility.
As series boss Alejandro Agag told CarAdvice in Hong Kong: “I think Formula E can accelerate the uptake of electric vehicles. It really helps change the perception about electric vehicles.”
And that’s no bad thing.