The founder of Formula E, Alejandro Agag, is reclining on a couch, cigar in hand. Smoke curls around the charismatic Spaniard’s hand as he talks down the lens, cigar waving, eyes blazing.
“Formula E could have been created by two kinds of people: environmentalists, or racing people,” he muses, gesticulating with his right hand, left still cradling the cigar. “It was created by me. A racing guy.”
If you’ve ever wondered about the mind behind Formula E, the start of And We Go Green, Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary about the sport, offers a peek.
Agag is a lot of things. He’s a 49-year-old businessman and one-time politician, the youngest ever to serve in European Parliament, fluent in four languages. He’s an environmentalist, and a motorsport fan. And his once-derided race series is slowly gathering momentum.
CarAdvice spent the Berlin e-prix with Michelin this year, where we checked out pit lane, wandered around the ‘e-village’, and spoke with some of the sport’s big names to get a deeper understanding of what it’s all about.
“Motorsport has got to stay relevant. It’s got to stay relevant being at the front edge of the technology side, but it’s got to stay relevant for the fans
“It’s a city-based series, it goes around major cities in the world telling its story. And at the same time, clearly it links into a different racing fan – a new generation racing fan.” – Allan McNish, three-time Le Mans winner and Audi Formula E team principal
Central to the Formula E experience is the ‘e-village’. How it’s laid out differs from track-to-track, given each city is different, but in Berlin it comprises a collection of food trucks, a huge stage for live music, deck chairs in front of a massive TV screen, and a large array of stands from carmakers, mobility companies and sponsors keen to be part of the action.
Audi, BMW, DS, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Porsche all have motor show-style activations set up on the tarmac in Berlin, each showcasing their vision for an electrified future. Curious punters on the Audi stand clamber through an e-tron quattro, as others whip around a makeshift track on electric scooters.
Nissan has the Leaf on show, Porsche the Mission E concept, and BMW has the iNext Concept, while both Mercedes-Benz and Audi have fleets of electric vehicles parked in front of the Berlin Tempelhof terminal for people to test drive. Race weekend is like a giant electric motor show.
It’s clear Formula E is the perfect place to burnish your electric credentials, to be seen as green.
“The big four German manufacturers are looking at electrification as a big part of their road car strategy,” McNish says.
“Motorsport, and I speak for Audi here, is at the front edge of what that is in terms of technology development, but also in terms telling the public what we’re doing.”
Carmakers aren’t the only ones keen to get in on the action. Formula E is sponsored by a raft of huge companies with an interest in mobility, many of whom had stands set up in the Berlin e-village. DHL wants to talk about drones, Bosch is pushing electric motorbikes. There was even a Harley-Davidson stand. Seriously.
Another area where Formula E wants to put other motorsports in the shade is access. The day before the race, the entire grid sat side-by-side behind the Tempelhof Airport check-in desks (such a cool location, but more on that to come) and signed autographs for their fans.
Children in branded shirts, adults clutching flags and everyone in between queued for a glimpse of the drivers, all of whom willingly sat and smiled for selfies, and signed merchandise, and made a real effort to connect with their fans.
There’s a reason AFL teams hand out signed footballs after a win and force their players to appear at family days – giving kids one-on-one time with their heroes, no matter how fleeting, can inspire a lifetime of fandom.
It’s a similar story in the paddock, where education is the name of the game. Garage tours are frequent and surprisingly informative, provided you don’t try to take photos of the cars’ motors. That’s where all the proprietary tech lies, you see.
Because the grid is built around a control chassis with control aerodynamics, there’s no need to hide your wings. Walking through the ‘pit building’, a temporary structure erected specifically for Formula E, is like strolling through the world’s coolest spare parts shop. There are nose cones sitting in the hallway, and competing engineers mill around within earshot of one another.
Everyone is welcoming, and everyone is keen to speak about what they’re doing. All the journalists on our trip were blown away by the access on offer.
“The big budget [motorsports] programs of yesteryear are exactly that – yesteryear” – Allan McNish
From a manufacturer perspective, the fact Formula E regulations are tightly managed makes it seriously attractive. A limited number of people can actually work on the cars, although the head count is boosted by the fact anyone working on the car’s electrical systems is shadowed by another engineer burnishing an insulated hook.
If engineer one is shocked, engineer two pulls them away with the hook, like a bad act being dragged off stage in a vaudeville show.
The cars look fantastic up close. They’re low and wide, with swooping front fenders and a diffuser that would make Batman jealous. There are some cheesy little touches, like LED lights around the halo to tell the world when a driver is in ‘attack mode’, but it’s a huge step forward from the anaemic first-generation car.
They won’t blow you away with numbers: 250kW of power in qualifying trim, and enough range to complete an entire race (goodbye car swaps) from the McLaren Advanced Technologies battery.
Tyres come from Michelin, and there’s only one compound available rain, hail or shine. Dubbed the Pilot Sport, the tyres are wrapped around 18-inch rims, designed to strengthen the connection between road and race.
“We want to be involved in motorsport where we can test and promote technology that makes sense, that is in the philosophy of better, more sustainable mobility.
“And technology we can transfer on street tyres,” he said, “we learn from the race to do better tyres.” – Serge Grisin, Formula E manager for Michelin
What does that mean on race day? The cars move around a lot, something we’d love to see more of in Formula 1. With torque on tap from standstill, drivers need to be careful how aggressive they get with the throttle. The circuits are tight, so any little mistakes bring the walls into play, and there’s a grid of 22 cars waiting to pounce.
Saturday is race day in Berlin, and the crowd is surprisingly big as we arrive. As in, lines out the door and through the carpark big. As someone with no previous experience in the world of Formula E, the amount of people wearing branded merchandise and holding flags is a real eye-opener.
There are real Formula E fans out there, and they care.
There are long queues for all the fan activations on Saturday, and the whole e-village feels alive, like it’s the centre of the action… until you cross the track and schmooze your way into the Hugo Boss e-motion lounge.
Alright, we didn’t do any schmoozing, our ticket came courtesy of Michelin. Sue us.
The e-motion lounge is where all the big corporate sponsors take their big corporate clients to try and close big corporate deals. It’s lavishly outfitted, with food and drinks flowing freely. Brands like Moet and Hugo Boss have a big presence, with hordes of waiters feeding champers to a well-dressed, presumably well-heeled crowd of men, women and children with influence.
The pit lane tour and pre-race grid walk are home to the cavalcade of b-list celebrities, instagram influencers and hangers-on you’d expect of any top-flight motorsports event, with one notable exception – Nico Rosberg, long-time advocate for Formula E and one-time beater of Lewis Hamilton.
He draws a huge crowd of people keen to snag a selfie, or to get a closer look at his immaculately manicured quaff.
Sebastien Buemi is on pole, having hustled his Nissan around the Berlin Tempelhof track in 1:07.295, a handy 0.398 seconds faster than ex-McLaren Formula 1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne in his HWA Racelab.
Qualifying is set up to favour back markers. Cars are sent out in three groups, with the fastest drivers from the previous race forced to venture onto a cold track, without the benefit of watching their counterparts first set a time. The fastest cars in each session qualify for ‘Super Pole’, where they go head-to-head for the top three spots on the grid.
Drivers only get one timed lap, so it’s all about stepping up under pressure.
The race start is something of an anti-climax. There’s no parade lap, for one, just 22 electric burnouts and then… go! If the start of a Formula 1 race sounds like a fireworks factory going up in smoke, the Berlin e-prix is more ‘space fight on speed’. Or escape from remote control car prison.
“Wait, was that the start? I missed it!” – Igor Solomon, (disappointed) CarAdvice videographer
Once you’re over the disappointment of the start, the racing is actually really good. There’s heaps of overtaking, especially in the mid-pack, where the closed-over fenders allow drivers to make huge lunges down the inside without fear of losing a wheel.
Does it look like a category conceived by a ‘racing guy’? For the most part it does, thanks to the constant position-swapping and contact. But the cars still aren’t particularly fast, and the fact they’re racing on a totally made-up track in the middle of an airfield makes them look a bit like go karts.
Top speed is theoretically 280km/h but there isn’t a straight on the entire calendar that’ll allow them to hit that marker. I wonder if letting the cars stretch their legs a bit wouldn’t add a dash of sex appeal. Anyway, the race in Berlin…
Lucas Di Grassi got the jump on Sebastien Buemi off the line at Tempelhof and never looked back. Buemi, on the other hand, battled with power consumption throughout the race.
Although there’s no car swap as in previous seasons, the battery is only good for about 60 percent of the race if drivers run flat-chat, so when to lift for extra regenerative braking, and when to be smart and let your rivals go plays a huge role in surviving a full race.
“You obviously try to regen as much as possible,” says Buemi. “Because we have to save so much energy, any energy you manage to get back will directly be performance”
“In the end it’s all about the efficiency. In order to be quick you need to be efficient. That’s a key factor in the performance in Formula E, and so far I think we’ve seen some interesting races”
The other tactical factor is ‘attack mode’. Twice a race, drivers have to run (very) wide on a hairpin to cross an ‘activation zone’, which gives them a 25kW boost for three minutes. Sounds contrived, but it makes for fascinating racing, especially when long trains of cars develop.
“We have lots of features like the Fan Boost… we have the Attack Mode. It’s something where you basically need to drive off the line into a dedicated space, and you can activate a bit more power for four minutes. That basically is there to spice up the race, I think it’s working quite well” – Sebastien Buemi, Nissan Formula E driver (above)
With more power and a longer run down the straight, cars with attack mode active should, theoretically, be faster. But there’s a risk of being trapped behind slower cars or squeezed into the wall if you mistime your run, which turns the feature into an interesting tactical game. What’s more, there are penalties for anyone who doesn’t use attack mode twice.
McNish says the best Formula E drivers have “brain capacity to spare”, and are “willing to adapt their experiences” from other formats to all-electric racing. Ideally, they’ll even have a bit of patience.
“To me, this is probably the widest scope of a driver’s skill set that is around at the moment. They have to be fast to qualify, they have to be able to wheel-to-wheel race and overtake, because with the qualifying format you don’t always start at the front, even if you’re quick,” McNish explained.
“You’ve got to be aware what your strategy is with your energy management, so you’ve gotta be thinking of that all the time. You’ve also got to sometimes have a little patience, which is definitely not a racing driver’s best attribute.”
Although it’s only young, McNish says Formula E is already starting to attract some big name drivers – and there isn’t space for all of them. The series is growing in stature, and has a clear idea about its DNA. Oh, and it’s only going to get better.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement, but I’m certainly interested. Give it a watch, maybe you will be too.
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