The BMW i8, with its dihedral doors and wide sills, is not the easiest car to get into and out of at the best of times.
The i8 used as a safety car for the FIA Formula E electric race series has an intricate roll cage and heavily contoured, carbonfibre-backed Recaro race seat that rob the driver’s door aperture of even more precious space, so it takes the flexibility of a contortionist (and a lot of swearing) to squeeze into the snug cabin.
This special i8 is one of two examples created by BMW’s i division and has followed the Formula E circuit around the globe since last September. It features, among other developments, a new inductive charging function from Qualcomm that operates at 7.2kW instead of the 3.6kW of the most powerful plug-in system. This allows the car’s battery – borrowed from the X5 xDrive40e and packing greater capacity than that used by the production i8 – to be charged in less than an hour. This i8 also acts as a test bed for developments that BMW plans to incorporate into future incarnations of the road car.
Once I’m finally behind the wheel, I draw the driver’s seat up close to the steering wheel and strap myself in with a six-point harness, before setting about familiarising myself with the additional switches for the strobe lights mounted atop the roof, together with the various radio equipment specified by the FIA.
That’s when I notice the absence of a conventional rear-view mirror. In its place is a high-definition monitor connected to a rear-facing camera. It takes some adjustment before I feel fully comfortable with the projected image and its rather odd depth of field, although it actually provides a wider view of what’s behind than the standard rear-view mirror, so don’t be surprised to see it pop up on the production i8 sometime soon.
The digital rear-view mirror is required due to the absence of the production i8’s rear window within the tailgate. In its place is a new carbonfibre-reinforced panel that hides a pair of upgraded fans mounted above the combustion engine at the rear.
With the battery, which is mounted down the centre tunnel, fully juiced, I set off along the pit lane. The front electric motor emits a much louder whine than it does in the standard i8. More apparent, though, is the abundant road noise transferred through the upgraded suspension to the stiffened carbonfibre and aluminium body structure.
We’ve been asked to stay below 62mph – we’re on a partially finished Berlin ePrix circuit – which is hardly enough to draw any proper conclusions on how the modifications, including the more powerful electric motor, affect performance. Yet before the first lap is completed, it is clear that the i8 Safety Car operates on an altogether higher level than its standard sibling.
The steering is more heavily weighted, and with an upgraded wheel and tyre package, the electro-mechanical system delivers considerably more feedback than you get in the road car. With all the various suspension tweaks, including a 10mm reduction in ride height, it’s a lot firmer and there’s also less body roll.
It leaves you with the impression between full electric and hybrid running is achieved in a much more determined manner.
BMW won’t reveal exactly what modifications it has made to the petrol engine to give the i8 Safety Car the necessary performance required to keep it at the head of the Formula E field, but it’s fair to suggest it kicks out more than the 228bhp and 236lb ft of its standard sibling. Add in the extra shove provided by a more powerful electric motor operating on the front axle and the powertrain propels the heavily modified i8 along in a purposeful way.
Best of all, though, are the upgraded brakes. The i8 Safety Car is fitted with AP Racing calipers and special race-grade pads, which provide far more stopping power than the i8 is ever likely to require out on the road. Pedal feel is also improved, providing the driver with greater confidence under hard braking into tight corners.
After three laps, I return to the pit lane and carefully park the i8 Safety Car over the two plates used to provide its battery with an electrical charge. There’s no need to plug it in; you simply position it above the inductive charging system, step out and hit a button.
Although BMW is considering a switch to a potent three-motor, fully electric powertrain for the i8 in the future, many of the developments that have been tested on the i8 Safety Car are still likely to see the light of day on a facelifted version of the road-going i8 that’s due next year. Let’s hope so, because subjectively, they make for a much more compelling car to drive than the already excellent existing i8.