All-electric Formula E claims to offer a new vision for motorsport, but is it exciting? We get behind the wheel of the single-seat racer to find out
12 April 2015

Homestead-Miami Speedway usually echoes to the roar of Nascar V8s and 65,000 adoring fans.

That might explain why every marshal I whisper past in my electric racing car looks more than a little bemused. This Formula E machine may be an eye-catching winner, but the Florida marshals are scratching their heads. Where’s the growl of an 850bhp Hemi, spitting fire and high octane from every tailpipe?

It’s true that Formula E doesn’t offer ear-splitting decibels, but after experiencing the inside of the cockpit at 140mph, I can tell you that it still screams pure excitement.

I’ve travelled 4500 miles from London to the Sunshine State to be the first British journalist to drive a Formula E car in the US. This may be the land of the free, but strict public liability laws mean I’m not allowed to drive on the Miami road circuit currently being fenced off in the city centre. (The Miami ePrix was eventually won by Nicolas Prost.)

Instead, I’m hurtling around the 2.2-mile road course at Homestead, which incorporates some of the banked oval of the Nascar circuit. With 14 bends and full-throttle curves, it’s pure adrenalin for rookies like me.

As I pass the pit lane flat out, the advice of my mentor, former Formula 1 driver Nelson Piquet Junior, is still ringing in my helmet: “Be careful of the carbon brakes. They’re very strong and easy to lock. Heat them up slowly, which sometimes means braking early into a corner.”

Comparisons with an F1 car are obvious. It’s tough keeping my head still because of the wind buffeting my helmet. The cockpit has all the comforts of a medieval torture chamber and I’m developing Popeye’s forearms in trying to hit the apex of every curve.

I drove an F1 car in 2001 and struggled to cope with the bottomless pit of power on tap. And although Formula E cars can be catapulted to 60mph in three seconds, the 800kW battery developed by Williams provides more than enough kick to keep it wildly entertaining.

Even braking late into a second-gear hairpin, the set of 18in Michelin tyres glue the car to the track. As I accelerate onto the straight, a handful of spent rubber bounces over my crash helmet and HANS (head and neck support) device.

I’m on lap five and it’s only the four paddles on my detachable steering wheel that still require some mastering. They’re so close together that it’s easy to squeeze the wrong one – especially on an uneven stretch of Homestead asphalt.

The top two paddles change up and down through the four-speed, fixed-gear transmission (the latest Formula E cars are five-speed). However, it’s the bottom pair that are unique to this style of racing. The bottom right one activates energy regeneration under braking – topping up the car’s battery pack and conserving power.

The fourth paddle, meanwhile, is tagged FanBoost, which allows fans to play a role in determining the outcome of a race using an online voting system. The driver with the most votes receives a power boost of 30kW (40bhp), meaning that the car will drive with up to 270bhp. The boost lasts for only five seconds, but it can be vital on a narrow circuit where there are few overtaking opportunities.

Below a central LCD screen are three rotary dials that I’ve been told not to touch. Two of them regulate regeneration under braking, and the third controls torque during the race.Inside the cockpit, the car is anything but quiet. It sounds like a distant fighter jet under full throttle when you floor the accelerator. However, it’s not all good. A grating whine from the transmission at lower speeds more resembles a British Leyland gearbox.

F1 and Formula E do compare on one level: comfort in the cockpit. It’s hot, sweaty and uncomfortable. By the time I unclip my five-point harness, my fireproof underwear and racing suit are drenched. I’m smiling and would happily take on another five laps, given half a chance.

Later, I ask Piquet, who now competes in Formula E for China Racing, how similar the Formula E car is to an F1 machine. “Although the two cars look the same, youcan’t really compare them,” he explains. “F1 technology has been advancing for 70 years. Twelve months ago, the first Formula E car wasn’t even built.

“Both cars handle in a similar way, but the driving technique is totally different. In Formula E we only race on street tracks and use one set of all-weather radial tyres. The aim is always to conserve energy, rather than worry about a complicated strategy for taking on fuel and changing tyres.

“It’s different in the cockpit, too. In F1, you play around with the KERS settings or adjust the angle of the wing. We pay more attention to energy conservation, especially temperature levels around the battery pack, which affect performance.”

Piquet admits that the only electric car he had driven before joining Formula E was a two-hour road test in a Tesla. “I never considered an electric car before, but now I realise that the technology we use in Formula E will accelerate the development of the electric cars we drive on the road,” he says. “I think Formula E is a much purer form of racing, because drivers don’t get constant diagnostic feedback from their team. They are out there on their own, making decisions for themselves.”

The surge of interest in the inaugural series means that an incredible 50 cities have already offered venues for the 2015-2016 season. By the time this year’s 10-race series reaches its climax at the London ePrix in Battersea on 27 June, more than 500,000 fans will have watched electric car racing live for the first time and tens of millions more will have tuned in on TV.

And although all Formula E cars are currently built to the same specification, car manufacturers will join the fray next season. That will raise the level of competitiveness within Formula E even higher. Battery life will improve, speeds will increase and more teams will be lured into the pit lane. Who knows? Maybe soon F1 will be looking over its shoulder at the future of single-seat motorsport.

E-mazing facts

Formula E has 10 teams and 20 drivers. Races last 40 laps. Drivers pull in to the pit lane halfway to swap into an identical, fully charged car.

The sound of a Formula E car can reach 80 decibels, which is slightly louder than a conventional road vehicle.

Cars are charged from glycerol generators. Glycerine is a carbon-neutral by-product of biodiesel production. It’s so pure you can drink it.

Teams are allowed two spare wheels per car — one for the front and one for the rear. The rule has dramatically reduced running costs.

Formula E uses a BMW i8 hybrid as the safety car — the only combustion engine you will ever see on the track.

Jeremy Taylor    

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289

12 April 2015
"All-electric Formula E claims to offer a new vision for motorsport, but is it exciting? We get behind the wheel of the single-seat racer to find out "
I fail to see what relevance DRIVING a Formula E has to the excitement of the Formula. After all, driving even the slowest of road cars on a circuit feels exciting, but looks pretty to dire to spectators. So the important question is surely not- is it exciting to the driver? but is it exciting to the spectator? This will decide if the new Formula ultimately succeeds or fails.
Hardly surprising then that the Marshals "looked bemused".
As for the 'Fan Boost'....pa lease! is this a race or a popularity contest?
From what little I have seen of Formula E on TV, I think it falls in the 'Dire' camp. I would rather watch Classic A35's racing each other, much more exciting!

12 April 2015
i have had the misfortune to watch part of 2 formula e races. if this is the future, then my life long interest in cars and motorsport will stop. these racers aren't that fast, and sound as boring as milk floats. your article talks of savings made by only allowing 2 spare wheels per car, which when they need a second fully charged car to cover the second half of the race, is laughable. as for fan boost, this isn't x-factor with the big red button, it is motor racing. just ridiculous. whilst there is plenty that should be addressed in f1, formula e does not hold a candle to it, or to any other proper motor racing i have ever seen. see you at the a35's meeting 289 ...

jt

289

12 April 2015
jtwarwick wrote:

see you at the a35's meeting 289 ...

.....cant wait, it will be a good day out!
I meant to mention, that I saw the prize giving for Formula E in (I think) Miami on TV.
What a non event....the guys climbed on the 'Podium' which was on the steps of a building...with a 'Formula E' cardboard backdrop wobbling about in the wind!, the guy giving out the position Prizes, handed out third and second place awards...completely forgot about the winner!!! I thought the cheering was a little quiet when the champagne was sprayed....as the camera panned back, there was all of...oh 50 people watching the ceremony. Limp and dull, says it all really!

12 April 2015
The coverage on freeview when I tried wasn't great. The on screen graphics were nearly unreadable and the commentary could have been a lot better.

13 April 2015
The problem with this, and to an ever increasing extent F1 and the road car divisions of Ferrari and Lamborghini etc, is to presume what they do is actually important. At heart, they are all silly and pointless. But that, combined with being spectacular, exciting the senses, and amusing us, was why this all started in the first place.

13 April 2015
But I would be interested in doing so. If ear-splitting noise is what makes a race spectator-friendly then we truly have become nothing more than babies who laugh and giggle at noise and crashes. Though, with that being said, if the F1 cars of the mid-2000s were "noisy" then I would hate to see what NASCAR was thought of. I never needed ear protection at an F1 or Indy car race. At a NASCAR race you could barely hear the vendor under the stands that you were trying to get you watered-down beer from at an extortionate price. You could also hear the cars clearly from miles away.

289

13 April 2015
Moparman wrote:

I never needed ear protection at an F1 or Indy car race. At a NASCAR race you could barely hear the vendor under the stands .

If you think that's loud visit a drag race.....a pair of Top Fuels leaving the line together will be an experience neither your body, mind or ears will ever forget!

13 April 2015
Well, if noise isn't important, or indeed enjoyable, how about electric dragsters? And then how about a silent rock concert? It would use less power, so be more efficient, and less people would go, so less CO2 would be produced.

13 April 2015
i dont think road cars from ferrari or lamborghini are pointless or silly as they create interest with a small but relevant section of international buyers, and profits for the mega car manufacturers who own them. and nor do i think being spectacular, exciting the senses, and amusement was why all this started at all. guys raced their cars because they could originally and manufactures wanted to show their product was better. then post war when the modern f1 started it was engineers and companies wanting to get back to normality and having some fun on the old airfield circuits like silverstone. the problem is, and why f1 is losing followers, is that it is now media lead with huge amounts of greed thrown in. bernie is getting rid of traditional european circuits so he can demand ever more more from the countries who are able to pay. hundreds of thousands are spent on parties for sponsors and their 'friends'. i dont even bother to look at how many hundreds of pounds tickets for the british grand prix will cost anymore. if there was good racing when you got there, maybe it would be worth it. they cannot even put a full grid out these days and half are in no way competive because it about money not sports people having fun with resultant interest from the public. formula e isnt worth mentioning further.

jt

14 April 2015
This racing formula is a joke set up in a desperate attempt to give electric cars credibility which it fails to do by miles.

The biggest problem with electric cars is range, especially when driven at speed and they get round this in Formula E by – changing cars at half distance!! If only you could do that with a Nissan Leaf on the M1!

Also, have you noticed that none of the 'tracks' used have ever had any other kind of race held on them? Just imagine how these racers would look if they ran somewhere where you could compare the speeds with real racing cars.

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