The driver line-up is high profile, too, with former F1 drivers Bruno Senna, Jaime Alguersuari, Nick Heidfeld, Nelson Piquet Jr and Jarno Trulli all on the grid.
Among the British competitors is Sam Bird, who has secured a drive at Virgin Racing alongside Alguersuari. Bird has raced in most of the single-seater championships below F1 and has tested top-flight cars for Mercedes, as well as being shortlisted for the McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver of the Year Award.
Formula E's pre-season testing has given him a fair idea of what to expect, but he nevertheless admits that Saturday’s inaugural race will be a step into the unknown.
“Everybody has become quite good at race runs around Donington Park, where we’ve done all our testing,” says the 27-year-old. “We have an idea of the circuit layout in Beijing, but until we get there, we don’t know about the roughness of the surface, how wide the track is, or whether we’ll have kerbs, barriers or both.”
Bird believes that the main technical challenge for the competitors will be metering out the available battery power over the course of each part of the race.
“We have 28 kilowatts per hour of energy that we can use in each car during the race period,” he explains. “It’s about using that to the best of your ability to get the most pace out of the car but still conserve the battery so it lasts that distance. There are many strategies we tried during testing. Some have worked and others haven’t.”
As in F1, power and energy management are key. The cars run at maximum power (equivalent to 270bhp) during practice and qualifying, but they are capped at 202bhp in race trim. The Spark-Renault SRT_01E uses regenerative braking to harvest energy, and this presents yet another variable.
“The strength of the regeneration depends on how much battery percentage you currently have,” says Bird. “As the battery percentage goes down, the strength of the regeneration goes up, which then changes your brake bias. So when you’re doing 130mph on a street circuit and trying to overtake somebody, you have to think about all this. It keeps you on your toes.”
Mid-race car changes – another aspect of Formula E that racing purists have struggled to get their heads around – pose an additional challenge. In Formula E’s first season, it’s a necessity to allow races to last for one hour, and the novel concept is something that the teams have had to practice.
Bird says: “We have an allotted time to do the pit stops. With me jumping out of one car and into another, we can change cars in about 30 seconds, but then we have to sit and wait for another period of time before we’re allowed to go.”
Fans are waiting to discover whether a grid of battery-powered single-seaters can provide the kind of all-round assault on the senses that they are accustomed to from other racing series, but Bird thinks that the format will hold plenty of appeal.
“The car isn’t the fastest single-seater in the world, but it is responsive and the torque is continuous throughout the rev range. There’s quite a lot of weight towards the rear and you’ll see that the cars move around quite a lot. You can get quite a lot of oversteer,” he says.
“There is also a cool motor noise. It’s very futuristic. The sound was apparent at Donington, which is a fairly open circuit, so when there are 20 of them in close proximity to each other around a closed-in street track, I think it will be louder than people expect.”