Tech’splaining: What Is Formula E Racing?

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Formula E might be the best and most exciting racing series you’ve never heard of, but that’s changing fast. Having wrapped up its fifth season on a tight and twisty circuit in the middle of Brooklyn, New York, the Formula E series is getting bigger and better with each passing year.

  • If the future of the automobile is electric, Formula E is the future of racing.
  • Formula E races are held in the heart of large cities all over the world
  • The cars have a maximum of 335 horsepower and top speed of 174 mph
  • Extra power is added using Attack Mode and Fan Boost

Formula E is now a more exciting show, thanks to the introduction of Generation 2 racecars that drive harder, faster, and for longer distances than before. And let’s admit it, these low-slung, open-wheeled racing machines looks outrageous and futuristic – dare we say, they’re better looking than modern Formula 1 racecars? (Yes, we do!)

But Formula E has had some growing pains along the way. Before this season, drivers would have to switch cars in the middle of a race, since the first-gen cars’ battery packs didn’t have the juice needed for a full race distance. Now, the second-generation (Gen 2) Formula E cars duke it out for a solid 45 minutes, with one lap added once the lead driver crosses the finish line.

To get an in-depth look at the Formula E series, we spoke with James Barclay, Team Director for Jaguar Panasonic Racing. During our conversation, Barclay explained why Jaguar made the leap into Formula E, how the technology transfers to road cars, and some of the thrills – and logistical headaches – that come with bringing open-wheel racing to the world’s great cities, including Paris, Rome, New York, and Berlin.

A Formula E car has a top speed of 174 miles per hour. Photo: Jaguar

The future of racing is already here

Jaguar wasn’t the first automaker to take the plunge into Formula E, though James Barclay points out the British automaker was the first luxury brand to take a chance on the series. “For us, Jaguar has been away from motorsport for a long time…so [a return to racing] had to be for the right reasons,” Barclay explains. Having the brand’s first all-electric production model on the way helped expedite the decision. “We had the Jaguar I-Pace coming, [Formula E] was a great opportunity to educate the world about our electrification strategy.”

Following Jaguar’s lead, premium brands such as Audi and BMW have now joined the ranks of Formula E. Both Mercedes-Benz and Porsche plan to field teams for next year’s season, too. It’s no secret that both German automakers have much-hyped electric vehicles on the way. For Mercedes-Benz, it’s the EQC sport-utility. Over at Porsche, the Taycan sport sedan looks to blend zero-emission driving with 911 sports car levels of thrills.

Now in its third season participating in Formula E, Jaguar Panasonic Racing fielded two cars for drivers Mitch Evans and Alex Lynn, along with reserve driver Ho-Pin Tung. The combined resumes of the team’s drivers include stints in GP3, GP2, and testing duty with Formula One teams. The season wrapped up in early-July, with the finale held in Brooklyn, with the New York skyline serving as a dramatic backdrop. In the final standings, Panasonic Jaguar Racing came in seventh place out of the eleven participating teams.

Bern E-Prix - racing

Formula E racecars 2.0

Technically, this year’s Formula E racecars are known as the Spark SRT05E, or the Spark Gen 2 cars. We agree, the name could use a little more pizzazz and romance. But you can’t deny the updated Formula E cars are an improvement over their predecessor (the similarly clunkily-named Spark-Renault SRT_01E). The Gen 2 cars have more power, accelerate faster, have more range, and look significantly sleeker than before. The only aesthetic hiccup are the “halo” roll-hoops affixed around the driver’s cockpit – though these are present in the name of safety, to keep the racers safe from errant tires and other hazards.

All the cars use the same basic building blocks, which includes a spec chassis, battery pack, and all-weather Michelin tires. While this level of control seems to run counter to an innovative and still-new racing series, James Barclay stresses the need to keep costs in check.  This “reduces the barrier of entry” for both major automakers, along with smaller independent teams, he explains. When you consider leading Formula 1 teams, such as Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz, spend hundred of millions of dollars each year on their racing budgets, it’s obvious these types of cost controls are a must for Formula E to thrive.

This doesn’t mean every Formula E team is running exactly the same car. James Barclay points out there is still room for innovation and improvement. “The electric motors, invertor, gearbox, rear suspension and software, also the brains of the powertrain, the ECU, these are all open to development,” says Barclay.

In qualifying, the rear-wheel drive racecars have the equivalent of 335 horsepower. That might not sound overwhelming on paper, though each Formula E car tips the scales at only 1,984 pounds, including the weight of the driver and battery pack. For comparison, a petite Mazda Miata roadster weighs around 400 pounds more than a Formula E. For racing fans out there, a modern Formula 1 car rings in at a little more than 1,600 pounds (with driver, but minus the weight of fuel).


Time to go racing

A Formula E race weekend is quick and compact, at least in terms of how rapidly the teams and drivers get adjusted to each track. James Barclay praises the fast-paced structure and how it separates the highly competitive teams. “It’s actually a positive, it’s about the teams who adapt the quickest and the teams that operate a very efficient system.” It also means the series has a smaller carbon footprint than other series – a positive, given the series’ eco-minded image.

The teams start to arrive on-site by Wednesday afternoon, with all the garages and infrastructure set by the Thursday night. On Friday, teams are allowed a shakedown session, to ensure all systems are ready for practice and qualifying. During most E-Prix races, all the action takes place during one day. This includes two practice sessions, the first being 45 minutes long, the second only 30 minutes. Qualifying is one hour, with drivers broken down into groups of six, based on where they finished in the previous season’s standings.

If you want pole, you must act fast. Each driver has only six minutes to set a hot lap. The six fastest drivers then move to the Super Pole shoot-out, with each driver going out one at a time, starting with the sixth fastest driver and moving upward. Once the field is set, the race begins with a standing start, like the type used in Formula 1.

Each race is timed at 45 minutes, plus one extra lap from the time the race winner crosses the finish line. Points are awarded to the top ten drivers, with 25 points for first place, down to 1 point for tenth position. Extra points are awarded for drivers who score pole position and the fastest lap of the race. Cars can only be recharged between sessions, and never during the race itself.

Oh, did we nearly forget to mention the extra jolt of power available during the race? This comes in two variations: Attack Mode and Fan Boost. During the race, the cars are dialed back to 200-kWh of power, or the equivalent to about 268 horsepower. Yet, drivers can choose to enter Attack Mode sections of the track to unlock an extra 25-kWh of power (about 34 additional horsepower).

Teams are told how much Attack Mode time is available about one hour before each race – the maximum allowable is 8 minutes. A driver must then arm the Formula E car before entering an Attack Mode zone that’s monitored by track-side beacons. The caveat: Attack Mode lanes are usually offline, and not the ideal way around the course. Drivers can also receive a time penalty if the beacons determine the car exceeded any Attack Mode boundary.

When it comes to Fan Boost, extra power is added democratically. Fans vote online for the driver they want to have an extra 25-kWh of power during the race. This is a one-time jolt of performance, however. Fan Boost is awarded to five drivers, and can only be used once, for approximately 5 seconds.


International appeal

Jaguar Racing’s James Barclay says the appeal of Formula E extends beyond its technological aspects. Because E-Prix race weekends are held in city centers, the series can reach an entirely new audience, a city-centric crowd that might otherwise have never attended a race. “Each location brings something really different,” says Barclay.

There is the undeniable glitz of racing in Monaco, within the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and beneath the soaring Manhattan skyline. Even after three years of competition, James Barclay says he’s not immune to the excitement of the race settings. “You have to pinch yourself as a race team when you’re at these venues in the heart of these amazing city centers.”

The 2019/2020 Formula E season kicks off on November 22, at the Ad-Diriyah Street Circuit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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