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Formula E: The future of Motorsport

Updated: Apr 3, 2021


Ok this is dumb. This is my 6th or 7th attempt at making an intro for this, and none of them worked. Instead I'll just talk about electric cars, the cars of the future.

Let's be real for a minute, petrol power is finite. It's destroying our world by raising globe temperatures and the waste from fossil fuels is being dumped into the oceans, destroying them as well. We need something that won't destroy the world while we drive to places. Electric cars fill that role perfectly and are slowly taking over the world's automobile market. They are the future, and the world of motorsports acknowledges that. There's a new motorsport on the rise, not characterised by the roar of a petrol or diesel engine, but the shrill whine of an electric motor. Yes, I am talking about the ultimate street racing series, and the future of motorsports: Formula E.


Why is it the Future of Motorsports?


This is a good question as how can an electric race series where the cars are only half as fast as F1 be considered the future of motorsport? It honestly has to do with relevance, as if we go by pure speed, then motorsports is heading towards a sad place. That's not to say the Formula E cars are slow, they certainly are not, it's just that compared to the other Formula motorsports of the world they are not that fast. But this is by far the most relevant motorsport in the world right now. The world's car manufacturers and consumers are shying away from petrol and fossil fuels and are instead focusing on renewable sources of energy. Biofuel, which is fuel made from plants, and electric power are currently the 2 most promising sources of renewable energy for cars. But they are difficult to implement well. Biofuels are proving to be especially difficult as the processes used to make them aren't perfect and they have many problems as fuel sources. So electric cars are now becoming more and more prevalent in the world, and motorsports are feeling the effects. Formula 1 is now using hybrid powertrains that utilise electric motors and petrol engines. The WEC is now encouraging hybrid powertrain development. But electric powertrains in both of these motorsports are more secondary power sources, and there was still a need for a purely electric racing series. That need was fulfilled in 2014 with the introduction of the ABB FIA Formula E racing series.


History of the sport



This is a short history, as the sport is still fairly new. The sport was the brainchild of then FIA president Jean Todt, the same man who lead Ferrari to 5 consecutive world championship doubles in the early 2000s. Jean was focused on creating an ultra-competitive, low emissions motorsport. He brought this idea up to the FIA, who agreed with him about the need for a more environmentally friendly motorsport. Jean couldn't do it on his own however, as he was the FIA president.... so he had other things to do. But he had brought this idea up to politicians Alejandro Agag and Antonio Tajani over dinner in Paris one fine evening. They supported his proposal to the FIA, and once approved, Agag said he would do most of the work setting up the championship, given his experience in negotiating contracts for marketing, sponsors and TV. And thus, the first ever Formula E race was held on the 13th September 2014, at a Beijing street circuit built specifically for Formula E. That first race saw a lot of overtaking despite being street circuit, which are notoriously difficult to pass on, and ended with the leading pair taking themselves out and one car flying into the barriers. It set the precedent of what was to be expected in Formula E.


Now that the basics are out of the way, I think it's a good idea to go over the rules and regulations of the sport, so that we can understand what makes it so unique.


Rules and regulations



Firstly, all the venues for Formula E are either street circuits or very tight and twisty without many long straights. If you look at the track maps you may think that actually, there are long straights, but you'd be wrong, as they have chicanes in them or are about half as long as a typical straight in the world of motorsports. There is one very good reason for that: charge. As Formula E cars are 100% electric, they can't actually go flat out for a very long time before draining their batteries significantly. So the straights are minimised as much as possible to ensure that the racing is still... racing. The batteries and motors also get very hot when put under excessive strain, so long straights mean that the batteries and motors get unbearably hot for the cars, putting the drivers at a big risk. Besides, the sport honestly doesn't need them as the torque from the motors means that the cars accelerate in such a brutal manner that the drivers can overtake at almost every turn to be honest. However, the extremely tight nature of the tracks means that contact and crashes are frequent.


Moving on, the regulations surrounding the cars unbelievably strict. The cars must use the exact same chassis: the Spark-Dallara STR05e. The chassis (bodywork) is the same for everyone, so no one team can have a superior aerodynamic platform when compared to other teams. Actually, the only 2 things the teams can develop on their own are the motors and the gearbox. They can't develop the battery, as that is also a standardised part. This is to ensure no team can run any longer than others and keep competition close. The battery, which has a maximum capacity of 54kWh and a maximum output of 250kW in qualifying trim and a minimum of 200kW in the race with 250kW available if certain criteria are met. I'll explain that soon, but those are all the technical rules and regulations about Formula E. Now, let's move on to the rather hectic race day format.


Race day format


The race weekend is very hectic. All the sessions happen over 1 or 2 days at most. The sessions consist of 2 practice sessions, a 45 minute opening practice session and then a shorter 30 minute session after that. Following that, the teams move on to qualifying, where they are divided up into 6 groups of 5 or so drivers. The groups are decided based on championship order. So the top 5 go out first, followed by the next 5 and so on. Each group gets 6 minutes to set the fastest time they can then the next group goes. This is a benefit to those who are lower in the championship because of a little something called track evolution. Essentially, the more the drivers drive on the track, the faster it gets because the rubber from the tyres is left on the track. We say that the track gets faster over time, meaning that the later the drivers go for a lap, the quicker they can potentially be. After the group qualification session, the 6 fastest drivers go on to the Super Pole Shootout. Those drivers get 1 lap to set the fastest time possible, and this decides the top 6 grid slots for the race. The driver who scores pole gets 3 extra championship points. In both practice and qualifying, the cars are allowed to run at their maximum 250 kW potential.


The race itself is very interesting. The cars are limited to a 200 kW maximum potential output, but there are ways to increase that. I'll come to that later, for now, let's go over what makes the race itself so interesting.


See, the race isn't distance limited like most motorsports, its actually time limited. The race is 45 minutes long plus 1 final lap. The teams don't know how many laps the race will be, although they do have some guesses. It keeps the teams guessing so that a lot of the strategy is done by the drivers on the fly. The points are awarded to the top ten drivers in the standard FIA system (25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1) with an extra point for the fastest lap of the race. So, the maximum number of points a driver can earn in a race is by achieving pole position, fastest lap and the win, for a total of 29 points. In a championship where the maximum number of points barely eclipses 300 points, earning 29 points in a single race can make or break a title fight. But earning 29 points is not guaranteed, as they have to keep themselves in the lead, with the fastest lap and pole position. Keeping the lead is going to be tricky because there are methods for the drivers to increase their car's maximum power output, and set up overtakes.


The first of those methods is available to all the drivers, and it's called Attack Mode, or Mario Kart mode (or F-Zero mode). The way it works is that they first have to activate it by driving in a designated area on the track that is off the racing line. This may seem like a disadvantage, but by going over the activation zone, the driver gets Mario Kart mode. What this is is a pre-programmed mode for the car that increases the maximum power output by 35 kW of the car for a brief period of time. The duration of attack mode and the amount of times it can be used in a race changes in every race, but one rule is that all attack modes must be activated, but not used up. What that means is that if the driver activates attack mode but doesn't use up all of it before crossing the line, they are not penalised. However, if they have an unused attack mode after you cross the line, you receive a time penalty. When the driver activates attack mode, the car's halo pulses with blue LEDs, showing the fans that they are using attack mode.

The other method of increasing power is called FanBoost, and not all the drivers get to use it. This is a special power boost given to the top 5 driver in the popularity polls. Through multiple social media outlets, fans can vote on their favourite drivers starting 6 days before the race and ending 15 minutes into the race. Then, halfway through the race, the top 5 drivers have FanBoost available to them, which is a 5 second burst of 15 more kW to bump up total power to 215kW. And yes, the drivers can use Attack mode and FanBoost at the same time to bring their cars up to the maximum 250 kW potential of their cars for a brief period of time. The halo pulses purple to show the use of FanBoost. Attack mode and FanBoost are forbidden during a Full Course Yellow (FCY) or a Safety Car period. An FCY is a caution period where no overtaking is allowed due to debris or a crash or something like that, so the drivers slow down to not endanger anyone. And a safety car works like in any other motorsport, just following a BMW i8 with lights.


Those are the rules in the race but there are some other rules I wanna briefly go over. Firstly, the cars are not allowed to make pitstops unless they need to perform repairs. Repairs can include replacing entire sections of bodywork, something that only really happens in endurance racing. In a pitstop, the tyres can't be changed unless there is a puncture. This is because the cars use 1 compound of all-weather tyres provided by Michelin. For the entire race weekend, each car gets only 2 sets of tyres to use, and no, there are no extreme weather tyres. That is one odd quirk in the rules I thought worth mentioning as it takes away a massive way to vary the strategies in each race.


That is really everything we need to know about the races and the technical directives. Now, I think we should go over the evolution of the cars so that we understand how the sport has evolved and what direction it is going in.


Car Evolution



The Gen1 car was kinda dull as far as open-wheeled race cars go. It was a very generic looking race car with a front and rear wing. However, if looked at closely, you could see that the Gen1 car had deceptively simple wings and the wheels were partly covered by the aero pieces on the front wings. This actually made the car produce a lot less dirty air. Dirty air is the term used to describe the very turbulent air that comes off of the aerodynamics of most race cars. A lot of the dirty air is produced by the tyres actually, so covering the tyres can significantly reduce the amount of dirty air being produced. Why is this so important? Well, aerodynamicists do not like dirty air as it is very unpredictable and not at all consistent in any way shape or form. What this means is that a car that goes through dirty air has all it’s aerodynamics ruined as they are designed to work in very clean, predictable airflow. So facing unpredictable and dirty air means that the aerodynamics just can’t work properly, and the following car loses pretty much all its pace in the corners. By simplifying the aero and covering the wheels, a lot of the dirty air has gone, and cars can follow each other more effectively now, and racing itself is much closer and more exciting. That is why the Gen1 cars had very simple aerodynamics, it made the racing closer and more entertaining. They also had rather large diffusers, indicating that the cars relied on underbody aero more than over-body aero. The Gen1 cars were basic, yes, but they showed the potential of the sport and hinted at great things to come.



Gen2 cars completely changed the game, turning Formula E from an electric F1 rip-off into its own unique thing. This is mainly due to the cars, which were completely different, losing a rear wings and nearly losing the front wing as well. The car concept had clearly moved more towards underbody aero, as the diffusers were basically all you could see at the back of the car. The racing was somehow more intense than the previous generation's and the fans loved it. You could look at any group of cars on track and they would almost always be battling for position. It was amazing, but that wasn't all. The cars no longer needed to be swapped in the middle of the race, and they could go faster as well. The battery pack was bigger and lasted longer while outputting more power. Gen2 showed the world how different Formula E was, and forced the world to take it seriously. This is a great generation of Formula E cars, and the future looks even brighter.



In terms of the future, Formula E is planning on introducing a new Gen3 car in the 2022-23 season. The new cars were planned to be introduced in the 2021-22 season, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced all sports to implement cost-saving measures and that meant that many motorsports had to push back new rules, including Formula E. The Gen3 car's looks are not yet known, but the limited technical details that we know of are very promising. Power output is up significantly, from a maximum of 250 kW to a maximum of 350 kW. The cars' regenerative braking ability is becoming unbelievably powerful, with the cars capable of harvesting 600 kW of energy under braking, a significant increase from the Gen2 cars. Gen3 cars also have 1 more new feature: "flash-charging." This is where the batteries are charged much faster than normal, with the chargers planned to output charging rates of up 800 kW. This should add more strategy into Formula E and the races can be made longer as a result, which should attract more fans as they get to see close racing for longer. The future of Formula E is looking very exciting, and the future of motorsport is looking really great.


That is the evolution of Formula E and just because this feels a tad short, I'll give my 2 cents about the sport and what I feel needs to change for the benefit of Formula E.


My 2 cents


Formula E can almost be considered a spec-series. This is because the cars are all the same from an aerodynamic perspective. A huge avenue of performance is just unavailable to all the teams, and that really limits the development of the cars. The teams are severely limited in what they can do to develop the cars, and just developing the powertrain alone doesn't feel like enough. I get it, the electric powertrain is the main selling point of Formula E, but the regulations are so tight, that they push manufacturers away as much as they attract them. It's sort of ironic really, the one thing that differentiates Formula E is also the one thing that makes manufacturers shy away from the sport. And I do understand why there isn't any aerodynamic development, but honestly, I think that this decision, if not addressed soon, will damage Formula E's success in the long run. Because honestly, variety in car design is something that fans are interested in. I know, revolutionary thought. But I do think that Formula E is ignoring a major aspect of what makes motorsports so different and so unique from other forms of sports: the creativity of the designers.


Designers can do just about anything within the rules, and they can sometimes create something so great, that everyone tries to copy it (see Red Bull's Blown Diffuser or Audi's Quattro system). This innovativeness is something completely unique to motorsports and taking it away sort of kills that sport honestly. Formula E's lack of variation in the cars means that the drivers are the ones showing what they are capable of, not how amazing the electric motors are. Frankly, making the cars identical, while it makes for closer racing, it also makes it boring. The truth is that people like to see how teams use their brains to gain a performance advantage over the others, but if you only allow 1 way to gain performance, well, what is the point? All you are doing is showing off how good the drivers are, not the car's technology. What I mean is that Formula E is set up almost like a feeder series for another motorsport, but without a chance to let the drivers go to a different motorsport. It's a little ridiculous honestly, how its set up like a spec-series, but there is no higher rung for drivers to climb to. This sport needs a complete redesign of some of the technical regulations in order to become truly great.


My other big issue is just how much contact is allowed in the sport. The amount of contact is almost NASCAR levels of contact, just not as major. I do feel like there is a lot of contact, but I do understand why. In a street circuit, doing a perfectly clean race is almost impossible, because of how tight the circuit is. But this also means that the drivers get riled up really quickly. I am mostly thinking of Sebastien Buemi's explosion after the 2017 Montreal E-prix, which was completely unprofessional and uncalled for. Yes, he had a bad race and his championship fight against Lucas Di Grassi was dealt a major blow, but this doesn't excuse his behaviour that day. He went up to 3 or 4 drivers and yelled at them for no good reason, accusing them of sabotaging his race or by hitting him or slowing him down in the pit lane despite there being a speed limit in the pit

lane. Buemi's (on the right) rant was unacceptable, and I feel that it is a by-product of the extremely aggressive racing that comes from racing on a street circuit. The amount of contact is a little excessive and I think it affects the drivers more than they let on. Buemi's rant is evidence of this. That is really my other major problem with Formula E. The amount of contact, severe or not, can create some form of rage in the drivers that can blow up too much and create more contact, essentially a negative feedback loop. But now, I guess it is time to wrap up this post.


Conclusion


Look, Formula E is great, I can't deny it. It creates more "real" racing and more competition between everyone. In Formula E, almost everyone competing has a genuine chance at winning the race, they just need to use their skill and brains to do so. Formula E has this level of unpredictability many motorsports can only dream about, which keeps fans hooked and always guessing, never knowing for sure what the outcome will be until the last corner. But I feel like this causes a desperation and an aggressiveness from the drivers that is unhealthy for them and the sport. They hit each other frequently and I am worried that this will create a situation of kill or be killed in the sport. I also think there needs to be more flexibility in the car design, as it's a surefire way to attract more fans to the sport. Formula E represents a bright future for the world of motorsports, but it is a hefty rules overhaul from becoming the legendary motorsport it has the potential to be.

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