FEATURED: Everything You Need To Know About Formula E

On 26 February, Formula E is starting its 7th season. Season six first got halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But in August it finished with six races in Berlin in 9 days. During those 9 days we raced on three different layouts of the Berlin Tempelhof Airport street circuit. Antonio Felix da Costa won the championship for the first time, having gained almost double the points (158) of his nearest rival – ex-McLaren F1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne (87).

Written By Lisa Ihde, Edited By Ryan Lack

This season (season 7), will also be the first season in which Formula E will be racing as an official world championship. It will be the first single seater series besides Formula 1 to hold this status.

If you are now wondering what Formula E even is, or how this rather new electric racing series works, this is for you: Everything you need to know about Formula E

The idea of an Eco-friendly racing series was born in Paris in 2011. There, Jean Todt, president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), presented the idea of an electric single-seater racing championship to the politicians Alejandro Agag and Antonio Tajani, and Teo Teocoli, an Italian actor.

Alejandro Agag supported the idea and told Jean Todt that he would take on the task of organizing the series, as he had prior experience with contract negotiations for sponsorships, TV stations and marketing.

There is one main difference between Formula E and many other racing series. Formula E does not need the people to come to the race tracks, the race track comes to the people. By hosting the series on street circuits in some of the biggest cities in the world, two things can be accomplished:

With racing happening right in front of the citizens’ windows, they can become fans from their balconies. Additionally, one of the main goals of Formula E is to develop ideas that can be used in road cars. By racing in the city centers Formula E is showing the newest technologies in the environment where they will be used.

With this approach Formula E has had a lot of ‘firsts’ on the calendar. It was the first racing series to drive in the center of New York in the 2016-17 season. And the 2018 Zurich ePrix was the first racing event held in Switzerland since 1954 – when all motorsport was banned as part of the fallout of the tragic 1955 LeMans disaster.

Of course, there never have been serious approaches to an electric racing car before. Designing the first Formula E car was a collaboration by many partners and companies. The Gen 1 Formula E car, formally called Spark-Renault SRT_01E, had a chassis built by Dallara. The battery was built by Williams, while Hewland equipped the gearbox. For the first season, McLaren built an electric motor. But from season 2 onward every manufacturer could build their own electric motor, inverter, gearbox, and cooling system.

With its all-weather tires provided by Michelin, the car had a power of 190 kW or 250 horsepower. The total top speed was 225 km/h.

The most common reason why people are unsure about buying an electric vehicle is range anxiety. The Gen 1 car could not tackle this fear. With its small battery capacity, the drivers had to take a pit stop in the middle of the race and switch into another car.

This was a thing of the past though, once the Gen 2 car was introduced in season 5. The Spark SRT05e had a larger battery and higher power output, raising the top speed to 280 km/h. No more mid-race car swaps were necessary now, and the cars were also equipped with the halo. 

For season 9 of Formula E, taking place in 2022-2023, the Gen 3 car is going to be introduced. Once again the power output of the battery will rise, now giving the drivers 350 kW of energy in qualifying. This equates to about 469 horsepower, placing the car between the power levels of Formula 3 and Formula 2.

While the battery will be slimmed down from 284 kg to 180 kg in the Gen 3 car, this also comes with a small loss of capacity.

After the Gen 2 battery eliminated the mid-race car swaps, drivers only come into the pits for car repairs or drive through penalties. This took away the gamble of pit stops for now, but a solution has been found:

With the new Gen 3 car, pit stops could become a thing again. 30-second recharging pit stops would be ideal to show off the huge increase of rapid charging technology in the past years. It could look like Formula 1’s refuelling. Instead of a fuel hose, the car will be connected with a huge charging cable, pumping up to 600kW into the battery.

This technology has not been used with road cars yet, and seeing it in racing is depending on the safety aspects that need to be considered. Most importantly the high electric power that mechanics and drivers will be close to, and also the heat this power generates.

In the first few seasons, many people did not take it seriously. Not just because of the mid-race car changes, but also because they deemed the quality of the drivers as low. People were viewing the series as the ‘retirement home of Formula 1’, full of drivers who never had much success in the pinnacle of motorsports.

To some extent, those claims were true. In the very first Formula E season, almost half of the 36 drivers that started an ePrix, have also started a Formula 1 Grand Prix. It was only after six years, that Formula E had a champion who had not raced in Formula 1 before; Portuguese Antônio Félix da Costa.

In the past years, Formula E got a greater variety of drivers though. More drivers stopped joining Formula E after a ‘failed’ Formula 1 career, but rather entered the series coming from feeder series. More recent examples for this are Sérgio Sette Camara, Nyck de Vries, or Mitch Evans.

Adding to this, winning the Formula E championship adds 30 points to a driver’s super license. The only series worth more points than that are the Formula 2 and IndyCar championships. Winning these guarantees the winner the 40 points necessary to apply for a super license, and start a Formula 1 Grand Prix.

After being ridiculed as a ‘retirement home’ for ex-Formula 1 drivers, Formula E could turn its image around soon. Turning into a stepping stone towards the pinnacle of motorsports. 

Thai driver Alex Albon, who started for Toro Rosso and Red Bull Racing in the past two Formula 1 seasons, had originally signed a contract in Formula E.

Albon was not the first Formula E driver to be offered the drive alongside Russian Daniil Kvyat. Both ex Toro Rosso drivers and Formula E champions Sébastien Buemi and Jean-Éric Vergne also got the call to move back to Formula 1 but they both did not accept.

Over the course of just six seasons Formula E has established itself as a series providing exciting and high-quality racing. This is not only attracting many manufacturers, but also a high-quality field of drivers from all over the world. Some are making their first steps out of the feeder series. Meanwhile others already have a lot of experience and championships in other series under their belt. 

The next season will feature a great range of successful drivers from all kinds of series. Nick Cassidy and André Lotterer both were successful in Japan, winning Super Formula and Super GT championships. René Rast and Pascal Wehrlein share a total of four DTM championships between them, now ready for single-seater racing again. Those are just a few examples highlighting the quality of the field.

Despite the many similarities to other single-seater series, in Formula E the whole ‘race weekend’ takes place on one day. The teams and drivers have some time to make themselves familiar with the track. One 30-minutes and one 45-minute practice session will help them to prepare for qualifying.

Qualifying consists of five small sessions and takes about an hour. First, the drivers get sorted into four groups of six, based on their current championship results. The top six drivers go out first, and the last six drivers in the championship go out last. Each of those groups has six minutes to set a fast lap time. This works as a small handicap for the better drivers due to the track usually getting faster over the course of a session.

After everyone has set a time, the lower 18 spots on the grid are set. The six fastest drivers go out again in the Super Pole. Everyone has one lap to set a fast time, which then decides the starting order for the top six.

Later in the afternoon, it is time for the lights to go green. It takes 45 minutes + 1 lap until the chequered flag is waved.

While safety cars or full course yellows (=similar to a Virtual Safety Car in Formula 1) used to be a big help with saving energy, this is now gone. For every minute spent under a safety car or full course yellow 1kW of energy gets deducted from the usable energy a driver has. This forces the drivers to focus more on saving their energy.

While the energy deduction is mixing up strategies already, there are two other systems in place to make the racing more exciting.

Ever since the very first race, there has been the FanBoost. Six days before every Formula E event the fans can vote for their favorite driver. Voting closes 15 minutes after we go green. The 5 drivers with the most votes get a five-second power boost they can use during the second half of the race, similar to a push-to-pass system.

A power boost available to all the drivers is Attack Mode. Attack mode is activated by driving over the ‘Activation zone’, and then gives the drivers an extra 25kW of power. Activating Attack Mode can make a driver lose time to their opponents, due to the Activation zone not being on the racing line. This lost time can be gained back though, depending on how the drivers can use their extra energy.

The number of times Attack Mode has to be used during a race, and the duration of each Attack Mode is only revealed shortly before the start of the race. By doing this Formula E wants to avoid teams already including the Attack Mode into their strategies.

Once the drivers cross the finish line, points are awarded following the FIA 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 system, just as it is used in Formula 1. One bonus point is awarded for the driver who got the fastest lap and 3 extra points are given to the driver on pole position. The fastest driver in the group stage of qualifying is given an extra point too. So a single driver can win 30 points during one race day.

If this made you interested in the series, set your alarms! The first race weekend of the season is a doubleheader in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia. With the lights going green on the 26 and 27 of February. We will start season 7 in style with the Saudi Arabia E-prix’s being Formula E’s first night race. I hope to see you all over there when we go green again!

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