Behind the scenes at Formula E testing

INSIGHT: Formula E pre-season testing

UK|11 Jul 14


The sign on the pit entrance was clear – ‘Today’s event is noise limited to 98dBA’.

But there would be no need to call the noise police – motorsport’s quiet revolution was in town.

For four days over two consecutive weeks, the 10 Formula E teams put their new cars to the test and the gates were opened for the public to come in and witness the nascent steps of the first all-electric single-seater championship.

The weather gods played along too, and while the wind meant there was an occasional nip in the air, there was only a brief period at the end of day two when it was a brolly rather than sun block the crowd required.

New faces

The only previous time the teams had run their cars on track – the shakedown in June – most were still in plain carbonfibre black, and only a small percentage of the drivers had officially been confirmed.

But with the series global launch taking place at the beginning of the week ahead of the first test, a flurry of driver announcements were made, and when the cars took their place in the Roundhouse theatre, all bar the new Trulli team – which had taken over the Drayson entry – had their liveries on display.

Test Sign

This meant it was a much more colourful sight when the cars hit the track on the morning of Thursday July 3. Up and down the pitlane many drivers were having their first test of an electric racing car, while Mike Conway had the honour of completing the first-ever Formula E lap for Dragon Racing, the US-based team having missed the private shakedown.

In the time between the shakedown and the test, the second batch of Spark-Renaults had arrived, and that meant half of the chassis were conducting their very first installation runs in the public eye. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a few teething troubles, which saw a number of red flags as the session was halted and the stricken cars recovered.

“This is why we go testing,” became the mantra for the day.

There were also a couple of familiar faces in paddock as double IndyCar champ Gil de Ferran and ex-F1 racer Christian Danner dug out their crash helmet for a taste of the future.

De Ferran had a run out for Andretti Autosport, while DHL ambassador Danner drove the Formula E test car. Both were visibly pushing, locking brakes at the Melbourne Hairpin and getting the rear out as the power kicked in.

“Racing cars cannot be driven at slow speeds,” Danner explained, “they have to be driven at proper speeds and proper speeds means that you lock a wheel or you get a little sideways, that's normal, that's how it should be otherwise you don't feel the car.”

With the sessions being interrupted, there were plenty of opportunities for a tea break. But with electrical power at a premium, Mahindra driver – and tea lover - Karun Chandhok was told he couldn’t plug in the kettle! Luckily there’s a great bon homie among the teams and the Venturi boys offered the Indian a spare socket so he could make a brew.

Test Tea

The teams also concentrated on understanding how using the various power modes affected the life of the battery and the performance of the car rather than setting outright times, but for the record Buemi set the fastest time of the day.

However, there was still one final treat in store for the fans who stayed around to the end as seven of the cars made their way around to the grid for the first-ever Formula E standing start. Jaime Alguersuari sprinted to the front of the queue to bag an unofficial pole, but it was Chandhok who made the best start, slicing through the row ahead of him on the run down to Redgate.

Chicanery

Testing continued to be a start/stop affair on the second day, and although some of this was due to mechanical problems, a significant amount of running time was lost to the after effects of contact with the tyre chicane.

The fast flowing corners of Donington, and the billiard table-smooth track surface, means the circuit bears little resemblance to the tight and twisty, and almost certainly bumpy, street venues the series will visit.

To create something slightly representative of the tracks on the calendar, a tight tyre chicane was erected on the exit of Old Hairpin. While it may have simulated threading the car through a first-gear series of corners, it also took a bit of a walloping at times, and following one last hefty contact the decision was made to remove it all together.

Instantly the lap times tumbled by more than four seconds, and when the session finally came to a conclusion it was ABT’s Lucas di Grassi who was fastest.

Feel the power tailored

Just five days after the first official test finished the cars, and fans, were back for Donington for another run-out. Following the lessons learned the first time out, the cars ran much more reliably, but unfortunately the increased running meant more charging and this tipped the circuit’s power supply over the edge.

A number of electrical blackouts meant the cars were occasionally literally powerless to leave the pits, but there’s a great spirit among the Formula E teams and while there was frustration there was an acceptance that it was just one of those things and they made the best of it.

There was one unfortunate casualty of the need to take the load off leccy supply, and the music soundtrack that had underscored the high-pitched whirr of the cars had to be switched off. It had generally gone down well among the fans in the grandstand, many of whom were used to the ear-splitting noise traditional internal-combustion engine race cars produce and were still getting used to being able to have conversations while the cars blasted by!

Having had a pretty much trouble-free day, Buemi was once again the fastest.

Mr Blue Sky

Most people were expecting rain for the final day of testing, so the gorgeous clear blue skies of Thursday morning were a very pleasant surprise – although the Pit Stop shop will surely be ruing not bulk buying some factor 30…

Test Queue

In the pitlane there was a small amount of commotion as a camera crew jockeyed to get a nice shot of the car. And then from the garage emerged some genuine British TV royalty – Angela Rippon – kitted out in a race suit too. The One Show presenter was in Donington filming a piece for the prime time BBC1 show. After interviewing Virgin team principal Alex Tai, Rippon had a long chat with Trulli’s Michela Cerruti. The piece will be aired on Friday (July 11) at 7pm – or if you’re reading this after that, look for it on the BBC iPlayer (UK residents only).

Some overnight tweaks to the power distribution meant Donington was no longer doing an impression of Britain during the winter of discontent, and the cars hit the track more frequently and for longer than on any of the three previous test days, which was welcome news as more fans had turned than before too.

With teams and drivers now able to think about setting times rather than solely concentrating on understanding the dynamics of the car, by the end of the morning session di Grassi had set a new standard, recording a 1m31.2s lap.

During the final hour most of the drivers had a crack at lowering their times and for the third time in four test days it was Buemi who set the standard, establishing a new unofficial Formula E lap record at Donington of 1m31.083s.