The FIA Formula E Championship has been divisive since its very inception, splitting opinions across the racing world and beyond… but that’s one of the reasons I love it. Being so called ‘disruptive’ is what it’s all about if you want to shake up an industry and kickstart a new era.
Lots of motor racing ‘traditionalists' have taken time to get to grips with things like Fan Boost, the unique Formula E sound, the event’s accompanying music and even the concept of racing predominantly on temporary street circuits, some admittedly still haven’t. But ultimately any racing series will be judged on the quality of the racing and those competing in it.
The driver line-up over the three seasons so far has generally been of a high standard across the board and those that have fully committed to Formula E are the ones reaping the benefits and rewards today. It’s not an easy championship to turn up in out of the blue and be successful and that’s how it should be.
As for the racing, I genuinely can’t think of another series on four wheels with as much drama, excitement and unpredictability. The amount of times we’ve headed into the final lap of race, still not knowing who will come out on top, is surely testament to that? In any live sporting event, that’s got to be the ultimate grand finale hasn’t it?
So why is it this way?
Well, in the beginning all the cars were identical, a one-make championship, so the competitive differences were down to the teams’ organisational, strategic and mechanical set-up skills, as well as those of the drivers. The teams who learnt most quickly about the nuances of using the common technology in the most efficient manner and who made fewest mistakes came out on top.
Then, that learning was used by many to come up with their own technical solutions for Season 2 and 3 and the race continued, only now it’s about focussing on each unique powertrain in secret, trying to find advantages over the competition. Some of the cars are very different in their design, yet the racing remains close. So why?
The qualifying format, with drivers being randomly selected in groups which go out at different times can easily shake up the grid for starters and that in itself can make for an interesting ePrix. But the very nature of running on the short, tight, twisty street circuits we use in Formula E, combined with everyone still using the same standard Williams Advanced Engineering battery means it’s difficult to pull away and disappear into the distance. Sebastien Buemi may be dominating this championship, but he’s not lapping the entire field in the process and is certainly beatable. Everyone has the same amount of energy at their disposal to go the same number of laps, so the race becomes about efficiency, not just raw pace.
Again, some racing ‘traditionalists’ might argue that’s not what they want to see, prefering cars going at the absolute limit for every single lap. We’ve had the same occasional arguments in Formula One across various eras of fuel or tyre management based regulations, but surely it’s excitement we want, in whatever format that can be delivered?
The thing is, is that Formula E isn’t trying to simply please the ‘traditionalists’, but create a spectacle that’s relevant to the future of the automotive world and those that will be consumers within it. When we’re all driving electric cars on our roads, efficiency will be the name of the game. In fact, having been lucky enough to drive a number of electric cars for some time now, I can tell you it changes the way you even think about driving and about how you can be smarter with the steering and pedal inputs to improve your efficiency. Just like in a Formula E car, a little display on the dashboard can tell you how much energy you’re using, or regenerating, at any given time and it becomes a challenge.
So if the drivers and teams are managing energy usage throughout a race, how does one car manage to get past another and keep things exciting?
The nature of electric racing means drivers have to be clever about when they’re flat out and when they’re saving energy and the performance differentials that creates between different cars at different times in a race and even at different points around a lap, fosters opportunities to attack.
I will admit now to you all, that when I stood beside the grid in Beijing, ahead of the very first FIA Formula E race, watching the cars line up for the race start, I still wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Would cars with the same performance levels, on a narrow track with walls in close proximity either side, mean dull, processional racing?
It proved not to be the case. Overtaking in any street race comes at a premium, but because it does, when it happens it has to be worked hard for, crafted, set up a few corners in advance and therefore should be celebrated more as a result. It also means drivers can get frustrated, even desperate, and who doesn’t like a late lunge up the inside on the final lap? As well as the brilliant, breathtaking overtake, it can generate as many knife-edge mistakes and misjudgements, but all of them are entertaining one way or the other.
The dynamic behaviour of a Formula E car changes all the time throughout a race with the constant adjustments being made from the cockpit, to power and regenerative braking levels and of course with the minute differences that occur between the first and second chassis. So if a driver’s going for a late lunge on the brakes into a slow/medium corner, he might have to think about changing regen settings before he does so. Doing so has a significant effect on the car’s brake balance, or the amount of braking being done by the front and rear axles respectively when the pedal’s pressed and that can really upset the car’s stability when the driver needs it most of all. So that too can be adjusted manually to compensate.
Changing power level settings, perhaps ramping up for the overtake, then backing off to save energy once in front is something else to contend with as a driver, whilst all the time looking in the mirrors and trying to keep the car under control and out of the perilously close walls. All this on Michelin’s hard, all-weather tyres which deliberately offer only a fraction of the grip of a ‘traditional’ full racing slick and across the lumps and bumps, manhole covers and painted lines that your road car barely even notices, but that in a single seater racing car represent serious and unpredictable challenges.
While the guy behind contends with all this in looking for the difficult overtake, the lead car has the same to do from the front and positioning himself to fend off the move. It might seem easy to simply turn up the power to defend, that’s not always an option. Energy levels have to be managed very carefully, so when one car’s eeking out the last few laps of a stint and the chasing pack have saved a little more in the early laps, that’s when the substantial speed delta in different power modes can really come into play.
Recent races, particularly Lucas di Grassi’s game-changing win in Mexico, have shown how important a factor track position is. Teams have changed their approach to race strategy as a result and now, if a fast first stint and early stop might bring a driver out into clear air on the racetrack and allow him to move up the order when the rest of the field pits, the feeling is it might be worth the gamble of trying to hold off the inevitable high-powered attacks from behind as the race draws to a close and his energy levels have to be delicately managed.
So many different variables create opportunities in Formula E and with such a competitive bunch of drivers taking part, we constantly see people willing to have a go at taking advantage of them. Whether you see yourself as a ‘traditionalist’, an innovative ‘early adopter’, or somewhere in between, if you’re into exciting, close-quarters motor racing, it’s difficult to argue that Formula E doesn’t provide that.