- FAN ZONE
07 Jun 21
FE Explained is taking a deeper look at the fundamentals of Formula E and answering your questions about what makes the championship so unique. In this one, we're looking at what makes the championship so notoriously unpredictable.
If there's one word that epitomises the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship, it's unpredictability. So, what is it that makes this electric street racing series so difficult to predict, with six different race winners so far in Season 7 - one of the most competitive Formula E campaigns yet?
Is it the drivers? The cars? The format? Or is it the circuits we race on? Let's take a look.
Formula E's Gen2 cars are the second interation of all-electric open-wheelers to hit the track in the series, and they're all built and run to a strict set of regulations determining what teams can do to them.
The idea is levelling the playing field, and keeping the level of competition as tight as it possibly can be - while offering scope for brilliant engineering to make the difference. The chassis, battery, aerodynamics, tyres and the fundamentals are all the same across the board, limiting development costs and opening the doors for more teams to enter the championship and compete for silverware.
Where engineers, teams and manufacturers can make the difference is in the all-important powertrain and software, as well as the car's rear suspension and its setup.
The power output of each car is electronically limited to 200kW in race conditions so it's all about how that 270-or-so brake horsepower is delivered and how efficiently it's delivered - maximising the trade-off between all-out pace and usable energy.
"Basically, we can set up our dampers, the car ride height, camber, toe, a bit of geometry on the rear springs, torsion bars and a lot on the software but in the grand scheme of things is not a lot," says Porsche's Andre Lotterer. "We have a bit of aerodynamics that we can also do with the front flap. But yeah, that's that's pretty much it.
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"It's still a lot of options to do with combination, especially on the software side, there's so much we can do, how the car brakes how you want to influence the motor at any given point in the corner. So it's a very, very good challenge where you can combine many things to optimise the performance of your car."
Formula E cars are notoriously difficult to drive and require some pretty extreme skill to be able to race them. Fortunately, skill is not something that the Formula E grid is short of. There are former Formula 1 drivers, Le Mans winners, FIA World Endurance champions; GT, DTM, Super Formula, Formula 2 winners and champions. The list could go on. It really is the most competitive driver line-up in motorsport.
"When the cars are very similar, and the drivers are so competitive, then you find a grid that is very compressed," says Mercedes-EQ's Nyck de Vries. "As soon as you put a foot wrong on the day, then you know that immediately compromises the result and performance.
"Whereas perhaps in other championships, there is a little bit more spread across the grid, so even if you might not extract the maximum out of the package on that day, you're still there or thereabouts whereas in Formula E you know that can immediately put you off."
With that much talent and experience on the grid alongside the equally competitive cars, it takes a lot for a driver to come out on top, and not very much for it all to go wrong. If a driver messes up, it's not like there's 10-second gap on the next driver. The driver behind is right there to capitalise, and so is the driver after that and the next one and the next one.
This is something that's helped by the design of the car itself. The wings and bodywork don't produce excessive downforce and the electric powertrain doesn't pump out the hot heavy exhaust gases of the combustion engine. As a result, the car behind isn't driving into a stream of dirty turbulent air that would reduce aerodynamic grip and overheat the tires.
This means Formula E cars can race each other nose to tail. In fact, there's a purpose built diffuser that helps spread airflow away from the rear of the car to allow for even closer racing.
"We can run very close to one another, almost on the gearbox and that allows for very close racing and a lot of overtaking," says Jaguar Racing's Mitch Evans.
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"Because they're so narrow, we can always easily race alongside each other even in som places where there's only space for one or two cars. Our cars are also relatively strong, so we can also touch a little bit and still stay in the race," adds Lotterer.
The city street circuits Formula E races on as a further catalyst to unpredictability. Narrow city streets circuits where mistakes go severely punished, there's next to no runoff area changes in the surface changes in the level of grip; and where track limits are the difference between success and the end of your race.
"The racing probably is the closest we can find I think it's even closer than touring car racing, because we are the heart of the series in between the walls or the guardrails," adds Lotterer. "We have to muscle our way through if we want to overtake.
"We bring the races to the new cities that have never had the race there and it's not something like Monaco where the asphalt is been redone, especially for the race, we quite often go to very bumpy tracks a little bit dirty surfaces. So, it makes it really difficult for us to master it."
"Racing between the wall, we're always, playing with fire playing with that risk and reward throughout the whole day - qualifying and the race. This makes for a really, really challenging championship," says Evans.
"There is no margin for error as soon as you put a foot wrong and it only needs to be you know, a couple of centimetres it can it can you know result in a DNF or a crash," adds de Vries. "Look at what happened to us in Rome race one. On a normal track, that would have never happened. It was just the wrong time wrong place. That is the unpredictability of or Formula E."
The one-day race format also plays a role in the unpredictability keeps the racing competitive, and allows for drivers across the grid to have a chance at glory. Qualifying's group format throws things up in the air, too. The top six in the championship run first, with the track almost always evolving, getting cleaner and faster as the session progresses. Those further down the Drivers' table have a chance to mix it as a result.
It can also mean weather becomes an ever-more powerful variable, as we saw in Valencia with some drivers benefiting from a drying track and others struggling as the rain fell.
All of this combines to bring the championship to life, and anything can happen.
"We all have the same amount of energy at the end of the day," says Lotterer. "We almost end up somehow together very close at the last lap to cross the line. But sometimes someone runs out of energy because he didn't have the right strategy. So, there's always some drama going on. In Mexico, Pascal (Wehrlein) was leading the race up until the last metre, and he ran out of energy and Lucas (di Grassi) won."
"I still haven't got it," says de Vries. "It's so dynamic and it's so you know, different all the time if you're in Group 1 in qualifying and you know there is a significant track evolution and you're at the back of the grid. You need to accept that you're fighting for one or two points, but you need to take them."
"Imagine being in my shoes in the car," says Evans. "I've got 24 other guys trying to beat me. I'm trying to pass them they're trying to pass me race on these really, really tricky tracks that are asking for mistakes. I'm trying to manage my energy and trying to stay off the walls, trying to beat every other guys. I've got my engineer speaking to me basically every every lap. It's a recipe for a brain explosion, but it's really rewarding when you get it right."