EXPLAINED: Why is Formula E strategy so unique?

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EXPLAINED: Why is Formula E strategy so unique?

EXPLAINED: Why is Formula E strategy so unique?

Formula E 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 take a look at strategy and how engineers and drivers work together to win races and titles.

Driving a Formula E car fast is one thing, and that’s hard enough but like every other motorsport there’s much more to it than that. You need a team of experts and engineers’ intense preparation, number crunching and the strategy that can maximise your efforts to outperform the competition.

With 45 minute plus one lap races, no pit stops, a standard Michelin Pilot Sport EV tyre that lasts the whole race and is fit for all conditions, what does strategy in Formula E look like?

Electric racing is a whole new kind of motorsport. There are, of course, some familiarities but there are also some unique factors that had to be developed. From the ground up, Formula E strategy required a fresh way of thinking.


Covering all bases

The work starts long before the cars hit the circuit - back at the team's headquarters in the simulator. Incredibly advanced machinery and software gives the teams and drivers the ability to not just learn the circuits and braking points but also to simulate different car setups for different strategies and energy management scenarios.


READ MORE: Inside Audi's cutting-edge Formula E simulator

The track walk, which usually takes place on the day before race is the teams’ and drivers’ first real opportunity to get out on track and have a look.

It's a great place to really correlate that data from the sim into the real world environments because there are a number of things that can be simulated things like bumps or changes to the surface, which both play a part in the team's prep and strategy for the entire race day.


Qualifying: One shot to get it right

Qualifying is, of course, a crucial part of any race strategy; it dictates where you start the race but there is a little bit more to it than that. It's one of the most challenging aspects of Formula E racing.

One full power opportunity to drive as near to a perfect lap as possible to hopefully talk to a group and then get the chance to do it all again with five others in Super Pole and the qualifying group you're in massively affects how easy it is to do that.

Track evolution is a huge characteristic of street circuits. The idea being that as more cars drive the track, forge and clean the racing line, the grip improves, and with better grip comes faster lap times. But how is strategy used to improve the drivers’ chances of qualifying well?

“Qualifying is always a very tricky one because there is a lot of truck evolution,” says Mercedes-EQ’s Stoffel Vandoorne. “So, it is actually very important to almost be the last car over the line. If you have five cars in front, it means that the track is kind of cleaning up for you - its getting in a better condition, which means a faster lap time at the end as well.”


Timing and when to send the car out on track to qualify, it also comes into the team strategy. The teams that top the standings the season before can use their favourable pit lane position to their advantage.

'Like playing chess at 250km/h'

Race strategy in Formula E is all about energy management, pushing hard getting out in front hitting those energy targets but making sure to save enough to make the end of the race but only just – it’s often described as playing chess at more than 250 kilometres per hour.

Teams dictate their race strategy and targets based on their grid position using complex computer software and will run different race car outcomes, including any ambient temperature changes, and the relative pace and energy efficiency of their competitors.

EXPLAINED: What makes Formula E so unpredictable?

Now that data allows for them to create multiple strategy plans to react to any developments or incidents on track.

That same software is used to start predicting the number of laps likely to be completed in the 45 minutes plus one lap of racing, based on race pace, something that can of course change with any safety cars, yellow and red flags, and the usable energy that's deducted from the cars based on the duration of any caution period - one kilowatt hour for every minute behind the safety car.


'Pick your fights'

“During a race, you really have to pick your fights, because you don't have enough battery to fight everyone that you encounter,” says reigning champion Antonio Felix da Costa (DS TECHEETAH). People might be on different strategies, some guys like to attack at the beginning, and then they'll have it more difficult late into their race.

“Pick your fights properly. For me, it's really that kind of race and it's only over when it's over, if you start at the front, you can really dictate the pace and obviously try go as fast as you can. You can be way more efficient as you're only looking ahead. If we're in the middle of the pack. It's like World War Three! it really hits the fan and it's fighting, defending, attacking, and you consume a lot of energy. So it's not very productive.”

“If you're at the back, what do you do? Do you attack at the beginning but use a lot of energy or do you just sit there and wait and be patient and patient and hope something comes to you? To be honest, patience is not a racing drivers’ virtue, I can tell you that. However, sometimes that is the thing you have to do, especially if you start back there.”

“There’s a very good friend of mine who was in the army,” adds Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler Team Principal Allan McNish. “He said, when you sit down and you make your first strategy, you know for sure, it isn't going to work because one of the other factors that you cannot control comes into play.


“Formula E is exactly the same, we can only control our two cars, we can't control the other 22 cars. So, from that point of view, we have our strategy, but we have to be adaptable and react to what other people are doing all the time.”

“Real-time simulations are run on software during the race, adapting the strategy based on the events from energy use data and driver feedback. This presents itself in the form of radio messages to the drivers, giving them energy targets how much they can use per lap based on the strategy and what's going on around them.

"Sometimes the direction will be to consume more energy to make an overtake or build a gap and other times it will be to save energy earlier so they can race right up until the chequered flag.”

Managing usable energy

There’s a regulated amount of energy that can be used in a race and to maximise their opportunities, teams want to finish the race on 0.0 per cent of that usable energy, which based on any miscalculations or drivers exceeding their energy targets can mean having to coast over the line to avoid a penalty – that can be the difference between victory and defeat.

READ MORE: Energy management: the key to Formula E strategy

“We have a crew of smart engineers - way smarter than me - that help me plan my race, even as a race is already going on,” explains da Costa. “They can see how much energy I have, they can see how much energy the other cars have and we keep an open dialogue and they keep helping me with the right time to attack or not.

“If you guys follow the radios between the drivers and the teams, you'll be hearing me say things like One Tango, Juliet, Echo Zero, Tango Zero, Jackie 640, which even I don't know what it means, but they can encrypt that message back there. Then they have all the information that they need to know if I'm on the correct lap until the end of the race, how much time is left how much energy I have.


“It's not easy to look at the steering wheel and race the other 23 guys – and people say men are not good at multitasking. But I think it's this proves that we are!”

“When I'm in the car, I have beeps in my ears, different tones of beeps, which indicate whether to coast or to use the regen pedal,” adds Mahindra Racing’s Alexander Sims.

“If you react too slowly or quickly to those beeps that can affect your speed in those different areas of the track. We've got an energy bar to keep us updated throughout the lap of how we're doing on energy consumption relative to the expected energy consumption. So, I've got a constant live update.”


An additional factor is ATTACK MODE. That’s the high-power mode activated by driving offline through the loop without losing time, and has to be used multiple times a race. Get it right and it can be a fundamental part of a good strategy. Get it wrong and it could be disastrous.

“In a perfect ATTACK MODE strategy, you're just there with someone behind you, you manage to get into the zone, get the extra power, and you're back out and still ahead. Then you've got four minutes to be able to pull away,” explains McNish.


“You’ve still got track position, you haven't had to use energy to overtake and you haven't lost any time. You're just on a pure gain.

"A bad run through the zone? Well, there's two bad runs. The first one is when you go in there and you miss it, so you don't get all of the loops, and then you've lost the time of going in there without the extra power.

“The second one is where you go in, and you just kind of lose too many positions. On a circuit where you can't overtake that easily, that is positions that are lost. Then, you've got to wait until the person in front does the ATTACK MODE to try and get that place back.”

What’s the best-case scenario?

“Textbook race strategy comes from conserving more energy than the rest sitting behind them and waiting, waiting, waiting,” says McNish. “Then at the end, pouncing when you've got more energy on those last few laps, or using the ATTACK MODE - the old undercut where basically you will try to get the boost and then catch back up and when the other person needs to take it to try to counteract then you get track position because you've been going faster with those extra kilowatts of power while they've been running around trying to defend from you.

“However, if you're in the front, you're always looking in the mirrors because you don't want always to be the first person to take it. So, it is a little bit of a gamble at that time and that's something that the engineers are looking at with the overview of the strategy for the drivers. To some extent, they just have to deliver what the engineers tell them.”


Success in Formula E requires near perfect driving and zero issues for the driver behind the wheel. Without the strategy and the preparation; the constant calculations for the team race wins and championship titles would not be possible. When the grid is this tight and the margins are this small, every single minute detail and micro adjustment can be the difference between victory or defeat.