This past weekend, against a backdrop of lower Manhattan, Formula E held its season-ending double-header. After 13 races across the globe, the DS Techeetah team was triumphant, scoring more points than any of its rivals to take the team championship. And Jean-Eric Vergne, one of DS Techeetah’s two drivers, beat out his rivals—and the heat—to become the series’ first two-time driver’s champion.
And when the checkered flag waved on Sunday afternoon, it also marked an additional reason for celebration: Formula E officially completed its season.
The series launched back in 2014, and it’s fair to say it was greeted with heavy skepticism across the racing community. For an industry meant to be on the leading edge of automotive technology, motorsport can often succumb to conservatism. Formula E definitely represented something new and . But different isn’t a synonym for bad, and I’d like to think we’re pretty open-minded here at Ars, especially when it comes to electric vehicles.
We certainly got on the Formula E bandwagon early. When the series made its first visit to the US in 2015, we went to Miami to check it out. The Venturi team even wore our logo on its cars at the London round. And ever since it’s been a thing, we’ve made it to each of the races held in Brooklyn (the first happened in 2017).
Having followed the series closely for a few years, then, 2019 feels like the right time to zoom out and look at the overall state of this budding e-racing enterprise. Like any race series, Formula E has had to balance a number of competing demands—being a sporting competition, being entertainment, being an R&D test bed, and being a place for marketing and outreach—through its existence. Different series will prioritize each of those according to its own needs, but you’d be hard-pressed to find them completely absent regardless of the discipline. So to grade Formula E today, look to those four aspects first.
This might be the easiest category to evaluate as the statistics make it clear. Over the course of 13 races this season, nine different drivers scored a pole position in qualifying, and nine different drivers and eight different teams won races. Neither the driver’s nor team championships were settled until the final race in New York, even if Vergne and DS Techeetah came to America as title favorites.
So to say the competition has been fierce is an understatement, particularly when you consider the depth of talent involved. Ignore anyone who tells you the grid is made up of F1 rejects—unlike that series no one is buying their ride here. In fact, F1’s lack of competition has undoubtedly helped Formula E. Only three F1 teams have won a race since 2014, so top-level drivers who don’t want to spend their weekends fighting for seventh place have abandoned that in favor of Formula E (as well as the World Endurance Championship and IndyCar, although neither of those series offers the same opportunity to race for manufacturer work teams).
Formula E has also made sure that its drivers have to work for a living (in a competition sense). Driving in Formula E simply presents a unique challenge to any racer. The cars are not the fastest single-seaters—far from it in fact—but the Gen2 car is still not the easiest car in the world to make go fast, even if by all accounts it’s easier to drive than the one that preceded it. There’s a refreshing lack of telemetry available to the engineers in the pit, and each driver has to manage their energy consumption during a race on top of all the usual worries that come around a track.
Formula E’s once infamous mid-race car swap is a thing of the past now thanks to a bigger (54kWh) battery, but these vehicles are still about 30 percent short of having enough energy to race flat-out the entire time. “That means that we’ve got to think very cleverly about how we use our energy on boosting and acceleration—which how we use it is basically flat out—and how you recover energy in the in the braking and the costing phases,” explained Allan McNish, two-times Le Mans winner and team principal for the Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler team.
On top of that, the driver has to constantly manage how much energy his car regenerates under braking. “Regen is all part of the braking system,” said Roger Griffiths, team principal with BMW i Andretti Motorsport. “We have the hydraulic mechanical brakes, like on your regular road car, and then we have the electric motor that we can use to slow the car down. And those two need to work hand in hand and make sure that we get the right balance, because if you have too much rear brake bias, you’re going to lock the rear wheels. It’s still down to the drivers to control the balance.”
If a Formula E car’s battery is full, there’s also nowhere to store the extra charge. So for the first few laps of each race, it’s a constant juggling act to increase the amount of regen as appropriate. Later in the race as the battery heats up, it becomes less happy about accepting more charge, and the real danger becomes reaching a battery temperature of 72C. At that point, the car and battery goes into safe mode, effectively ending the driver’s race.
If all that sounds a little complicated, remember, these drivers are Imagine you’re trying to manage all those unique complicating factors at the same time as racing wheel to wheel on narrow, concrete-lined tracks alongside 21 other cars.
Of the four aspects of any major racing series, this is the one where Formula E has come along the furthest since its early days of season 1. When Formula E held its first race in Beijing in September 2014, it was what’s known as a spec series. All 10 teams used completely identical Spark-Renault SRT_01 racing cars: the same electric motors, control software, and batteries. That’s changed over the years as the sport’s organizers opened up the technical regulations.
Even with the introduction of the Gen2 car at the beginning of season 5, everyone still uses identical Spark SRT05e chassis to prevent teams from spending money on aerodynamics or race suspension, neither of which have any road relevance. Similarly, everyone uses the same 54kWh battery pack (from McLaren Applied Technologies) to prevent runaway spending. But teams are allowed to develop their own motor (which has to drive the rear wheels), inverter, transmission, and—perhaps most importantly—all the control software.
“Those are the areas where we put a lot of investment in. During the season, you cannot adjust any of the hardware. So the physical hardware—that sealed and that’s it, and you get two sets for the whole year,” McNish said. “And if you need a third set, you get a huge penalty. And then through the season, what we do is we develop the software. And that is the learning that’s just constantly ongoing. And it’s done the simulator back in at the factory, then it’s transferred onto the test track. [Teams are allowed 15 test days a year] And then it gets onto the racecar.”
As the rules opened up to allow this kind of development, the result was an influx of automotive OEMs. Jaguar was the first to commit (other than Renault), but since then there have been entries from Audi, BMW, DS (a Peugeot-Citroen brand), Nio, and Nissan (replacing Renault), plus the engineering companies Mahindra and Venturi. Faraday Future was also a presence in the series for a time. And starting with next year, both Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are joining the fun.
Now, I won’t deny that the low costs compared to F1 or sports car racing definitely helps make Formula E attractive to manufacturers. You’d struggle to spend a tenth of a competitive F1 budget in this electric series, but the R&D is far more relevant to future road car technology.