A year from now, September 2014, sees the much anticipated launch of the inaugural FIA Formula E Championship. For many reasons it’s an exciting prospect, groundbreaking even and the Formula One world, along with racing fans in general, are keeping a very keen eye on proceedings.
Of course it’s all too easy to jump on the band wagon and champion the project simply because of its ‘green’ credentials, because it’s the ‘right thing to do’, or because it’s making headlines right now, but just how good a prospect is it?
Well, the Formula One world aren’t just sitting back and keeping an eye on things, some of the major players have jumped at the chance to get onboard from the very beginning and that in itself tells you something.
Two of the sport’s best known and most successful teams have signed up as technical partners and not just in terms of title either. McLaren, through their McLaren Electronic Systems branch, are developing and producing the electric motors to propel the new racers around the city centre circuits on their ten race calendar. They’ll also supply all onboard electronics for the cars.
Alongside them Williams, through their Advanced Engineering company, are producing the 200kw batteries which will power McLaren’s motors and give the single seaters speeds of up 225kph (limited by the FIA) and 0-100kph times of around 3 seconds.
As well as these two historic giants of Formula One, Renault are also part of the technical group and will oversee the integration of the various systems on the car, named the Spark-Renault SRT_01E. Michelin will produce a specification tyre for the championship and Tag Heuer will provide all event timing.
It’s not hard to see from the impressive list of partners so far, not to mention the fact that the world motorsport governing body, the FIA, has sanctioned the series, that there’s a little more to it than just a pie in the sky idea about making motor racing ‘green’. So who stands to gain what?
The project has some serious financial backing, something any new venture of this nature needs, but the individuals behind Formula E Holdings don’t stand to make fortunes in their first couple of years, clearly the initial outlay’s substantial for something on this scale. Everything’s new and needs developing from scratch, it’s not like they can just go and buy the technical elements off the shelf and in truth that’s the last thing they want to do with this anyway. Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E Holdings, along with his team, are in this for the long term and it’s their long term goals that are perhaps most exciting for all concerned.
They see the championship as, not only an exciting city centre spectacle on a global stage, but as a catalyst for the development, expansion and promotion of electric, emission free vehicles (EV’s). By showcasing electric cars in a serious racing environment, it demonstrates to the public just how far the technology’s already come, but also by placing it into a competitive environment, accelerates that development far quicker than even the biggest motor manufacturers are able to do. We all know the power that F1 has in terms of R & D and it’s hoped the Formula E teams and technical partners will help to push battery and motor technology along in the same way, something the EV industry desperately needs to happen to ensure the long term success of environmentally friendly cars.
Over the past year some of the world’s best known cities have been clambering over each other to secure a position on the inaugural calendar, something we’re seeing happening the other way round at the moment in F1.
We all know Bernie Ecclestone would love to see a Grand Prix around the streets of London or LA, but has for many years failed in any attempts to make it happen. Various logistical, technical and environmental issues have held such events back, but by far the biggest stumbling block and the reason we’re seeing some of F1′s current host nations even trying to offload their current contracts, is the outrageous cost.
Not only is it a world cheaper than F1 as a host city to secure an event at the moment, with the series still in its infancy, but the potential benefits are substantial.
Firstly, there is of course on one level the spectacle of seeing real racing cars speed through some of the world’s most famous cities, past globally recognisable landmarks and on the doorstep of millions of people. Think about the glamour of F1 street racing in Monaco or Singapore, but with cars designed specifically for those type of tracks and tracks laid out specifically for that type of car. There’s obvious revenue to be made off the back of having the expected high numbers of people descending on each city for events and being a city centre, there’s already infrastructure in place to deal with such numbers. There’s no doubt that the best F1 races are close to big cities to enable fans and teams to utilise the facilities close by for events, hospitality or just social interaction away from the track.
On another level, the governments of these cities are seen to be promoting environmentally friendly initiatives and taking the lead with emission free motoring in their towns. Cities are after all where this type of car are most needed and indeed best suited. Investment in electric vehicle charging networks or schemes to increase electric car sales are already taking shape off the back of the host city announcements, so the industry and its customers benefit too.
It’s motor racing that’s actually helping to clear the cities of pollution and because these electric cars are ‘cool’, fast cars, it’s helping to change the perceived image of this type of vehicle from the slow and boring descendant of the milk float. What better way to market an event and product?
The McLaren’s, Williams’ and Renault’s of this world, along with the teams competing, stand to steal a march over everyone else in an area that surely will become inevitably commonplace over time. In Formula One, we’re already seeing far greater integration of electrical power with the regulation changes for 2014 and it’s not too hard to look further down the line to a time where electrical energy overtakes the combustion engine as the primary propulsion of motor racing’s highest echelons.
Not only are these teams and companies as a whole gaining valuable knowledge and understanding in the field, but so too are their staff.
If motor racing one day heads into a new ‘green’ era (something you could say is happening with Formula E), who has any experience of the technology? Mechanics, engineers, designers and indeed drivers have all been brought up on a diet of big, loud, gas guzzling race cars and it’s that previous experience that makes them experts and the best at what they do. So it’s not out of the question that those involved in Formula E over the next few years could become hot property for Formula One teams as they themselves need to bring in experts in this new, rapidly developing area.
Formula E’s looked at the business model of Formula One and other leading championships and, at least at this stage, looks to be cleverly trying to use the good bits, but address the issues that don’t work so well.
The series is groundbreaking in technical terms, but the organisers want to be groundbreaking on every level so there’re plans to make the tv coverage spectacular too, using the very latest technology available. Fans will have easy access to online streaming, along with a mobile app for live timing amongst other things and plans for an interactive online video game or simulator will give people another variation on the experience…and you can bet it won’t cost anything like F1 prices.
For those attending, you can expect action packed events, with practice, qualifying and races all happening over one day (another attraction for the host city, with less disruption and cost than F1) and a host of ancillary shows, concerts, parties and stands to compliment the on-track racing.
All sounds pretty good huh? What are the bad bits?
Well, it’s hard to say right now because everything has such a positive spin on it, but the fact that there is so much positivity around the project is a good sign.
Driving these cars will take a different set of skills to a petrol engined or traditional car, so one might wonder how that could impact on a drivers’ credentials? The circuits will all be street circuits, again a different experience to driving an out and out race track, so would a winner in Formula E necessarily be a natural choice for an F1 team for example? It remains to be seen, but most drivers would counteract that by saying they’ve grown up honing their skills in other formulae, so have that experience and would probably argue they managed to adapt to Formula E, so would do the same for Formula 1.
The doubters and purists raise points like the fact we won’t have the screaming engine noise we have and love in F1. That’s true, but if you look at the series, not as something trying to compete with F1, but as an entirely new category, you take the noise the cars make as the unique sound of Formula E. It’s a futuristic sound to go with a futuristic car and something I think should be embraced. As F1 fans we’ll still have our screaming engines to listen to, but if you’re open to something entirely new, give Formula E a try, when this type of thing becomes commonplace, you can say you were there from the very beginning.
The other area of concern for some is the fact that current battery technology limits flat out running to around twenty minutes in race mode. The way organisers have overcome this is by including mandatory pitstops to switch cars twice during each race, while the depleted batteries are recharged.
Some say this makes the series gimmicky, or instead of showcasing EV technology, is actually highlighting how restricted it still is. There may be elements of truth in some of this, but my feeling still remains that the championship is the best way to push the development of battery technology forward.
Much like the sound of the races, if we open our minds and embrace car swapping pitstops as a new spectacle and competitive element, it could really add something to the show, it doesn’t have to be gimmicky at all.
By racing flat out around the streets, the formula still shows what EV’s can do and removes them from the category of boring, tree huggers statement makers and into the category of fast, sporty and exciting alternative cars, not to mention the comparatively tiny running costs in a city environment. I don’t imagine many people would have thought an electric car could do the sort of speeds on show with Formula E.
I for one, can’t wait for it to get going and hope Formula E gets the credit I’m sure it already deserves for pioneering in something that’ll no doubt shape the future of motorsport and the motor vehicle industry alike.