For fans of motorsport it will be hard this weekend to look past the speed, the glamour and the sheer adrenaline of the Formula 1 race in China. But as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel duke it out in their silver and scarlet bullets around the Shanghai International Circuit, spare a thought for the Formula E race taking place at the same time in Rome.
For the future of motorsport and transportation in general, it’s arguably a far more important event.
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Now into its fourth season, Formula E has so far struggled to capture the imagination of fans but with pollution on the rise and green motoring in the news more than ever, it’s going to become increasingly important as the sport strives to improve its cars and its popularity.
The good thing is that Formula-E is already pretty exciting. It’s developing fast and is relevant not just because the racing is tight, competitive and thrilling. Here are five reasons why you should set aside some time to watch the race this weekend:
1. Exciting tech, coming to an EV near you
We’ve seen electric vehicles become increasingly popular in recent times and the technology is developing fast. Nobody predicted how successful the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S would become and this popularity — combined with increasingly anti-fossil-fuel culture and legislation — means manufacturers will be increasingly keen to use series like Formula E as a proving ground for new tech.
Developments in Formula E are already continuing at great pace. The current car in use in the Rome race today, has a 28kW battery and can only complete half a race at full speed (around 20 to 25 minutes). Drivers need to change cars halfway through to complete a full E-Prix.
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But that original gen 1 car is being replaced next season with one that has double the battery capacity and twice the range. The new car will be able to go the full race distance so teams won’t need to carry out a change of cars.
That’s a huge step forward that will very likely be reflected in the next generation of road-going electric cars; we’re already seeing affordable EVs with ranges of more than 200 miles. A jump to 400 miles plus will make for electric cars that are practical in all but the most demanding circumstances.
2. Faster, charging, wireless charging electric cars
While the Formula E car itself doesn’t yet charge wirelessly, some of the cars surrounding the event do. In fact, using technology licensed from Qualcomm, both the BMW i8 hybrid safety car and the BMW i3 medical cars are charged wirelessly using a ground-mounted pad and magnetic induction technology. The benefit here is that, in an emergency, precious seconds aren’t wasted unplugging the vehicle – the driver can simply start the engine and move off.
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And let’s not forget that ABB – the Formula E series’ main sponsor – is a major proponent in fast wired charging as well, a company that claims it will, eventually, be able to deliver electric vehicles that «charge as fast as fueling a modern petrol car».
Again, the first generation of cars racing in Rome this weekend and in Paris in a couple of weeks are a long way off this ambition but they can still be charged in around an hour and next year’s tech is far superior. The gen 2 Formula E cars will charge in the same time but can deliver double the battery capacity and twice the range.
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Just as important as technological innovation, however, is that the teams are discovering new ways to manage battery charging and energy consumption as they race. A great example of this is was how teams discovered that cooling could play an important part in efficiency, battery life and charging. With the battery heating up as it’s used and recharged it quickly can get too hot to perform at its best.
Teams discovered that, buy pumping air through dry ice into the cars’ sidepods, they’d be able to keep the car running quicker for longer. It doesn’t take the mind of a rocket scietist to see that if these sorts of findings make their way to the electric cars of the future, they too will be more efficient and more practical as a result.
3. Higher efficiency for all road cars
The technology that goes into Formula E cars isn’t all about batteries, bits and bytes, though. There’s also a chance you’ll see the fruits of its labours making it into regular petrol and diesel cars, too. Take the tyre that Michelin developed for the Formula E car.
Unlike in Formula 1, where teams have a choice of compound and tread types to deal with different conditions, Formula E cars run on one tyre type, whether it’s cool and wet or hot and dry. Like a regular car tyre, the Formula E tyre is treaded, with idea to more more accurately reflect what happens in the real world, where most motorists run tyres for a bit longer than a few miles and don’t change wheels when it threatens to rain a bit.
But a Formula E tyre also needs to be as efficient as possible, and this is where the benefit to road cars could come in — a more efficient tyre means longer range and longer range means less worrying about when you need to find the next charging point along your journey.
And in Formula E, just as in Formula 1, the technology has continued to develope. In 2016/17 when Michelin brought in the new EV2 tyre, it reduced the rolling resistance by 16%, allowing the cars to run one laps further than before. Impressive, given, the car, battery, chassis and bodywork all remained the same.
4. Big-name manufacturers and drivers
With more teams than ever and support from some big-name drivers, Formula E is thriving and it’s clearly a series manufacturers are taking very, very seriously.
This season there are 11 manufacturers involved in Formula E – the most involved in any motorsport series – with the like of Audi, Citroen, Renault, Jaguar and BMW all taking part. And the drivers aren’t no-names plucked from the obscurity of touring car racing, either.
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This year’s list includes former Formula 1 drivers Jean-Eric Vergne, Lucas di Grassi, Sebastien Buemi and Nick Heidfeld (who, incidentally, still holds the record for consecutive race finishes in Formula 1), plus Luca Fillipi who has driven in Indy Car previously.
Jean-Eric Vergne currently leads the standings on 109 points and his team, Techeetah, leads the race for best manufacturer on 127.
5. Tight, competitive and exciting racing – and fans can have a say, too
In Formula E, all the cars are identical. The electric engine, the suspension and the aerodynamics are kept the same for the whole season and the teams cannot them. The only difference is down to the way the driver drives the car, the tactics the teams employ and how they maintain their cars, manage energy consumption and carry out pit stops.
The result is fast, close races – but not boring races. Tactical elements — such as the conserving energy early in the race in order to be faster later on — come into play to spice things up, and then there’s Forumula E’s rogue social element — Fanboost.
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Formula E’s controversial “Fan Boost” technology can make all the difference. The idea here is that, before the race begins, fans vote for their favourite driver – or the driver they feel is in most need of extra assistance – and the three that get the most votes receive a boost during the race. To be specific, that’s an extra power boost of 30kW (around 40bhp) for five seconds, for each car they used during a race.
That’s a significant boost of 20% in overall power and, with all the cars so tightly matched in spec, like DRS in Formula 1, it can make all the difference in overtaking manoeuvres. It’s an interesting development that adds an element of unpredictability to the racing. Perhaps more importantly, it encourages drivers and teams to become less insular and more interactive with the fans — noteably it is typically the drivers that are most active on social media that get the Fanboost votes race-in, race-out.
When is the Formula E race this weekend and what channel is it on?
The race is taking place in Rome on the 14th of April, with qualifying beginning at 12:00 CET (11am UK time), Super Pole qualification at 12:45 CET (11:45am UK) and the race kicks off at 16:00 CET (15:00 UK time).
You can watch qualifying and coverage of the race on 5Spike in the UK.