Formula E Racing Takes New York, Looks to No-Car-Swap Future

Formula E Racing Takes New York, Looks to No-Car-Swap Future

The Formula E electric car race series is hot — and getting hotter. Season 4 ended in Brooklyn with competitive racing, great views of the Manhattan skyline, and a compelling storyline about advances in racecar batteries and battery management paying off for owners of future electric vehicles. There were celebrities, of course, and a great human interest story about drivers fined for wearing the wrong underwear.

The season for the ABB FIA Formula E Championship (formal name) covered five continents, and ended with Audi edging out Techchita (ta-chita) Sunday by 264 points to 262, but only after the 10th car crossed the finish line. Sponsors are now looking forward to the fifth season, this fall, where each driver covers the race in a single car. Brooklyn was the last time drivers switched to a second car with a fresh battery to finish the race. France’s Jean-Eric Vergne sewed up the driver’s points title Saturday, starting last on the grid and finishing finish fifth, a day before Les Bleus won the World Cup in soccer in a match broadcast around the track before the race.

Formula E racing calls for the use of many common parts, particularly those from the driver’s backrest forward. Behind the driver are the batteries, motor, and electronics. That keeps the season cost low — a relative term in auto racing, meaning in the millions rather than Formula 1’s hundreds of millions per team, per year. One treaded Michelin tire design is used by every team, wet or dry, both of which covered the two races in Brooklyn at the cruise ship terminal in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, just south of Wall Street and Governors Island. Battery management software is customizable team by team, as are cooling techniques and the drivetrain.

For the first four seasons, each of which runs from late fall to early summer, each team could use a battery and a car good for half the race of about 45 minutes. The battery is rated at 28 kWh. How big is that? A new (2018) 151-mile Nissan Leaf is rated at 40 kWh (previously 24-30 kWh for 100 miles), a 238-mile Chevrolet Bolt at 60 kWh, and a 249-to-315-mile Tesla Model S at 75-100 kWh. The biggest laptop battery is about one-fifteenth of a kilowatt hour.

Then the driver would head down pit road, drive to the tented paddock, hop out, jump in a second, identical car, and run the second half of the race. What could go wrong? Nelson Piquet Jr., driving for Panasonic-Jaguar, made it into his new car in 7 seconds in Saturday’s race when the microphone jack hit the master power button as it was being plugged in, forcing not just a restart but a lengthy reboot.

The Brooklyn street track uses no public roads, only roads and parking areas of the Brooklyn Cruise Ship Terminal. It’s 1.21 miles long, has 13 turns, and room for only two cars abreast. (Credit: Formula E)
The Brooklyn street track uses no public roads, only roads and parking areas of the Brooklyn Cruise Ship Terminal. It’s 1.21 miles long, has 13 turns, and room for only two cars abreast. (Credit: Formula E)

Battery Management Is Crucial

For those drivers who kept on going, there was a battery management strategy at least as tricky as with gas-engine racers. According to the Piquet teammate Ho-Pin Tung, the car reaches max performance capability midway through each leg. At the start, the battery is full, so there’s no way to store power regenerated from braking; in the closing laps, the battery is dealing with thermal issues from the stress of delivering up to 200,000 watts (200 kW) at full throttle, then moments later piping regenerated power back into the battery. Discharge the battery too much and the car goes into a limp-home mode. Even when the battery falls to 0 percent remaining power indicated, there’s still some charge left, but the race organizers track and penalize a team that finishes the leg with less than 0 percent power showing.

Thus, the importance of good battery management software created by each team. Tung says, “What we learn at the track has a direct influence on what goes into the software of our electric vehicles such as the [Jaguar] I-Pace.” Some of the code is common.

For 2018-2019, each car will be able to use a 54-kWh battery, allowing the same car to be out the entire race, which can run up to an hour in length. It will also be able to generate up to 250 kW of continuous power, up from 200 kW.

Stands put front-row racegoers just a few feet from the track, albeit behind concrete barriers and stout chain link fencing. (Credit: Bill Howard)
Stands put front-row racegoers just a few feet from the track, albeit behind concrete barriers and stout chain link fencing. (Credit: Bill Howard)

Formula E Has a Youthful Future

The fans of Formula E are small in number compared with the 200,000 counted at the typical Formula 1 race (Canada, Great Britain and Mexico each surpassed 300,000 last year). Both are governed by FIA, or the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile. Demographics show Formula E fans to be younger, more urban, and more affluent that other race fans, and they’re likely to buy (if they don’t stick with mass transit) an EV, plug-in, or hybrid. FIA says half of all online engagements with Formula E are from people 13 to 24. Fans also see crucial race stats in real time, most of all the percentage of battery power remaining; fuel and energy levels during other kinds of races are closely kept team-by-team secrets. Whether a gimmick or feature, fans at the track and elsewhere can vote for favored drivers, and the top three get an extra boost of power for a few seconds, enough to pass a couple extra cars.

With the growth of the sport, more mainstream automakers have come to Formula E. Audi took over the ABT team for the current season (No. 4), while stepping back from the LeMans endurance / prototype racing series. Jaguar is also in (this year) and will likely run a spec series (meaning exactly the same car for all drivers) as a support race using the new I-PACE. BMW is in for season 5 (the first race is December), and it currently is involved as a technical partner with Andretti Motorsport. Mercedes-Benz will enter for season six. Other automakers with footprints outside the US are also sponsors. The name automakers are likely to promote the races the way they do now with combustion engine cars. The slogan may change from Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday to…Regenerate (Power) on Sunday, Generate (EV Leases) on Monday. Almost as catchy.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest benefits of Formula E race attendance versus the others is that you don’t go deaf at the race. While there are no 110-decibel-plus roars reaching the stands, the whine and whoosh of the motors is apparent, as are locked brakes, skids, loose parts scraping, car-to-car bumping, and crashes or cars hitting walls. Those come through loud and clear.