Published on November 18, 2013 | by Sam Rowntree

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Formula E set to overtake the streets of London

Forumla E car unveiled in front of crowd in Paris

Grand unveiling: Chief executive, Alejandro Agag, reveals the new Spark Renault SRT-01E electric-powered race car at the Frankfurt Motor show ahead of next year’s Formula E Championship in London [Photo courtesy of Formula E]

It is said that the quickest way for technology to develop is in times of warfare. The Spitfire and the nuclear bomb were developed in quick time in the Second World War out of necessity, rather than nascent business ideas. With the spectre of climate change, air pollution and the depletion of natural oil reserves looming it is now that the automotive industry is starting to move towards Electric.

Formula E is a new racing series starting in September 2014 and racing through the winter that pits teams against one another to see who can produce the quickest, longest lasting and most efficient electric engines.

The series will race in ten cities around the world that will include Beijing, Monaco and London in 2015, to showcase cutting-edge technology in a bid to rapidly speed up the mainstream adoption of electric vehicles (EV), whilst improving their performance.

Adaptation 

Tom Phillips from Formula E feels the time is right for electric cars to come into their own: “The whole point of the championship is to promote the electric car industry, as you know, the perception of electric vehicles is not that cool, they’re not that great, and by using Formula E the FIA hopes that it can promote electric vehicles by getting people to see them going 150mph through their own city.

“We think that will help influence people and give them a better image, and secondly it is also hoped that the technology that is used will be passed down into everyday road cars, like in the way technology from Formula One cars go into everyday petrol cars.”

The open warfare that will take place between the teams in garages and paddocks around the world will provide the competition that will push battery technology to become a viable option that a consumer will be able to use without the drawbacks a current EV has.

“When we unveiled our car at the Frankfurt motor show, All the big manufacturers were unveiling electric cars, like BMW with their ‘i’ range and you never would have got that a few years ago. It’s been quite interesting to see how much times have changed.”

“I think as the cost of petrol continues to increase, as there is less of it around, I think people will switch onto the benefits of electric vehicles and I think manufacturers are seeing that now. You have zero emissions vehicles that make you exempt from congestion charges in London, there is more and more reason to have one and we will see the prices coming down at a gathering speed,” said Phillips.

The key to making Formula E garner a following similar to Formula One is taking it to the people, so they can marvel at the speed of the cars and the bravery of the drivers: “When we close down certain roads in London, for example, people are going to know about it, they’re going to want to come to it and they will find it very easy to come to it.

“There are a few reasons for racing in the city, for one, it does make sense to take the race to the people, I think it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect 150,000 people to turn up to Silverstone to watch Formula E because it is still gathering momentum, and the second reason is that because the transport infrastructure is already there, you can nip on the tube into London, but the main reason is that electric vehicles are for urban environments and we wanted to show them off in this environment, and we wanted to show them off where they are going to be used.”

Racing structure 

The race ‘weekend’ will be rolled into one day, with practice, qualifying and the race followed by a music concert in the evening: “The main reason we do it all in one day is to cut down on disruption in the city because we’re closing roads and taking other such measures.

“The races will be an hour long, and what we have decided to do is have a car swap element to the racing, so each driver will have two cars and when they come into the pits they won’t change tyres or anything else they will actually change cars and they will do this twice during the race.

“The batteries will last 30 minutes and we hope to create strategic racing like in Formula One where they change tyres only in E they will stop to change cars,” said Phillips

The car-swap is enforced by the limited technology available. As the teams find new ways to make their cars go faster and for longer, this is where the races as well as the technological arms race for road car manufacturers will be won: “It is a little controversial, we understand that but the reason we are doing the car swap is because at the moment the technology just isn’t there to have batteries that can run for two hours at 150mph.

“You can have batteries that run for two hours at 30mph but we’re not really interested in that, so until that technology is available this is how we will be doing it.

“We are very confident that in a few seasons time that we can have no pit stops and the races can be two hours long as the technology improves.”

One idea Formula E has flirted with is audience participation in the racing itself, utilising Twitter to potentially give fans the chance to influence the result: “It is one thing we are considering, the idea is that all the cars and drivers have a system in their car called push-to-pass which will give them an extra 90 horsepower and should help overtaking during the race.

“One thing we are considering but are yet to confirm is that one driver will get one extra boost that could help them overtake someone and this would be nominated by fans on Twitter.”

The suggestion sparked no-little derision in the notoriously liberal twitter-sphere as well as praise from racing fans, but the intentions were not cheap publicity: “Now admittedly there are a lot of purist racers out there that will say ‘oh this isn’t very good it’s a bit X Factor-y’ but that is not our intention. Our intention is to make it more interactive, it is to get fans involved and to be different, and if we were to do it that it would be the system we would use. It would only be one extra boost and it may or may not decide the result of a race, and it is meant to get people involved in the race not just sitting on the sofa watching it and being part of the experience.”

For the first year of the series the cars will all be the same and have been manufactured by a French company called Spark Racing Technology, with input from famous motor racing powerhouses such as Renault, Williams F1 team, Mclaren, Dallara and Michelin.

“We thought it was unrealistic for a new team to join a brand new championship and build a brand new fully electric racing car, it’s a bit of a big ask.

“From season two onwards, teams will be able to build their own car, or modify the existing car, and that then makes it an open championship like Formula One where you have different teams all building slightly different cars, all to the same regulations, but that is where the competition comes from, that’s where we hope to push the technology with teams trying to outdo each other on the grid and that’s how we hope it will filter down to the road cars.”

“We have six teams already signed up, and this week we will be announcing a very big manufacturer, so it’s really gathering momentum and I think it’s just a sign of the times as big manufacturers are seeing that electric cars are the future and they want to get on board from the very start and it’s a fantastic response we’ve had.

“We’ve got Super Aguri, a former F1 team, we have a team called EDAMS that is co-run by Alain Prost who is one of the biggest names in F1 and it just goes to show that if they think it is a good idea then hopefully everyone else will.”

Despite the excitement surrounding the event, Phillips is adamant Formula E will not fall into the trap of trying to compete for fans or exposure with F1.

“We don’t really want to be compared and we don’t really want to compete with them because it is the pinnacle of motorsport and we’re fully aware of that, what we want to do is to compliment, not compete and we want our series to run alongside Formula one,” Formula E will also race in F1’s off-season.

F1 has suggested many times that it will run a Grand Prix in London although speculation about one has generally been about publicity rather than logic.

One of the ideas floated was to turn the Olympic Stadium into a temporary race track, although the idea never came to fruition. Would Formula E be interested in this site? “We’re not giving anything away just yet, there are a number of locations we are looking at, all city centre locations,” said Phillips.

The potential for track layouts are salivating, with a backdrop that could range from the Shard to Shoreditch High Street. With all of this in place, what can London and the paying public expect from Formula E? “I think it will be a fantastic spectacle that on a Saturday in Spring 2015 you can go down and watch a Formula E race from the place where you normally catch a bus, racing cars whizzing past the front of where you work and on top of that it should be a pretty good day out.”

 

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