Imagine 20 state-of-the-art single-seat racing cars, lined up in front of grand-stands and TV cameras. Envision them streaming past some of the world’s best-known urban landmarks: the Brandenburg Gate, Big Ben, Miami’s South Beach. Consider the breathtaking acceleration, the heart-stopping braking, the daredevil overtaking maneuvers. Think of the scream of engines and the tang of fuel at the back of your nose.
Now lose the scream and the tang. This is Formula E, the first automobile racing series based completely on electric cars.
Starting in September, Formula E will run on street circuits in 10 cities around the world, showcasing the capabilities of electric cars and helping to burnish their “worthy, but rather dull” image, as Paul Drayson puts it. He’s the scientific consultant to series promoter Formula E Holdings (FEH) and the team principal of Drayson Racing, the British team that was the first to sign up for the series. “For me, the most important thing is that it can make technology really cool and exciting,” he says.
And that is why the races will be held on city street circuits, rather than at dedicated racetracks, adds FEH chief executive Alejandro Agag. “Electric cars are for cities; that’s their natural habitat, if you like,” he says. “It’s where the technology makes the most sense, and that’s where we need to show them off.”
Half the point of Formula E is to accelerate the development of electric drivetrains so that teams will eventually be free to choose any configuration and design of electric motors, batteries, and charging systems. But to get the series moving, this year all teams must use the same car, developed by Spark Racing Technologies, in Burgundy, France.
The car has a monocoque chassis and bodywork from Dallara Automobili, in Parma, Italy; lithium-ion batteries from Williams Advanced Engineering, near London; and a four-speed sequential gearbox (common in race cars, it lets you shift gears without a clutch) from Hewland Engineering, near Oxford, England.
That gearbox will relay power to the wheels via an electronic control unit from McLaren Automotive, the British supercar specialist.
In fact, it’s the same system McLaren supplies to all the cars in the U.S. Indycar series, although here it will run different software. The electrical traction systems run at 800 volts, generating enormous amounts of heat. It is channeled away from the cars via water cooling and lightweight heat sinks, says Peter van Manen, managing director of McLaren Electronic Systems.
A Formula E race will last about an hour, with 10 teams each fielding two drivers. The cars will generally be allowed to use no more than 134 kilowatts of power (180 horsepower). A certain number of times in the race, however, they will be permitted to boost to 200 kW, reaching speeds of up to 220 kilometers per hour (137 miles per hour).
The cars will race until their batteries are exhausted—about 20 minutes. And then you’ll see by far the strangest thing about this race: Rather than swap out the batteries, the drivers will swap cars. Each driver will get out, run 100 meters down the pit lane to the team’s garage, jump into the fully charged spare car and race for another 20 minutes while the first car recharges. Then the driver will make another pit stop, run to the first car, and complete the race. Power management will therefore be a paramount skill, as it was in the early days of flight.
Inductive battery charging across an air gap, via coils embedded in the road, would eliminate the need for car swapping and allow for lighter batteries. Indeed, FEH has plans to use such a system, developed by HaloIPT, a New Zealand company acquired two years ago by the cellphone firm Qualcomm. This year, though, the inductive charging will be static, with just one pad on the ground, and it will be used only for a safety car, which is sent out in front of the other cars to limit their speed.
Another rule for this year only: Each car will run on a single electric motor developed from the unit McLaren designed for its latest street car, the P1 hybrid. Weighing just 26 kilograms, the motor spins at 17 500 rpm, similar to the revs of a Formula One V8, and develops 200 kW. That gives a power-to-weight ratio of 7.7 watts per gram, the highest of any automotive power plant in the world, says van Manen. And although Formula E cars are slower than Formula One cars, they’ll achieve far greater acceleration because of the instant availability of full torque with electric propulsion. The cars have also been designed to generate current for the battery during braking.
The series will start in Beijing on 20 September and continue on to Putrajaya, Malaysia; Hong Kong; Punta Del Este, Uruguay; and Buenos Aires before reaching Los Angeles on 14 February 2015 and Miami on 18 April. Then comes Monte Carlo, Berlin, and London, where the series will finish on 27 June.
So will Formula E be the spectacle that the organizers hope for? Well, shutting down the center of a city does tend to attract attention. But one complaint is that the experience of motor sports is so tied up with that sensory overload of noise and odor that the quiet of an electric motor will render it sterile. Still, that hasn’t stopped audiences from thrilling to the instant acceleration of electric motorcycle racing, which has had its own TTXGP racing series since 2009.
Besides, electric cars have a noise all their own. It’s the sound of the future.
This article originally appeared in print as “The Fast and the Formula E.”
About the Author
Stuart Nathan is the features editor of The Engineer, in London.