Formula E — In Depth (with Videos)

Formula E is a fully electric racing series that is revealing what the future is likely to look like for both motorsports and the automotive industry. Now in the third year of its championship series in 2017, the FIA Formula E Championship season consists of 12 races of all-electric cars in nine different countries worldwide. The race has been supported by professional teams including Andretti, Audi Sport ABT, Renault, Panasonic Jaguar, and Virgin Racing, and the buy-in of these prominent teams has infused momentum and stability to Formula E as it continually reinvents itself.

The series is set in some of the world’s most alluring cities around the world, and the “ePrix,” as it is often called, is on the forefront of technological innovation. It is providing a much-needed signal of how the transportation industry as a whole can look to alternative energy power sources and be viable.

Formula E

Jean Todt, President of the FIA, affirms the power and potential of the Formula E series.

“It is an absolutely remarkable development because it is a sports discipline that is young. We are at the end of the third season. It is great to see the interest that it arouses. There are already a number of manufacturers involved. We have a dozen builders who want to be engaged in the fifth season.”

Formula E Venues within the Heart of the World’s Best Cities

Launched in 2014, Formula E’s allure is partially due to the venues on which it runs: street circuits right in the midst of some of the world’s most appealing cities. Practice sessions, qualifying, and the race all take place on one day, and there are several double-header weekends in which two races occur back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday with the backdrop of iconic buildings and skylines.

Toto Wolff, a 30% owner and executive director of the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team, concurs that a large degree of the recent Formula E popularity is due to its settng. “The success of Formula E is being in town.” Wolff also concedes that Formula 1’s venues, in contrast to Formula E, are more like “supermarket car parks.” He offers that, from a spectator’s point of view, the Formula E cars “look fast in a city context,” and, in a city like Monte Carlo, “you can see the attractions.”

Other Formula E venues in 2017 included Hong Kong, Marrakesh, Paris, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Paris, Berlin, Brooklyn, and Montreal. With most venues situating city centers, parks, and plazas adjacent to the street circuits, spectators can enjoy musical performances, kiosks, beer gardens, impromptu theater, and vendor booths while at the races.

Take a ride around Monaco in a Formula E car (video)

Most of us will never have the opportunity to sit in a Formula E car as it accelerates into the tight corners of a street circuit. But— hold on! Here’s a video that allows you to ride along and experience the thrill of a Formula E car in action, if only virtually.

Technology Brings Formula E Racing to the Forefront

Elon Musk of Tesla is one of many individuals who are pushing for an emissions-free transportation future. Formula E, with automotive technology revelations galore, is a space in which innovators from all sectors of technology and automotive research and development come together to explore future possibilities for transportation.

With electric drivetrains, batteries, and 18-inch Michelin tires similar to those driven everyday on city streets, fans trackside can vicariously envision driving a vehicle that is no longer powered by a combustion engine. And we know that there is nothing like a personal relationship to a new idea to make it relevant, meaningful, and much more likely to be adopted.

How Does a Formula E Car Work?

One of the more interesting aspects of the Formula E championship is the technology that powers the cars. No longer are traditional internal combustion engines the power source: instead, the cars are driven by a large battery pack built into the chassis.

This means that the cars do not pollute, and they don’t have the roar that is so dramatic at the usual racetrack. Yet it is evident to many motorsports enthusiasts that Formula E may be the forebearer of what racing will look like as the decade evolves.

Jaguar racing director Craig Wilson illuminates how Formula E accentuates the world of racing and may also have ramifications for the larger society:

“Electrification has been around a long time. But the modern development of it is occurring at such a rapid pace. Formula E is pushing these boundaries. One of the main ways these cars are being used to help develop electric road cars is thermal management, as well as regeneration of power from braking. Formula E is the most relevant motorsport to vehicle development in the world right now.”

The Role of the Inverter in Formula E

The inverter contains a series of extremely high powered switches that can turn the power going to the motor on and off as many as tens of thousands of times per second. Essentially, the inverter manages the current sent to the motor, which, in turn, produces the power and torque that drives the car. Formula E teams currently run several different electric motors, yet each is based on a similar foundational design. Each motor is made up of two main parts: the rotor which rotates and drives the driveshaft, and the stator which encompasses the rotor and stay stationary.

Inside the motor assembly, the rotor carries extremely strong magnets, while the stator is covered in numerous coils of copper wire. Current from the battery is passed through the inverter and sent to the motor, where it creates a magnetic field upon passing through the stator’s coils. Essentially acting like a giant electromagnet, the rotor’s magnets are attracted and repelled by the magnetic field generated by the stator, which causes the rotor to spin inside the motor’s housing.

Battery Innovation is One More Step in Formula E’s Technical Progression

The battery is a store for energy. Formula E cars currently use batteries supplied by Williams Advanced Engineering, a subsidiary of the Williams Formula 1 Team. It is made up of 200kg of lithium ion cells, and the maximum amount of energy all teams are allowed to use is 28kWh, which is represented on the TV graphics as a battery percentage. The battery only lasts as long as the driver manages it, but the duration is generally between 25 and 30 minutes. The current battery technology can only provide power for a one-hour race at full speed with one pit stop for recharging.

In mid-season 2017, a new Formula E battery was tested for endurance through a full race simulation. The McLaren Applied Technologies battery is targeted for introduction in 2018.

This test is significant as one more step in Formula E’s technical progression, as, if it is successful, no longer will Formula E cars need to do a mid-race pit stop to change the cars — really, to change out the depleted battery.  According to a report from Autosport, McLaren’s battery will almost double the amount of usable energy currently available from the Williams Advanced Engineering-built unit to 54Kw/h. This means drivers will be able to complete an entire race distance in one car.

Formula E cars could feature brake-by-wire systems as early as its 2018/19 season

Currently, the Formula E racer harvests energy through an electric motor on the rear axle while the car is braking. The braking system for the rear brake is specified by the series, rather than by the teams, although this will change in 2018/19, according to Autosport, with a brake-by-wire system would allow greater electronic control of the rear brakes.

Teams are adamant that this active braking system is a necessary improvement to the sport. Qualifying power would elevate from 200kW to 250kW, and race power would increase from 170kW to 200kW. This improvement in braking is one of many ideas that will accentuate efficiency and create more of dynamic race. Moreover, there is talk that a front axle could also contribute to energy management. Torque vectoring, which occurs when each wheel is powered by a motor, would allow the amount of power delivered to each wheel to be regulated.

Formula E driver Lucas di Grassi would like to see an electronic differential on the back with two motors for each wheel to control the acceleration.

How the Various Elements of a Formula E Racer Work Together

Here is a video that explains how the battery, inverter, the motor, and the transmission of a Formula E racer all work together. Yes, the video is from Season 2/ 2016, but it is a good primer, nonetheless.

View a Formula E Start to Understand the Excitement

There may be nothing more exciting that the start of any motor race. This video of the start of a Formula E race captures that thrill while also explaining some of the finer points of the start.

Drawing in the Formula E Fan Base

The cities — often with a helping hand from the FIA — spotight local eco-friendly initiatives at their race weekends. Innovative technologies like virtual reality and autonomous vehicles bring a glimpse of the future to fans. They also generate goodwill with the public as they demonstrate a commitment to the environment.

Part of the appeal comes from racing 2.0 technology: through “FanBoost,” fans can vote online to offer their favorite drivers a helping hand through extra energy allocation. The three drivers with the most votes receive an extra 100KJ of energy, which can boost power by up to 30KW. Here are the ways to play along with FanBoost: click through to or enter the hashtag #FanBoost.

During the Paris ePrix 2017, fans had another fascinating opportunity. They were the first public audience to see firsthand the Robocar, which is a driverless one-design electric car that is soon-to-be a support series at Formula E events.

The Robocar “drives” itself through five lidars, two radars, 18 ultrasonic sensors, two optical speed sensors, six A.I. cameras, and GNSS positioning. It is powered by Nvidia’s Drive PX2 brain, which is capable of up to 24 trillion A.I. operations per second to be programmed by teams’ software engineers using complex algorithms. Fixed hardware is pleasing to the constructors, as various companies will be permitted to develop their own driverless software and test possibilities within safety guidelines. Thus, Formula E continues its delicate balance of technological innovation yet keen understanding of the needs of constructors to share in the sport as it evolves.

Teasing the Big Constructors to Join Formula E

A combination of increasing reputation and desire to share the green tech space has prompted more major car manufacturers to consider a move into Formula E. Rumors have surfaced that Porsche may be thinking of ending its endurance racing effort and moving its competition program to Formula E. According to a report by Autosport, Porsche CEO Oliver Blume, board member Michael Steiner, and LMP 1 team technical chief, Andreas Seidl, met with Alejandro Agag, the CEO and founder of Formula E, in Monaco.

Yes, Formula E leader Agag would welcome Porsche to the all-electric series. FIA President Jean Todt praised Renault’s direct involvement in the sport.  BMW is set to join the grid in 2018. And Mercedes owns an option to enter the series for the 2018/2019 season.

But the team that Agag, Todt, and many fans would really love to entice  to Formula E is Scuderia Ferrari. “I see 20 drivers but no Italian flags,” Agag noted after a 2017 ePrix. “I already know that every young Italian dreams only of Ferrari, but I’m sure that sooner or later we will have a driver from Italy. Or an Italian brand… I read that Marchionne is always speaking of Alfa Romeo’s return. We would welcome them with open arms,” said Agag.

Acknowledging that the Italian constructor is watching Formula E’s growing popularity carefully, Marchionne slowed hopes for the team’s entrance anytime prior to 2022 in an interview with FIA. “We need to be involved in Formula E because electrification via hybridization is going to be part of our future.” In the meantime, Ferrari may enter into a branding relationship with an existing team prior to 2022 to test the proverbial waters.

Seeking Harmony in the Formula 1, Formula E, and World Endurance Championship Calendars

FIA president Jean Todt met with Formula 1 sporting managing director Ross Brawn, Formula E chief Alejandro Agag, and FIA WEC CEO Gerard Neveu during the 2017 Monaco Grand Prix. The goal was to create “calendar harmonization” between the three series, according to a statement issued after the meeting. The group agreed to work toward a better alignment of the major motor sport championship schedules in upcoming seasons.

Rather than compete among themselves, these major motorsport series and their business backers recognize that competition will only dampen the revenue available from television broadcasts, fan tickets and concessions, and other lucrative revenue streams associated with race weekend. The resulting calendars have been promised to be “practical, economical, and climatic….  for the benefit of all motorsport fans.”

The Title Fight: Formula 1 vs. Formula E

Should Formula E attempt to compete with Formula 1? The latter has a legacy and celebrity lineage that would be hard to duplicate. And, anyways, why should an all-electric series feel compelled to draw parallels with a sport that relies on combustion engines, a dirty reminder of a carbon economy? Is the responsibility, rather, on Formula 1 to adopt new technologies or risk falling behind in automotive technologies?

With its combination of technological and automotive innovations, Formula E may, in the long run, pilot automotive transformations for the world’s major motor manufacturers. According to Jean Todt, FIA President, Formula E is ideal for new electric vehicle technologies as well as a mechanism to promote the use of clean engine technology.

Sam Bird, who currently drives for Virgin Racing, is all in favor of expanding the field and depth of the Formula E series.

“The fanbase is growing slowly but surely, which is also very important. What we need to do now is make sure we stabilise the race tracks we go to and the cities that we go to. We need to have four or five core cities that we always visit, along with new cities around the globe per season. That would be really important and really good for the series. F1 is obviously the pinnacle of normally-aspirated motor vehicles and single-seaters, but there’s no reason why Formula E can’t be as big with the fanbase for an electric vehicle of motorsport. It’s the only one of its kind right now. The world is its oyster really.”

Formula E Partners with the UN to Promote Air Quality

Formula E has joined forces with UN Environment to launch a global partnership to improve inner-city air quality, according to a report from Air Quality News. The partnership will focus on raising awareness of the benefits of electric vehicles among younger generations and motorsport fans.

Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, said:

“Formula E and UN Environment share the aim to usher in this era and speed up acceptance of these technologies to combat air pollution. Air pollution has taken centre-stage this year as a serious public health threat, and with good reason.”

Jean Todt, FIA President, said he welcomes the partnership between UN Environment and the FIA Formula E Championship. He indicated that Formula E was created with a primary goal to raise awareness of issues of environmental sustainability and drive the development of technology.

Photo credit: PhotoDoyl via / CC BY

Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn grew up in Stafford Springs, CT, home of the half-mile tar racetrack. She's an avid Formula One fan (this year's trip to the Monza race was memorable). With a Ph.D. from URI, she draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+