I started in this business as a freelance motorsport reporter, and over the years I’ve covered everything from club autocross to Formula 1. It’s been a long time since I arrived at a motorsport venue not knowing quite what to expect. That made my trip to the 2018 Berlin ePrix for electric cars doubly intriguing.
Let’s be clear: Formula E, barely through its fourth season, is not about to overtake Formula 1, IndyCar, Le Mans, or NASCAR any time soon. But automakers are taking it very seriously, pouring millions of dollars into the category. As one veteran motorsport insider noted in Berlin: “Every single driver in this series is paid to drive. Not even Formula 1 has that.”
BMW was the title sponsor of the Berlin race; Audi, Jaguar, PSA, Renault, and Indian automaker Mahindra each backed a two-car team. The entry list included some familiar old-school racing names, too: Andretti and Penske.
Mercedes-AMG F1 boss Toto Wolff was in Berlin, as was Porsche ambassador and former Red Bull F1 driver Mark Webber. “We’re just checking things out, mate,” the laconic Webber said. Porsche has confirmed it will have a team competing in Formula E next year. Daimler will enter electric-powered Silver Arrows running under the Mercedes-EQ banner in 2020. Nissan is also joining the series.
The current crop of Formula E cars is powered by motors that develop 270 hp in qualifying mode and 240 hp in race mode, fed by 28-kW-hr lithium-ion batteries. The battery pack weighs 705 pounds, one reason the race cars weigh 1,940 pounds. But they’ll still hit 60 mph in less than 3 seconds. Top speed is 140 mph, fast on the tight circuits where they race.
You can’t hear them coming, but as the E-racers sweep past, they make a high-pitched turbine whine, with noticeable differences in pitch and timbre between some cars. The battery packs last about half the race distance, forcing drivers to come in and change cars. Although racing purists have struggled with the idea—forgetting that in the 1950s F1 drivers often swapped cars—it’s the Formula E equivalent of a pit stop for fuel and tires, with all the variables that can throw into a race.
Another variable is fan boost. Fans can start voting for their favorite driver via social media channels six days before each race, with voting closing six minutes after the start. The top three vote-getting drivers are given extra power to use for a brief period during the race.
Some critics suggest a race car without a transmission can’t be too challenging to drive. But Volkswagen Motorsport ambassador and former F1 driver Hans-Joachim Stuck points out Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, and Lewis Hamilton—drivers with 14 F1 world championships between them—honed their otherworldly car control skills in single-speed sprint karts. With equal power, treaded tires that lack the absolute grip of slicks, and unyielding walls right at the track limits, Formula E cars reward talent.
With little noise and no emissions, Formula E has been able to bring racing to the people, right into the hearts of the cities where they live. Tracks this season have been in Hong Kong, Marrakesh, Santiago, Rome, and Paris. After Berlin, the Formula E circus headed to Zurich before crossing the Atlantic for the final two races of this year’s championship in Brooklyn.
An all-new Formula E race car will hit the track in 2019. Dubbed Gen2 and featuring radically different aerodynamics, it will boast 335 hp in qualifying mode and 270 hp in race mode. The Gen2 cars will be faster, edgier to drive. What’s more, they will have double the battery capacity and double the range, meaning drivers won’t have to swap cars midrace.
“We want Formula E to be a visionary championship … a kind of laboratory for motor racing,” says Jean Todt, president of the FIA, auto racing’s supreme sanctioning body. Formula E might be racing for tomorrow, but the launch of the Gen2 reveals an essential truth that’s as old as the automobile itself: Racing improves the breed.