The one thing automotive journalists fear most about testing a race car? Stalling it in the pit lane. Sure, there’s always the worry you’ll spin the thing into a wall, or maybe clip a curb and roll it into a ball of expensively crumpled metal and carbon fiber. But explaining you were caught out when it snapped sideways at 150 mph through the sweeper—”I think the rear tire had a slow puncture”—is somehow less embarrassing than proving to the sniggering pit crew you’re barely capable of getting their car underway at all.
Stalling in the pit lane is the one thing you don’t have to worry about with Jaguar’s all-electric I-Pace eTrophy racer. Simply press D for drive, squeeze the accelerator pedal, and the broad-shouldered Jag—all race-face wings and spoilers, hunkered down on 22-inch wheels—simply oozes forward and whirs quietly out onto the track.
The I-Pace eTrophy was developed for a one-make, 20-race series that will support 10 rounds of the 2019 FIA Formula E championship for single-seat electric race cars. Built at Jaguar Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations facility near Coventry, England, the eTrophy features a stripped-out interior and carbon-fiber hood and front fenders. It weighs about 500 pounds less than a roadgoing I-Pace, despite the addition of a full roll cage that ties together the front structure and rear suspension mounts.
The suspension is production I-Pace based, but it uses parts from SVO’s thundering XE Project 8 track rat, and the spring and roll-bar rates are fully adjustable. The standard brakes have been replaced with AP Racing units with steel rotors and larger calipers, and the 22-inch wheels are shod with treaded Michelin tires. As in Formula E, where the single-seat racers also use treaded tires, the French tiremaker wanted rubber that more closely reflected road car tire technology.
The e-motors at the front and rear axles are unchanged from standard I-Pace spec, which means a total of 394 hp and 512 lb-ft of torque, and the 90-kW-hr battery pack is also straight from the production car. The powertrain control electronics, however, are entirely new. Developed by the engineering division of the Williams F1 team, they allow, among other things, the torque curves of the two e-motors to be individually varied, along with the level of brake regeneration. The system also enables the e-motors to more aggressively pull from the battery pack to boost performance.
It’s a sweaty 90-plus degrees at Silverstone, Britain’s record-breaking summer heatwave in full force. SVO dynamics engineer Jack Lambert shows me around the eTrophy I’ll be driving on the compact Stowe circuit, located in the infield of the legendary British Grand Prix track. The car is one of three development prototypes SVO has been working on over the past few months. The first two production eTrophy race cars have already been completed at SVO, and another four are on the line, with a total of 20 scheduled to be ready by the end of September for drivers who’ll each pay $530,000—plus tax—to compete in the series on an arrive-and-drive basis.
Flat, with tight corners and a devilish stop-go chicane coned onto the back straight, the 1.1-mile Stowe circuit has many of the characteristics of the Formula E street circuits on which the eTrophy will be racing next year. It is, Lambert explains, perfect for fine-tuning the eTrophy’s chassis and powertrain electronics.
I clamber in over the roll cage and settle into the deeply contoured bucket seat as Lambert runs me through the basics. Before me is a conventional suede-rimmed steering wheel with an aluminum pod bolted to it and a digital display screen behind. On the pod are six buttons and four rotary controls. The buttons activate functions such as headlight flash and instrument panel display. There’s also one marked Boost. The rotary controls vary front to rear torque split, brake regen level, liftoff regen, and ABS intervention threshold.
Lambert points to a small green light glowing at the base of the windshield. It indicates that the eTrophy is good to go. If the car’s involved in an incident, a blue light will appear, warning track safety crews that the eTrophy’s high-voltage system is still active. If the light glows red, that indicates an isolator fault and a danger of a serious electric shock. “It’s not likely you’ll see it,” Lambert says soothingly, before adding: “If you do, don’t touch the car, and don’t try and get out of the car.” Gulp. He then climbs into the passenger seat, cinches down his racing harness, and gives me the thumbs-up.
I can’t help but check. Green light. We roll out onto the track.
The eTrophy doesn’t exactly pin you to the seat under full acceleration. Despite SVO’s best efforts, this is still a heavy car, weighing about 4,300 pounds in race trim, which means it has a similar weight-to-power ratio as a rear-drive Kia Stinger GT. You feel the mass the moment you punch the accelerator, despite the torque from the twin e-motors, and as in all electric cars, the rate of acceleration trails off noticeably as speed increases. Top speed is 125 mph, not much by racing car standards, but plenty quick enough for the narrow, no-runoff Formula E tracks that typically zigzag around ordinary streets in cities such as Paris, Hong Kong, and New York.
It’s eyes wide for a split-second at the first hairpin when I squeeze the brakes and nothing much happens. Then I realize this is a racing car, with racing car brakes, and that there’s little need for delicacy. A mighty shove on the bottom-hinged pedal slows the big Jag, though I’ve missed the apex by a country mile. It takes a couple of applications before I understand the nuances of tip-in and feel, but once I’m calibrated, I can confidently grenade the pedal knowing the eTrophy will stop like it’s been driven into a swimming pool filled with molasses.
When I took the production I-Pace from London to Berlin a few months back, I’d noticed it felt nicer when driven on winding backroads with the liftoff regeneration in the low setting. This made the car better balanced on corner entry and allowed it to flow more smoothly down the road. For the same reasons, the eTrophy has initially been set up with no liftoff regen; come off the accelerator, and the car coasts, slowed only by mechanical drag.
Although the eTrophy is heavy, much of its weight is low in the chassis—that 90-kW-hr battery pack under the floor weighs 1,329 pounds—so the car doesn’t wallow through corners like a drunken water buffalo. On quicker sweepers it feels stable and planted, but on tighter corners—and the Formula E circuits on which the eTrophy will be racing are full of slow 90-degree and 180-degree turns—it takes some skill to get it into and through the corner as quickly as possible. The steering offers little feel, and the instant-on torque from the e-motors makes it difficult to accurately modulate power inputs, especially as there’s no engine noise to help you. It’s a very easy car to overdrive.
The eTrophy I drove had its suspension set for a test session on a Spanish track with more cambered corners. For pancake-flat Stowe, I would have liked a tad more initial bite from the front end to get the car to rotate just a fraction on corner entry, to better get it into the apex without losing speed. On corner exit I’d have liked a little more torque bias to the rear axle to further reduce understeer and punch the car harder onto the straights. The good news is all this adjustability is built into the eTrophy’s hardware and software.
Paradoxically, the eTrophy rewards accuracy yet demands aggression. Finding the right balance between the two is critical because a quick lap time in this car is all about maintaining momentum. And that’s what will make the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy series utterly fascinating to watch: Twenty identical cars with exactly the same power and torque, running on exactly the same tires, racing wheel to wheel on the narrow, unforgiving Formula E circuits, will put the focus squarely on savvy vehicle setup and raw driving talent.
Which is exactly what racing should be all about.
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