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An Inside Look At Formula E – The Future Of Motorsport?

Beginning life as a racing series in 2014, Formula E is a single seater, open wheel category which utilises electric-only power to drive a single spec chassis. Now in its 3rd season, the series has attracted interest, and indeed participation from some of the world’s biggest drivers and car manufacturers, such as Renault and Audi, and continues to grow year on year in terms of teams, drivers and worldwide TV viewing figures.  RealSport sat down with Robbie Durant, a former Electrical Engineer with Red Bull Racing in F1, who played a key role in setting up Jaguar’s Formula E operation, to find out more about the series and try to discover if this electric-only series really is the future of motorsport.


Jaguar

New Kids on the Block

Setting up a new team in any sport is never the easiest task, and in motorsport, where many people from across many different disciplines have to be brought together to work in a team to a specific set of regulations, this can be a particularly daunting task. The scale of this challenge has been seen recently in Formula 1, with all 3 of 2010s new entries having since folded (Manor being the most recent, having gone out of business over the winter break). We can imagine then, that when entering Formula E in its third season, Robbie and the rest of the team at Jaguar would have faced significant challenges to get up and running and up to speed with the rest of the grid.

“It’s a huge challenge,” Robbie began, “even the logistics of making it happen are enormous. The fact that they haven’t had really major issues, all the equipment’s turned up in the right place, the people have been there, the paper work’s been done, the cars have been homologated, they’ve made the grid, all the kind of stuff you take for granted when you’ve been involved for so long with different teams is no small undertaking, and that’s been a lot of work from a lot of people to make that happen. They’re finding performance now that other teams found in their first year, or first 2 years, and they’ve taken the approach that they’re here to learn, but they’re also here to race, not just to make up the numbers.”

“So in a way, 3 races in, no points on the board, but the drivers have kept it out of the wall, they’ve completed every session, they’ve finished the majority of the races, one car in the first race didn’t finish, but apart from that every car’s finished every session. So there’s a lot of positives to be had.” 

We must bear in mind as well that, unlike F1 teams, Formula E is relatively sparse in terms of personnel. There aren’t the huge teams of mechanics, engineers and data analysts that typically accompany the F1 circus, something which gives the series a different feel for those working within it.

“Essentially F1 feels like big companies, but Formula E feels much more like a team sport, where every single person has a really key role and key influence as to what happens that weekend, and I quite like that. It’s so new and everyone’s learning together, and the teams don’t have such structures that they do in say, F1 or Le Mans teams, or even soccer and rugby teams, which are very structured and very historic if you like in the way they do things, but Formula E is quite dynamic, and they’re really finding their feet. I know by being involved with Jaguar from the start, where it was literally a handful of people from Jaguar deciding to make the project happen, and a handful of people on the technical side, almost saying, right, let’s get on with it, let’s pool our experience and make it happen, and that’s quite interesting to be in, especially from the beginning.” 

Manufacturer Appeal

So why was it then that Jaguar decided to take the plunge and enter Formula E? As previously mentioned, Formula E boasts entries from Audi and Renault, while also benefitting from technical input from other manufacturers such as Citroen. If you add to this the fact that reigning F1 champions Mercedes are due to enter the series in Season 5 in 2018-19 (unlike most motorsport calendars, Formula E runs between years, generally from the start of winter through to summer), Formula E looks to have more manufacturer backing than Formula 1 going forward. 

“The timing’s been perfect with streetcar manufacturers, Jaguar being one, who are really involved with electric or hybrid vehicles, the timing has just suited them.” Robbie informed me when this topic of manufacturer interest came up. “I think with Formula E, a lot of the element [of appeal] was that it’s a spec chassis to start with, you couldn’t do anything with that, and ultimately it was a question of manufacturers making the best of what they were provided to start with. The other side of it was it’s so different, it wasn’t a petrol engine with a hybrid system bolted on, it was a fully electric car, and it was so different it sparked some interest that I think the hybrid cars didn’t quite get from the public. Electric is just like, wow, this is very different.”

“They (manufacturers) decided that this technology can and is filtering down right now. It’s not the car of tomorrow, it’s actually right here and you can buy a Tesla, an electric Honda or Toyota now, and I think that’s what the manufacturers are invested in, is that real life test bed where you can go racing on a budget that’s a lot lot smaller than anything comparable (to other series), and you can be feeding back your learning into applicable road technology.”

Restrictions on in-season development also plays a part in this appeal to the manufacturers. Some teams in Formula 1 and WEC etc. run on enormous budgets, pouring vast sums on money into development of aerodynamics, engines, brakes, gearboxes, software for the cars and many many other avenues that result in massive operational costs. It is these costs which often put off the big manufacturers, as they see such series (as Toyota and BMW did with F1 at the end of 2009) as being endless money pits for very little return, especially as mentioned above, in the areas of applicable road technologies. Formula E takes a different approach to this by locking development of all components while the season is in progress. 

“With Formula E cars you have to homologate you car and at that point there’s very little you can change, so once they’ve developed it and tested it and homologated it you’re sort of locked in to that season’s performance, to stop endless budgets running away with development in season is the idea. I think it works very well, but it doesn’t stop them developing for next season, so I’ll be moving a little bit that way, and I’ll both learn and assist in terms of their next years car.”

One area where Formula E has opened development recently is to allow manufacturers to develop their own powertrain, further increasing the input from the manufacturer as they develop and run their own systems, providing the trickle down of tech to the road car side of things that Robbie mentions above. Again though development of this is locked throughout the season.

Star Power

As well as some of the world’s most prominent auto manufacturers, Formula E has attracted some of the world’s best drivers. Former F1 drivers such as Sebastian Buemi, Jean Eric Vergne, Nick Heidfeld and Nelson Piquet Jr. currently run in the series, alongside others that we might have seen/still might see in F1 such as Sam Bird and Robin Frijns. While it might give pause for thought that guys used to racing flat out with big V8s and the like would jump at the chance to drive electric cars, Robbie alludes that Formula E still provides the one thing drivers crave: speed!

“As you can imagine we did some driver testing last year when Jaguar were doing their test program, and we tested a number of drivers, including the current race drivers (Adam Carroll & Mitch Evans), and every single person gets out of the car with a smile on their face saying “wow, that was better than I expected,” and that’s what you’re after when you’ve spent however many long nights working on, building and developing a car, for the drivers to get out having enjoyed it.”

A Different Kind of Show

One of the big things that strikes you when you watch a Formula E race is the sound, or lack thereof, something that those used to Formula 1, WEC, or any other major category, might find a little strange.

“I’ve always been involved where there’s been lots of noises, lots of engines, I think I’m not the only one to say, from a show side of things, it does take some getting used to. There’s still a lot of us in the team who still look at each other and say ‘this is weird’, and it kind of is weird, but it’s new.”

Robbie goes on to explain how this lack of noise isn’t necessarily a bad thing, that Formula E isn’t necessarily aiming to attract the ‘usual’ motorsport crowd, and discusses how Formula E positions itself compared with other forms of motorsport, especially with the types of venues they can use, as many Formula E races take place on temporary city centre tracks, perhaps giving them a different appeal to series such as F1.

“The audience isn’t mid-30s existing motorsport enthusiasts, I think the target audience is maybe people that are looking to buy their first hybrid car in 10 years time, or looking to interact with the sport on a different level that we always did when we grew up. I think that audience will take a while to really tune in, but the city centre venues for a start are quite something. Don’t get me wrong, the historic Grand Prix and Le Mans tracks are amazing in themselves, but this just brings a different element to the show. It strikes me that a Formula E race doesn’t have to be the only thing happening that weekend in that city, it could be an America’s Cup event, or a music festival, an arts festival, it could tack itself onto any event a city decides to hold and I think that gives it a great position really.”

In many ways, this gives Formula E a stronger position in terms of visibility than F1 might do. In F1, many circuits are outside major cities, sometimes requiring lengthy travel from these cities to reach the circuits. F1 has also sometimes been criticised for failing to advertise events sufficiently, so there could be a race happening in a city, but you wouldn’t know as there is no advertising for it. This is something Formula E seems much better at, not just by having events in exotic locations, but also by pushing advertising in its host cities.

“We were in a brand new part of Buenos Aires last week, and only a few months ago we were in Marrakesh, and you can almost see the desert from one side of the circuit, you’ll see hotels from another, see the historic town and square from another part of the circuit, and you just don’t get that with other forms of racing, and it’s so good, it almost bring the show to the people rather than making the people come out to the show.”

“They (manufacturers) do try and bring the people in, and I certainly see a lot of people in the cities, and you go out for a meal in the city 3 days before an event and they all seem to know about it, and the manufacturers spend a lot of time and effort advertising the show. I think they do a good job of that so far, and it’s still very young so they’ll improve.”

Maybe something from F1 to learn from! 

Autonomous Racing!

One final aspect that I absolutely had to find out more about was the Roborace, which saw its debut in Marrakesh this season, with 2 driverless cars battling it out on track. Despite some teething issues, the initial trials of these autonomous cars, which aims to become a regular mainstay on the calendar, with teams running 2 cars, was quite something to see.

“It’s fantastically clever and fantastically current, and hopefully it feeds down into systems that go into planes, trains, cars, all sorts of transport. I think it really will, and it’s quite something to watch it  all unfold. I saw a clip of the car braking and swerving to go round a dog in Argentina, which was quite something. We have to ask ourselves: how many current race drivers would have made the same decisions at the same time, and the car just did it, it was a really good test, not pre programmed, it just happened. They did have one car in the barrier, but ultimately they’re testing in a very public place and they’re very brave to do that do all credit to them.”

Looking to the Future

This is all looking very promising then! So can we see Formula E, and electric racing in general, as a template for the future of motorsport?

“I hope it runs in parallel in a way, and I think it will, but I just can’t see the cutting edge dropping out of combustion engines for the next 10-15 years certainly. I think there are so many different series, both track and off road, and I can see categories popping up, a sort of alternative performance. I know the Rallycross series is looking at having electric or hybrid cars very soon, which will be fantastically interesting. I also think you can’t underestimate what the noise, the vibration and the energy a combustion engine brings to a show, and I certainly hope it doesn’t go anywhere fast. I don’t think I’m the only one to say that. I’m kind of torn really! You might find kids now in school working on these new cars and new projects that might end up with them being at the front, but for the next next 10-15 years we’re safe enough.”

For now!

F1

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Nick Brown

By day I work as a Audio Technician in Liverpool, UK, but when I'm not doing that I'm Formula 1 Editor for RealSport!

I've followed Formula 1 from about 8-9 years old, taking in the battles of the likes of Hill/Schumacher and Hakkinen/Schumacher, all the way through to the modern day battles of Hamilton and Vettel. I am a McLaren fan, so the last few year's haven't been great, but at least Fernando Alonso has given us a few things to smile about in that time!

An Inside Look At Formula E – The Future Of Motorsport?

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