Formula E: Humming along towards the future of motorsports

Formula E came buzzing into Long Beach this past weekend. As a fan of all-things motorsports, I was extremely curious to examine this all-electric racing series. There are a number of manufacturers already involved and more are on the sidelines getting ready to jump in. Volkswagen is one such automaker that has taking a dive into this sport for its second season. The timing for the VW move is, as you can imagine, quite smart. The company was shuttling folks around town with its eGolf. Volkswagen should’ve kept the GTE plug-in hybrid around for a bit longer as well, as that is a vehicle that should make its way Stateside. Enough about road cars though, let’s dive into this racing series and the nearly silent machines competing for the podium spots.

Formula E is essentially IndyCars on Electricity. At least, that’s how it seems with a cursory glance. This is nearly a spec racing series as all cars used sealed battery backs and the same tires. Rear suspension setups, electric motors, and gearbox choices are up to the teams. In fact, I found myself in the Abt-Schaeffler paddock examining the rear end of the cars set to be driven by team drivers Daniel Abt and Lucas di Grassi. I snapped off a handful of photos before being politely asked not to shoot this portion of the cars.
As far as the other modifiable sections of the cars, it seems some teams run multiple motors while others go with a solitary unit. Some cars have single speed transmissions while others run three, four, or even five gear setups. You can hear the difference out on the track and, well, there’s not much else to hear. Think large-scale RC racing and you’ll have the sound dead on. In fact, why don’t you take a listen for yourself:
There’s something to be said for the lack of noise. It was odd to be at a race track under full green and not hear the wailing of engines. You do get some other interesting sounds, however, such as the whine of various gearboxes and the whirring of electric motors. You also get, most interestingly, the variable noise of different loads being applied to the tires. Some can tell which drivers are loading up the fronts heavily by braking way late for a corner, and which drivers setup more smoothly ahead of a turn. That part was quite fascinating as it’s something you’ll never be able to hear during a race with cars packing combustible heat.
In a few weeks time, Long Beach will see its road circuit once again closed off to street traffic as the Long Beach Grand Prix is nearly upon us. That event is a packed with folks eager to take in top flight racing action. Formula E wasn’t quite as well attended. In fact, it felt oddly empty. I wandered through the stands to find a number of folks excited to see electric open-wheel racing, but then I found myself in the VIP section. It was very much like a small-scale squadron of F1 hangers on. Expensive shoes and watches mingled with bright jewelry, designer dresses, and tasty champagne. This was, after all, a global racing event, which brings out the upper crust. I just didn’t expect to see so many of them transfixed by an odd dancing routine under a beautifully laid out tent ahead of the main event. The atmosphere was… quite different.
That VIP section did, however, have excellent simulators on hand. I may have spent a number of virtual laps exploring the Long Beach layout. That turned out to be a bit of problem as well. The standard GP layout is quite exciting for both the IndyCars and the Pirelli World Challenge vehicles that run there. That’s not the circuit that Formula E runs, however. Instead, they throw a few turns around a few straights and call it a day. It might as well be a square, and that does not make for an exciting road circuit. For the record, the best time on the simulator was in the 55 second range and I was running in the 56 second lap range. Just putting that out there.
The most interesting part of the whole affair had to be chatting with the folks from Michelin. They run a spec Pilot Sport EV tire for this race, and each team is allowed one set for the entire weekend. You are allowed a spare for punctures, but these come from the prior race weekend. Also, the cars don’t run slicks since they’re only allowed one set of tires. It’s a modified blend of rubber that takes tech from the All-Season 3 and the Pilot SuperSport series of tires. Michelin has a team on hand to handle mounting and balancing. They also have all the tires accounted for and hand them out before racing starts then recover them after racing is over. Every bit of rubber here is tracked so that a wayward tire doesn’t wind up in the hands of someone from say Hankook, Falken, or Toyo.
When the cars are out on the track, the team gets only a bit of actual telemetry data. They don’t get the battery charge level. This information is available to the driver and he can report it back to the team, or the team can watch the TV feed, which offers up the info. It’s a unique wrinkle that the FIA has thrown at the teams. They’re also capped on the amount of working crew allowed as well, which was done in an effort to reduce costs for the various teams. Still, these races are global efforts so we can’t imagine the racing here is inexpensive. Thankfully though, the actual cars themselves should prove quite durable thanks to the lack of rotating bits found in an engine.
All in all though, I think this series still has a way to go before it attracts the same level of fan appreciation that other series enjoy. The crowd that was there was into it, but it wasn’t that large of a crowd. The cars are interesting, but they’re not exciting. Still, more teams are joining the fray and soon even the battery tech will be open to modification. The goal should be to get the racing so that the cars complete a whole race without swapping out for a newer car. Each team runs two cars per driver, with the driver swapping into the 2nd car halfway through the race. It’s an odd mechanic but a necessary one for this sport at this stage in its development.
Here are some notes I took while at the race:

  • You could bring a baby here and they can sleep. That’s pretty neat.
  • People dress stupidly the more money they have. They’re still quite attractive what with all the never working thing.
  • It’s RC cars. I miss the noise.
  • The food is higher class in the club. It’s not race food… But it’s delicious.
  • I crushed it on the sim. The course is boring.
  • It’s like a very small scale F1 crowd in the cup area.

You’ll notice there’s not a lot pertaining to the actual on-track action. Because I couldn’t get into it. Will I give Formula E another shot when it makes its way back to Long Beach next year? Yes, because I’m actually quite curious to see how this sport evolves, and I do think it will evolve. I just hope they find a way to make the course more exciting, the noise more interesting, and bring in more of a crowd that cares about the racing and not some random dance action in a closed off VIP tent.

[Images copyright 2016 Hooniverse/Jeff Glucker]


  1. What they should do for an electric car race is present the most daunting challenge that electric street cars face: Range. Invite manufacturers to compete, have spec battery packs, but then let them loose with tires, motors, aerodynamics, etc. and let them compete for the most laps under that battery charge/within a certain amount of time/or just the most laps total. With the trickle-down effect that happens with technology from motor sport into street cars, this may prove beneficial to the people who drove to the race to watch it, and not just as a racing experiment.

        1. That’s a race I would enjoy, not because it would be fast and thrilling, but because it would be an intense exercise in battery management.

          1. There is a fair bit of battery management going on already. I have read about teams/manufacturers wanting to open up the battery/drivetrain to allow for development, and I think that would be interesting too but a different type of racing than what it is now.

      1. I can’t wait for the first all-electric LeMons race – some sort of “Ol’ Sparky!” theme needed!

          1. I shoulda figured something along those lines had been used already.

    1. It’s one of many possibilities. One that’s still in its infancy, I would add. I don’t think that batteries are the future, but they serve the purpose for now.

  2. It’s almost as though the FIA is afraid to show how slow these cars are on long runs, hence the butchered/slow/short tracks they usually race on. I know that they wouldn’t last 10 minutes at full chat around Long Beach, but for crying out loud, these are sophisticated machines driven by world-class drivers. Let them loose!

    1. I think part of the attraction is they get to race in city centers and other places that ‘noisy’ cars could never get to (never mind the sound of tire squealing still isn’t quiet!), plus a street circuit that is a quick lap and usually conducive to lots of passing opportunities makes for better racing.

  3. The city centre thing is nice, but I don’t get the “point” of Formula E, seems to be FIA eco-tokenism of the worst kind. Unless I’m mistaken, all the cars seem almost identical, there isn’t huge scope for major innovation (much like F1 these days with the hybrid turbo V6 format). Despite all the guff about being the future, it does nothing moving things forwared. By contrast, a series that doesn’t flaunt its eco credentials.. LMP1/Endurance racing is probably doing a lot more for moving things forward, hell even the amateurs making stuff for NEDRA drag racing have more of a “spark” (sorry) of creativity.

    1. Right now, each team can use their own rear suspension designs and I believe steering setups. They can each choose different motor and transmission strategies, and in a year or two the battery packs themselves will be opened up.

      1. Thanks, does “motor and transmission strategies” mean they can specify their own motors/transmission or just how they’re setup? I’d wondered why Jaguar were entering, it was sort of hard to see what a manufacter would “prove” from a victory in Race on Sunday, sell on Monday terms, but that might actually make sense to me now.

        1. Jag has been announcing plans to have electrics in its lineup by a certain date, so I can understand this move.
          Some teams run single motors while others run dual setups. Some teams have single speed gearboxes while others run three, four, or five speed setups. It’s that part of this sport that is probably most interesting… the different ways each team can set up the car.

  4. I had a similar revelation the first time I saw the Audi diesel R10 TDi at the track. I was sitting on the hill looking down at the track at Road America, and I could hear an occasional “brvvvt” sound that always came when the two R10s were at the same place on the track. It took me like 10 laps to figure out that it was the sound of the tires going over the curbs. I just couldn’t hear it on the other cars competing, because they were making too much engine noise.

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