Video: The Complex Job of Racing a Formula E

With narrow tires and instantaneous torque, driving a Formula E is no simple task. It’s a shame then that it doesn’t quite get the notoriety or the publicity it deserves – and I can’t help but assume the lack of noise has something to do with that. If the public were to understand what the specific challenges of the Formula E series are, perhaps they’d pay it more attention, but perhaps not. It’s a new type of series for a niche audience, though, as some of Formula E’s drivers have predicted, it might be one category that will heavily influence motorsport in the consumption-conscious future.

If one thing about Formula E distinguishes it from the conventional, combustion-based racing series is efficiency. The battery is rated at 28 kw/h, though there is an addition 4 kw/h available for departing from the track in the event of prematurely running out of juice. In qualifying, the amount of power the motor makes is roughly 310 horsepower, though for races that figure is brought down to 230 horses, approximately. This isn’t much power for a relatively heavy formula car at just under 2,000 pounds, which means the acceleration isn’t the car’s strongest asset – which defines the cornering experience as well.

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Constant safety cars and limited battery life keep the racing exceptionally close in Formula E.

The drivers needs to carry a good deal of speed into and through the corners to minimize the amount of energy needed to get the car up to speed on the subsequent straight. This is fairly textbook, but it shows that the immediate torque of the motor might not be as advantageous as believed. To further complicate things, the drivers will have to lift slightly early off the throttle before braking for a corner to retain as much energy as possible, all the while keeping entry speed high – a concept which must seem alien to born-and-bred racing drivers.

That emphasis on efficiency isn’t limited to just the motor itself, but the tires as well. The teams are allowed to run one set of tires – treaded tires in the dry, mind you – in practice, qualifying, and the race. These Michelin tires work well in both the rain and the dry, and they’re supposedly very consistent from two laps onward. The team is responsible in the event of a puncture, though they can use leftover tires from a previous race. Nonetheless, it becomes challenging to manage tires when brake bias is constantly changing due to energy harvesting.

Regeneration, or the lack of it, is what really determines the racing. Because the energy is harvested from the rear axle, too much regeneration can upset the balance of the car and exacerbate rear brake-lock. Regeneration also produces lots of heat. Reducing the amount of regeneration is one method for keeping the system cool, since the battery needs to be kept below 144 F for full power, one this limit has been bypassed, power is limited, and the motor shuts off when the battery reaches 147 F. Keeping the motor and the tires within the narrow parameters imposed by the series is no easy task.

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Michelin’s FE tire is used in practice, qualifying, and the race, in both the wet and dry.

It’s a series that requires a driver to manage their power accordingly throughout the course of the race, because charging full-out all the time will end their race prematurely, not just reduce their pace. It’s a difficult thing to get right and market to a public that typically responds to adrenaline. Rather, Formula E is much more of a high-stakes science fair, with strategy at an all-time high. Can it serve as a step forward for motorsport in general? Quite possibly.

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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