Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

Bernie, Batman and battery-powered racing - An introduction to Formula E and its Formula One connections

Published by Ross Ringham

Formula E, the FIA’s new all-electric, open-wheel racing series, has begun to generate (pun only slightly intended) genuine interest from all corners. Formula 1 devotees are beginning to pay attention too, which is not as surprising as it may at first seem.

Formula E Prototype car takes to the streets of Berlin
Di Grassi takes in the sights and sounds of BerlinCredit: Formula E Holdings

Connections between Formula E and Formula 1 are really very close; almost nepotistic. To illustrate: in the inaugural season, a customer car is being provided to alleviate development and operating costs for prospective teams. The car is being built by a consortium led by a new company called Spark, which is headed by Frederic Vassuer. Heard the name before? He is a co-founder of the ART team, which competes in F1 feeder series GP2 and GP3. (The other ART founder is Nicolas Todt, son of former Ferrari boss and head honcho at the FIA, Jean, and whose management company looks after Felipe Massa.)

The consortium building the car also includes titans of F1 McLaren (motors), Williams (batteries) and Renault (technical overview). The chassis is from Dallara, wearing French rubber stamped Michelin. (The Mercedes F1 chaps were involved in the globe-trotting prototype.) The rear-wheel drive machine is expected to have a better power to weight ratio than the bonkers all-wheel drive AMG SLS E Drive that awed Jeremy Clarkson. It will be unveiled at the Frankfurt motor show next week; Jean Todt is expected to be in attendance.

Then there’s the fact that the Formula E development driver, Lucas di Grassi, is a former F1 racer and the current F1 Pirelli tester. And Formula E’s partnership with TAG Heuer, which will provide timing for the battery-powered series as it does to McLaren.

Agog at Agag

Alejandro Agag, Formula E Holdings

Not enough connections? Enter Spanish businessman and Formula E promoter Alejandro Agag, who has said repeatedly that the new series is a completely different proposition to F1, and that it complements rather than competes. His F1 interests include the rights to Spanish TV F1 coverage, purchased with ex-Renault F1 principal Flavio Briatore, and ownership of the Addax GP2/GP3 team.

Oh, and he was part-owner of English football club Queen’s Park Rangers – along with Briatore and a certain Bernie Ecclestone. In a typically complex set of deals, Tony Fernandes was eventually left holding the shares – that’s the same Fernandes who has Caterham F1 in his toy box.

At one time, Agag was even touted as a potential successor to the FOM throne, which he publicly dismissed. Instead, his outfit FEH now owns Formula E in the same way that FOM has snared F1.

Scratch the surface and it’s quickly evident that Formula E is as much a plaything of the rich and famous as F1. There are big bucks and bigger names behind Formula E: that doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s going to take a spectacular derailment to slow this gravy train down.

Tackling technology

Here’s a 10 second overview of Formula E.

The basic concept is this: open-wheel, single-seat electric cars race around city street circuits. The fun kicks off in 2014, with the calendar set to include 10 destinations across the globe visited between September and June the following year. First year locations are London, Berlin, Rome, LA, Miami, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Beijing, Putrajaya and Bangkok.

The grid will feature 10 teams, each fielding two drivers. Three have so far been announced, which include one headed by former UK science minister Paul Drayson and leading IndyCar racing dynasty Andretti Autosport.

Practice, qualifying and the race itself will all take place in a single day. Latest indications are that qualifying will be just two hot laps, and the race itself an hour long. We’re expecting low levels of downforce and a single all-weather tyre that will last the whole race: together, ingredients that add up to promise races dictated by driver skill. Quite an old fashioned concept for such a futuristic endeavour.

Bluebird of land speed record fame has already announced its interest with a fantastic, sinuous beast

Battery technology is expected to be the limiting factor. Battery swaps were ruled out early on by the FIA for safety reasons.

Instead, each driver will have two cars: car A to be driven for about 25 minutes, returned to the pits and recharged for 25 minutes while car B is being ragged around the track, and then car A picked up again for the final sprint. It’s clumsy but it’s a start.

Recharging will be tough too. For a start, recharging big batteries fast requires portable heavy duty machinery that doesn’t yet exist. Then there’s the fact that cities will need to beef up their power supply and distribution infrastructure or risk blacking out entire districts. Then there are the limitations of the batteries themselves, which physically can’t be charged too fast.

The second season is expected to introduce other constructors, which is when we would expect to see an explosion in engineering innovation. Bluebird of land speed record fame has already announced its interest with a fantastic, sinuous beast that looks like it has driven straight out of a Batman film. (Officially, the car is being launched late in September by the UK business minister Vince Cable at the Sustainable MotoExpo.)

In fact, expect the whole series to evolve like Batman, moving from the storyboarded pages of imagination to the camp, overweight and self-consciously daft TV series but growing into the brutal, efficient machinery of the Nolan/Bale franchise. We won’t mention Clooney. Or rubber nipples.

Much has been made about other details, but the fact is that most of what we know at this point is conjecture, marketing fluff and good intentions. Agag will be submitting his plans to the FIA’s World Motor Sports Council this month, which will chew through the minutia before green lighting anything.

The floor is open

We should know a lot more about the shape of the new sport in the coming weeks, so tell us what you’d like to see covered in follow-up posts. And please check out my Current E blog where you’ll find a lot more about the Formula E story so far.