Formula One’s electric cousin came to Berlin’s defunct Tempelhof Airport on Saturday (25 May), in the latest round of a rapidly advancing sport. Formula E’s fortunes have progressed hand-in-hand with those of electric vehicles in general.
In 2011, the head of world motorsport’s governing body realised that cars were going down an electric pathway and decided to get ahead of the curve and try to future proof the sport.
That prompted a conversation with none other than current European Parliament President Antonio Tajani and others, which sowed the seeds for an all-electric racing formula in the same mould as Formula One.
When Formula E first kicked off in 2014, drivers had to make a mandatory stop halfway through the race in order to switch cars. Battery technology at the time was not sufficient to let their machines go the full distance.
Now in its fifth season, the electric racing series no longer needs those pitstops because the 52 kWH battery, which generates 335 brake horsepower, can now last the 45-minute-long race.
It reflects the increase in range demonstrated by electric car fleets away from the racetrack. A recent study of US cars showed that the average distance between recharges had increased by 15% year-on-year since 2011.
In a recent survey of European citizens, concerns about range ranked significantly lower than car cost and lack of recharging points. Mobility group T&E said the results showed that so-called range anxiety “has either been overstated or long-range cars have addressed the concerns”.
Parallels between Formula E and Formula One are hard to avoid and range is no exception. F1 cars used to make pitstops at the halfway point in order to take on more fuel but a combination of cost-cutting measures and safety concerns led to a refuelling ban in 2010.
That pushed fuel providers like Shell, Petronas and Mobil 1 to squeeze the most out of the 105 kg allowed in each car to the maximum. Just like the battery race, the fuel efficiency race has also transferred to the real world.
Real-world application is the name of the game for many of the championship’s teams, which this year includes Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Nissan, as well as Mercedes and Porsche as of next season.
When Mercedes, which has dominated F1 for nearly five years, announced last July that it would join the electric series, Formula E founder Alejandro Agag said it “shows how much the world is changing, not only in motorsport but the whole automotive industry”.
The German manufacturer’s head of motorsport, Toto Wolff, said that “electrification is happening in the road car world and Formula E offers manufacturers an interesting platform to bring this technology to a new audience”.
Mercedes’ rival Audi, which has been involved in Formula E since the very start, won the championship in 2017 and one of the team’s drivers, Brazilian Lucas di Grassi, won in Berlin on Saturday.
Last year, Chinese team Techeetah won the driver’s title, reflecting China’s dominance in the global electric vehicle market. Sales jumped more than 60% in 2018, with 1.3 million cars sold, which has provoked enviable looks from Europe.
However, despite hailing from the Middle Kingdom, Techeetah’s cars are currently powered by DS Automobiles, the premium marque of PSA group (Citroen and Peugeot), and previously counted on the technical know-how of Renault.
The Berlin race, which took place at the German capital’s old Tempelhof Airport, is the tenth on the 13-strong calendar, which includes circuits located in city centres rather than F1’s general focus on custom-built racetrack venues.
Bringing electric cars into the centre of cities like Rome, Santiago, New York and London was meant to increase the public’s interest in the new motorsport division, raise awareness about issues like air quality and set the series apart from others.
Formula E has the luxury of racing past iconic landmarks like Paris’ Les Invalides, the Brooklyn Bridge and Hong Kong’s harbour because local authorities are more willing to allow the cleaner and quieter cars to race.
Brussels intended to host a round of the Formula E championship in 2017 but the event was scrapped when no suitable venue was found. Initially proposed around Elisabeth Park and then the Atomium, both ideas were nixed due to organisational and financial challenges.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]