Formula E wows the crowds with street racing in NYC

Formula E wows the crowds with street racing in NYC
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Formula E wows the crowds with street racing in NYC

NEW YORK—On July 15 and 16, the fledgling sport of Formula E racing managed something its older, bigger, much richer sibling never managed: racing with the Statue of Liberty and the downtown Manhattan skyline as a backdrop. After races in Miami (2015) and Long Beach, California (2015, 2016), the Big Apple became the third US venue to host an ePrix, and it should provide the electric racing series a home for some time to come thanks to a 10-year contract with the city.

Before a sold-out crowd of 18,000, DS Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird stepped up to the pressure and took two wins from two races. And with championship leader Sebastien Buemi absent—the Swiss driver was committed to racing in Germany in the World Endurance Championship the same weekend—ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport’s Lucas di Grassi made up ground in the title fight, narrowing the gap to just 10 points with two races left to go. Given all the excitement (and the fact NYC qualifies as the closest stop on the Formula E calendar), Ars took to the grandstands to see how one of our favorite racing series is starting to mature.

The track

Formula E eschews the purpose-built racetracks we usually visit, racing instead on temporary street circuits laid out in city centers. These conditions play to the series’ strengths: short straights and plenty of corners to show off the cars’ acceleration; convenient transit to attract the fans, many of whom are new to racing; and a demonstration that 21st century motorsport need not deafen nor pollute the neighbors. In this case, the 1.21-mile (1.95km) track was a tight, bumpy, concrete-lined affair featuring multiple different surfaces, laid out around the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook. Despite few overtaking spots, it provided plenty of action as we baked in the July sun.

What’s more, the presence of several OEMs (along with a few more EV startups) stood as testament to the growing importance of electric mobility and the role that motorsports can play in improving road-going EVs. Audi and BMW were both present ahead of ramped-up involvement in season four. France’s Citroën (in the shape of DS) and Renault have both been playing for a while, the latter having supplied technology used by every team during season one. Jaguar has been a presence on the grid since the beginning of season three. Engineering firms Venturi and Mahindra field teams, as do EV builders Faraday Future and NextEV, with Chinese racing team Techeetah completing the 10-team grid.

“It’s an amazing feat that after three seasons Formula E is racing in New York,” di Grassi told us. “There’s never been a race in New York before, so for us to do it is already impressive. To be able to build the infrastructure at the location here with the little time they had, and how new the championship is, shows two things. For sure Formula E has a bright future ahead, and for sure New York is very forward-thinking as a city in terms of how it wants to manage mobility for the future, promoting this message for sports and technology. It’s an honor for us to race here.”

The cars

Despite having front and rear wings, Formula E cars actually generate almost no appreciable downforce.
Enlarge / Despite having front and rear wings, Formula E cars actually generate almost no appreciable downforce.

Elle Cayabyab Gitlin

Although we’ve come some ways from Formula E’s first season, where every team used identical Spark-Renault SRT_01Es, technology development is still relatively restricted compared to series like Formula 1 and WEC. Each car has to weigh a minimum of 1,940lbs (880kg), including the driver; of that, the batteries account for 705lbs (320kg). The motors are allowed to produce a maximum of 200kw (269hp); this is available during the qualifying sessions that set the order of the grid for the race. For the race itself, that power is restricted down to 170kW (228hp), unless you’re one of the three lucky drivers who wins the fanboost (see sidebar). The cars top out at around 140mph (225km/h) and do the 0-62mph (0-100km/h) sprint in three seconds.

Everyone still uses identical carbon fiber chassis (built by Dallara), which have front and rear wings that are mainly there for looks; they produce little meaningful downforce at the speeds Formula E races. All the teams also use the same Michelin Pilot Sport EV tires—an 18-inch treaded tire that’s new for this season, lighter and with lower rolling resistance than before—and the same 28kWh lithium-ion battery developed by Williams Advanced Engineering. (Yes, that means they still have to switch cars mid-race; hot-swapping was explored and rejected due to weight concerns, and we have to wait until season five’s new car, which will feature a 56kWh battery.) But the teams are free to develop their own motor and gearbox as well as control electronics and software.

The 28kWh battery is an integral part of the Formula E chassis. During the conception of the series, consideration was given to having hot-swappable batteries, but that would have added even more weight to what's already a pretty heavy single seater race car.
Enlarge / The 28kWh battery is an integral part of the Formula E chassis. During the conception of the series, consideration was given to having hot-swappable batteries, but that would have added even more weight to what’s already a pretty heavy single seater race car.

Jonathan Gitlin

That last one is where the car companies are having the biggest input right now, and it’s also where they’re deriving the greatest technology transfer. Faraday Future’s Senior Vice President of R&D, Nick Sampson, explains:

“Formula E is rolling out the technology change, so there’s only some things we can do. It’s a fixed battery pack so we can’t use some of our technology in the cars but we can still learn from what we find happening here. How batteries react, how power electronics react under the stress of motorsport rather than just going to a test track. Things go in both directions; you can take an idea from the road car and try those sorts of strategies or algorithms in the race car, push them to limits, and improve them there in a way that’s not so easily done in the road car.”

Multiple Le Mans winner Allan McNish is now Audi Sport's Director of Formula E. Next to him is Dieter Gass, head of motorsport at Audi AG.
Enlarge / Multiple Le Mans winner Allan McNish is now Audi Sport’s Director of Formula E. Next to him is Dieter Gass, head of motorsport at Audi AG.

Vincent Nguyen

While many in the paddock would like to be able to ditch the “single motor and gearbox” rule to allow for things like adding a second motor to the front axle or individual torque-vectoring motors per wheel, the sport isn’t ready to go there… yet. We asked Allan McNish, formerly a Le Mans-winning racer with Audi Sport who is now its Formula E Director.

“We have this balance: are we purely an R&D facility, are we a sport, are we entertainment, are we all of the above? We are all of the above, so there’s some things we’ll want to do but some things we’ll decide as a group might fit for road car development but not for Formula E.

We’ve got a question mark about when we get more power, where do we want it: more top speed or more acceleration? For a road car you want acceleration, because unless you’re in Germany you’ve got a limitation on the road because the police come and say hello. So I think acceleration is the thing we want. The other thing is if you want a very high top speed you need bigger run off areas, which means the circuit isn’t the circuit we’re in now. The cost goes up, the track potentially can’t race in that city any longer, and so on. These are all the things we’re discussing because it’s an embryonic championship. We’re coming in with a lot of experience from other championships and kinds of racing and trying to bring it together into something that works for us all. That’s one thing I’ve found quite positive about this is we have manufacturers discussions where people try and come to a common agreement for the sport.

The 56kWh batteries and other season five changes will be locked in for three years, and the teams are currently working on plans for the next evolution, due in series seven. McNish told us those discussions started very recently and that we may indeed see road-relevant technologies like torque-vectoring show up.

Listing image by Elle Cayabyab Gitlin

Formula E wows the crowds with street racing in NYC

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