FEATURE: Formula E drives electric vehicle progress

Crispin Andrews

Mitch Evans of Panasonic Jaguar Racing competes in this year’s Mexico City ePrix (Credit: Rex/ Shutterstock)
Mitch Evans of Panasonic Jaguar Racing competes in this year’s Mexico City ePrix (Credit: Rex/ Shutterstock)

Its vision is to reinvent racing, but the real long-term impact of Formula E may be in how the big carmakers use it to trial and showcase their electric vehicle technology

When the thin whine of electric motors began at racetracks around the globe in 2014, Formula E rules said all teams had to use the same, centrally designed car. The organisers of the series wanted all the competitors to have the same power, speed and acceleration at their disposal so that races and titles would be won by the best drivers, not by the teams with the most advanced technology and the most money.

For the first season in 2015-16, Italian race car designer Dallara came up with the standard car’s chassis, McLaren developed the electric motor, Williams Advanced Engineering did the battery system, and Hewland the five-speed gearbox. Since then, motorsport governing body the FIA has relaxed the rules. The chassis and battery remain centrally produced but, since the second season, the rules have changed to let manufacturers build their own powertrains – the motor, inverter, motor generator units (MGUs), gearbox, rear suspension and cooling system. 

This increased freedom to innovate has piqued the interest of some of the world’s most famous car manufacturers, which are keen to use the sport to trial and showcase their latest electric vehicle technology. 

Audi joined Formula E last year and was followed by Porsche this year. Next season it will be the turn of Mercedes-Benz, and the following year BMW will launch its own works team after three seasons as technical partner to MS&AD Andretti, the team owned by former IndyCar legend Michael Andretti, son of former Formula One champion Mario.  

It is not just the Germans who are joining up – Nissan will be there next season and Fiat-Chrysler, probably through its Maserati brand, is rumoured to be interested. Citroën, Jaguar and Renault have been involved since the second season, although Renault pulls out next year to make way for Nissan.

In recent years, these companies have invested heavily in electric vehicles, spurred on by a series of government announcements in Germany, Britain, France, India, Japan and the US about the phasing-out of new petrol and diesel cars. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that electric vehicles will make up 54% of new car sales by 2040, up from the 35% it predicted last year.

On the track, performance is constantly improving. Next season’s car (see Exposure in PE March) will have more power, enough to get a driver around an entire course without a mid-race change of vehicle.

Increasingly, the big carmakers see Formula E as an ideal way to profile and test the new technologies they hope will eventually improve the quality of their consumer vehicles.

Electric dreams

Mercedes-Benz F1 director Toto Wolff says Formula E enables manufacturers to bring electric technology to a new audience. Executives at Porsche see the sport as the ultimate competitive environment for the development of high-performance vehicles that are also environmentally friendly, sustainable and efficient.

And while Jens Marquardt, BMW’s motorsport director, admits that racetrack innovation can take some time to hit the road, Audi’s Formula E project leader Tristan Summerscale thinks it is worth the wait, because race testing can improve the efficiency of production cars.

Race cars need technology that can withstand high levels of shock and vibration, extreme temperatures and exposure to chemicals. Engineers also aim to make their cars’ components smaller to save weight and space.

Races are held on a variety of different surfaces, some of which are very bumpy. On such surfaces, running the car at the limit over a short time can enable technicians to collect useful data, explains Summerscale. “Sensors pick up the information that you need – vertical, lateral, and longitudinal acceleration are useful for vibration analysis and for creating a profile to test an MGU, inverter or components for long-term durability,” he says.

The second-generation Formula E car has almost double the battery capacity and range of its predecessor (Credit: Credit: FIA/ Formula E)

The second-generation Formula E car has almost double the battery capacity and range of its predecessor (Credit: Credit: FIA/ Formula E)

“A car can’t run flat out for the whole race or it wouldn’t reach the end,” he adds. “We need to know where the ideal lift-off and brake points are, and then to optimise that for the individual circuit.”

BMW is developing all sorts of new technology for the sport – including semiconductors, laminated materials, composite adhesive techniques, and heat conductor casting materials. “The engine revolutions are significantly increased,” says Marquardt. “New bearing concepts are required, which must withstand the stress of significantly increased revolutions.”

The company’s research and development also focuses on efficiency and extending the range of the batteries. “Special cooling and heating elements maintain the battery in the optimum operating state, keeping loss in the battery at a minimum and optimising the lifespan,” he says. 

Although BMW’s innovations are currently too expensive to use on electric road vehicles, mass production is possible within the next few years.

Future challenges 

Formula E manufacturers can only develop their powertrains before the season begins – after the first race, regulations allow for no subsequent innovation. This, believes Audi’s Summerscale, means coming to terms with a supply chain that isn’t yet geared to the demands of motorsport. 

“Timescales are very short for us to develop each new powertrain, but some of the electrical parts – say if you want to develop a new inverter or an MGU – can take a long time to order,” he says. “Battery cell components can take six months, so you have to plan with that in mind. With a Formula One car, with some components you go back from the track, design the component and two weeks later it’s on the car.”

With next season’s increase in the car’s power in mind, Audi is looking into a new MGU, an inverter, and ways of making the cooling package for the MGU as efficient, light and robust as possible. 

There is some tension between manufacturers, who want to test out new technologies, and the organisers of the series, who want to see close racing and a relatively even playing field.

Pope Francis blesses the new Formula E car alongside Alejandro Agag and Alberto Longo (Credit: Vatican Media)

Pope Francis blesses the new Formula E car alongside Alejandro Agag and Alberto Longo (Credit: Vatican Media)

Last December, Formula E chief executive Alejandro Agag confirmed that he would stand by rules to protect the smaller teams and the sporting contest from too much technological innovation and manufacturer influence. He also confirmed that the FIA would continue to cap the cost of manufacturer powertrains at €800,000, up from the previous maximum of €440,000. 

“All the manufacturers want to win and are ready to put resources in,” Agag said, reiterating his determination to stay with the existing rules “no matter which way the manufacturers push”.These rules have certainly created an exciting sporting spectacle. Eight different teams and nine different drivers have won races in the three-and-a-half years of Formula E so far.

By contrast, Mercedes have won all but nine races in the last three seasons of F1. Eight of those nine were won by Sebastian Vettel in a Ferrari and one by Daniel Ricciardo in a Red Bull Renault. 

More freedom

Formula E manufacturers will continue to put pressure on the FIA for rule changes to allow them more scope to develop and use their own technology. Audi’s Summerscale would like to see manufacturers given more freedom to develop their cars’ aerodynamics, and Porsche executives have stated that the increasing freedom to innovate attracted the company to Formula E. Nissan bosses also talk of an opportunity to show off their innovations. 

Mercedes F1 guru Toto Wolff says Formula E needs a mindset of change if it wants to become a serious motorsport player. He likens Formula E as it stands to an exciting start-up with immature technology. 

His comments provide an interesting insight into modern motorsport – vehicle manufacturers don’t invest for the love of it, but because they believe doing so is good for business. 

Sporting purists might not like it, but expensive advanced technology makes for faster cars and a better sporting spectacle for the public. Formula E will never be Formula One, but in order to remain a credible sport it cannot afford to lag too far behind. 

The challenge for the FIA over coming years will be to find ways to protect its sport, while keeping the vehicle manufacturers on side. 

After all, they provide the technology that makes Formula E so electric to watch. If they can successfully use the sport as a testing ground for new vehicle technology, it could pave the way for a greener future, both on and off the track.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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