In the Fast Lane with Formula E

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By Sam Schanfarber

What do street racing, the sound of a Light Cycle from the movie Tron, and saving the planet have in common? They’re all tenets of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship, an FIA-sanctioned racing series based solely on battery-electric cars. 

Since the first race in Beijing in 2014, Formula E has invigorated fans across the globe. With a high-pitched sound similar to a bottle rocket on its best behavior, combined with screeching tires, breathtaking crashes, and world-class drivers, it’s easy to see why races worldwide fill stadiums with fans. Born in part from a desire to attract increasingly eco-conscious sponsors back to motorsport, the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship is a natural showcase for electric vehicle technology. 

But what makes this growing sport so different from the heritage racing sport of Formula 1, besides the switch from petrol to electric motors? 

Beyond the obvious — a single-seater, open-wheeled, international racing series with races across the planet — the similarities between Formula 1 and Formula E are limited. For one, Formula E races staged across the planet, from Diriyah, to Rome to Santiago, are predominantly on street circuits; tracks literally designed from existing streets and converted for the event. 

As Eric Ernst, Technology Director for Formula E, explains: “The street circuits allow us to be in a more authentic environment where cars usually drive, and it creates this atmosphere that is really interesting.” 

Image courtesy of Formula E

And thanks to their electric powertrains, those not interested in watching the race happening in their city center don’t need to hear it, either. “You can bring your kids to a race and they don’t need to wear ear protection,” says Ernst. And, as a bonus, “… obviously there is no pollution.”

So you can’t hear it, you can’t smell petrol, and besides possibly disrupting a Parisian mother’s route to drop her kids off at school, these green races seem to be minimally invasive while they occupy a given city. As you might’ve guessed, unless you’re an impassioned environmentalist, these aren’t the only reasons Formula E is attracting more fans. It’s mostly based on the ruleset.

“There are a lot of gamification features in the race that others don’t have,” says Ernst. “We have Fanboost where you can vote for a driver until 6 minutes into the race and that driver gets an additional boost on his car…And then we have Attack Mode, which is like in Super Mario Kart when you go over a mushroom and get a boost. We want to create a sport where there’s a lot of overtaking; a lot of possibility for mistakes to happen that create an interesting story to tell. It’s very unpredictable.”

Image courtesy of Formula E

Practice, qualifying, and the race itself all take place on the same day — and on one set of tires per car, maximum. In addition, by providing the same chassis and battery to each team, Formula E also tightly regulates investment into the cars themselves. This makes it possible for small, independent teams to take on traditional racing juggernauts like Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar. Teams are limited to producing the most efficient electric powertrain solution and can tune the software as much as they’d like. 

And with the added challenge of driving vehicles where braking provides the regenerative battery power needed to complete a race, drivers are forced to be far more strategic in their approach than in traditional petrol-based motorsports. 

“So, these drivers, actually they drive power plants,” says Ernst. “If they don’t regenerate a certain amount of kilowatt-hours, they’ll run out of power.”

With the constantly evolving technology involved in the sport, it’s no surprise to see ABB as the title partner of Formula E. ABB, a multinational engineering firm, will be providing much of the technology to the Formula E championship, including designing the all-new charging stations for the upcoming Generation 3 cars. 

ABB’s focus on innovation and sustainability made the opportunity to participate in Formula E a natural fit, explains Stephanie Medeiros, E-Mobility Account Manager at ABB. 

“Formula E is very closely aligned with ABB’s visions and missions for a better world,” says Medeiros. “Partnering with them definitely made a lot of sense. What’s also great is that ABB Formula E is a competitive platform to develop and test e-mobility technology so it’s pretty much like a test bench.”

Image courtesy of ABB

The opportunity to test technologies in a high-stress environment is welcome for ABB. The innovations and learnings from Formula E are often directly passed on to the consumer and commercial facing electric vehicle technology ABB is known for. In particular, ABB is looking forward to designing and implementing the new chargers for the Generation 3 cars to be raced in seasons 9-12. 

“It’s this unique application where the chargers are going to be shipped all over the world, the charging happens at a very fast-pace environment—different types of environments as well—and also the energy sources that we’re going to have,” says Medeiros. “When these chargers are in operation, that’s going to be a lot of really valuable data that we’ll take to ABB’s mass-market chargers.”

Since its first race in 2014, Formula E has grown in following year over year, and shows no signs of slowing. This is good news for racing fans and climate activists alike, says Ernst, for whom the ties between Formula E and combating climate change are obvious. 

“It’s a stepping stone,” he explains. “Everyone going to electric cars is not going to solve all our problems but it’s one of the things we need to look at to make this a better place. It’s exciting being part of something that can really make an impact on how we live tomorrow, you know?” 

Watch an in-depth webinar we did with Formula E here.

About Sam Schanfarber: Sam works for the nonprofit Forth and leads electric vehicle initiatives in the Southwest United States, including campaign and program development. Formerly, Sam worked with early-stage startups on product and program design. He holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder.

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