Feature image: FIA Formula e / Body images: SportsCarGlobal.
SportsCarGlobal’s photographer Kelvin Pope takes his hand off the shutter today and pens some thoughts on Formula E and its relevancy to Sportscar racing:
After Formula E’s first season and on the eve of its second, what can we garner from what we’ve seen so far? What positives and negatives are obvious and indeed not so obvious? And maybe most importantly of all for readers of this website, what relevance does Formula E have towards our love and passion, Sportscar Racing?
Let’s look at Formula E itself to start with. A slightly faltering build up to its inaugural season saw one team, Drayson Racing Formula E, morph into TrulliGP, with its eponymous team owner taking one of the driver slots. Initial testing at Donington Park showed the cars to be stylish, yet maybe slightly slower than some would like. Sebastien Buemi topped the first days testing with a time of 1:35.475s, which is about 4 seconds slower than the current MSA Formula Ford record for the Grand Prix circuit. The Formula E mark was lowered to 1:31.792 on the final day of testing, again by Sebastien Buemi, taking the time to within hundredths of the Formula Ford time.
The naysayers, of which there were and still are plenty, were quick to move into smugness overload, opining the death of motorsport on a global scale. The cars being too slow to possibly enjoy watching them race, the cars being too quiet to conceivably be attractive, the whole show just appealing, in some peoples eyes, to the wrong crowd. Then there is the ‘FanBoost’ angle, a medium for the fans to interact with the races and vote to give their favourite driver at each race a bit of a boost, namely a 5 second jump in power from 150kw to 180kw (approximately 40bhp), essentially a ‘push to pass’ button. Manufactured and false are the accusations levelled, but is FanBoost any different to other ‘push to pass’ buttons or DRS (itself with plenty of detractors)? Possibly not, but to their credit Formula E have decided not to follow the established path, but to push the boundaries and open new areas.
However, what motorsport does not need is just another single seater series competing for the same budgets on the same circuits. What Formula E offers is a bespoke product, taking place in the heart of major cities with iconic backdrops, catering and marketing itself to a new breed of motorsport enthusiast. Yes, there were issues in the first year, arguably there were always going to be and it was surprising there weren’t more, especially with the temporary nature of the circuits, but that is all part of the learning curve of a new Championship. One of those early issues combined the very USP of the street circuits and the newness of the cars, combined maybe with the decision to test only on a dedicated race track. The suspension arms just couldn’t cope with the punishment at times of the high temporary kerbs and failures occurred. Spark, the chassis supplier, has introduced revised suspension componentry for the new season.
Motorsport is home to deep fan seated opinion and there was probably not much or indeed there is much that Formula E could ever do to overcome the pre-conceptions of some, especially with early failures seen by some as ‘amateurish’ (in their opinion) no matter how good the PR, the presentation or the media coverage.
The 2014/15 season TV coverage in the UK was shared between ITV4 with live qualifying and race coverage with highlights packages as well and BT Sport with event/season highlights as well as the free online stream from fiaformulae.com covering practice sessions as well as qualifying and races. Plus of course there is an app to download for further information and interaction. The ITV coverage introduced new, young pundits from both the driving and engineering sides of motorsport such as Alex Brundle and Kyle Wilson-Clark, anchored with experienced hands such as Jennie Gow and Ben Constanduros. By the end of the season, a slick well presented show with good insight and content over and above the racing was the result.
One of the great negatives for Formula E from the point of view of those wishing to denigrate its existence is the requirement for a pitstop in each race, not to just change tyres but to change car. This has been seized on as an indication of the unsuitableness of the technology for its purpose. It’s too slow and too short-lived, it’s too different for some.
Does that pitstop matter? Does changing car rather than just tyres matter in the grand scheme of things? Probably not. At this stage of the technology development cycle, it is just another part of the strategy of the race. Everyone has to do it, normally within a lap or two of each other and each stop is a set time, so a pretty level playing field. With the freeing up of power train design this season, that is going to become much more vital in the way the races pan out, the potential being there for large gains to be made and inventive strategy to play its part (see Editor’s comment at foot of article). Sound familiar Sportscar fans?
Onto the drivers and teams. Just a casual glance down the list of first season entrants will reveal a familiar name to most people with an interest in the sport and if you’re a follower of Sportscar and GT Racing, quite a few names will jump out at you, such as Bruno Senna, Karun Chandhok, Nick Heidfled, Loic Duval, Oliver Turvey, Stéphane Sarrazin and Sam Bird. These are established names in the sport, quite a few with other factory contracts, driving in a new virgin series. The teams themselves are also names with a draw, such as Andretti from the USA, ABT Audi Sport from Germany, Aguri from Japan, Mahindra from India and the aforementioned Trulli. Not forgetting of course Alain Prost and his Renault E.DAMS team, created in partnership with Jean Paul Driot.
For the second season those teams remain as well as most of the drivers, but augmented with even more well known names such as Jacques Villeneuve with more to be confirmed. That the series can attract this calibre of pilot only bodes well for its future.
So Sportscar racing provides Formula E with a good source of fast, talented reliable racers, what can Formula E do for Sportscar racing? Many things, it would seem to me.
Karun Chandhok, Season 1 driver for Mahindra alongside Bruno Senna, discovered at Le Mans that he was 5% more fuel efficient this year over last, without thinking about it. The style of driving that he developed in Formula E, focusing on efficiency and energy saving, translated over to the Murphy Prototype LMP2 Oreca. As Audi have amply demonstrated in the past, it’s not necessarily the fastest package that wins, the most efficient can triumph against a faster car. There were 9 Formula E drivers competing at the 2015 running of the Le Mans 24 Hours, so it is fair to assume that Karun is not the only one noticing a beneficial change.
The Formula E drivers say that the cars, whilst not as fast as most, require much more thinking and consideration to get the most out of, it not being a case of go as fast as you can, but more go as fast as you can whilst maximising your available assets. They’re tricky, they require a cerebral element to master them.
Sound familiar Sportscar fans? Races where the driver is part of the strategy, where they can massively influence the strategy of the whole race ….
Of course, this brings the nay sayers back to the fore, bemoaning such things as ‘lift and coast’, ‘fuel (energy) saving’ and ‘tyre conservation’ as new evils impinging on the purity of the sport they love, as though those things have not been a part of motor racing since the very beginning. It would be very worrying if modern racing bent to their will totally, as motorsport has always been at the forefront of technological development, the cutting edge of making things better. We find ourselves in an environment where the sources of money that allow teams to go racing need to justify their investment in other terms than just pure PR, they need to be seen to be using their money wisely and in today’s climate that certainly includes renewable technology. How soon before the GTE cars start to look into hybrid integration? (Have you noticed the Hanergy flexible solar panels on the roof of the #99 Aston Martin Vantage?). It will surely be a thought for them as and when they start to sell more and more road going versions involving the technology.
What Formula E is (maybe unintentionally) doing is acting as a training ground for the modern professional Sportscar expert driver, the sort of driver teams will hunt out and pay handsomely for as they will have the knowledge and wherewithal to extract that extra distance out of the package over their opponents. In categories where performance is so close, either due to Balance of Performance reasons or due to a limited choice of package (such as LMP2), then that extra weapon in their armoury could be the difference between getting the drive or not.
It is an unescapable truth that more and more series are embracing hybrid technology and drivers who understand and appreciate the technology and, importantly, its constraints and are able to demonstrate that they can work with, and gain the best advantage from hybrid tech are going to become more and more in demand.
Back to today and pre-season Formula E testing ended with Lucas de Grassi (Audi Sport Team Joest R18 driver) for ABT Audi Sport posting the fastest time of 1:29.920s, which was set on day 4 – nearly 2s faster than Buemi’s fastest practice time last year. Days 5 & 6 were unfortunately not conducive to fast times, day 6 especially due to rain, but the fastest times set on days 5 & 6 were again posted by drivers familiar to Sportscars, Sam Bird and Nicolas Prost, whose lap was set with the higher race power setting of 170kw for 2015/16 (up from 150kw).
Ed – I’m still not sold on the concept of a complete car swap. I’d like to see the focus on improving the battery pack and drivetrain efficiency and perhaps designing the cars that the battery can be swapped quickly; both of which would improve technology and teamwork – again two essential elements of sportscar racing.