It’s that time again, Formula E has descended on Hong Kong and the new season kicks off this weekend. It’s a championship that is fast fast developing into one of the world’s most exciting forms of motorsport and it’s even closing the gap on Formula One.
The manufacturers are coming and so are the big league sponsors. A race series that barely scraped off the ground two years ago is now looking like a seriously slick international sporting event.
Now it’s time to go to the next level with faster cars, more big name drivers and teams and a collection of new races that will take Formula E to some of the most glamorous cities on Earth.
So why should you tune in to watch the latest zero emissions action?
What’s new with the car?
The Formula E has adopted a radical new bi-plane front wing that looks spectacular and also ties in with the RoboRacer design. We’ll get to that later.
Formula E isn’t big on downforce, it has learned the lesson from Formula One that too much aerodynamic grip can kill the spectacle. So the additional plane on the front wing is more of an aesthetic feature and shouldn’t make a huge functional difference.
The car is also faster than last year and will have 200kW to play with when it’s on full boost and 170kW in race mode. The teams can design their own motor-generator units, gearbox and power inverters, so the speeds are starting to climb and they should go faster than 140mph this year.
Formula E is slowly evolving from the one-make formula that guaranteed close racing in the first season. We have to wait and see if one team has used the off-season to steal a technical march and can dominate the sport like Mercedes has in Formula One.
From a purely selfish perspective, we hope that doesn’t happen. We want to see tightly bunched grids separated by fractions and we want to see the title go to the wire. But then the technical aspect of the sport can be just as exciting in its own special way and we do want to see some breakthroughs that filter down to the roadgoing EVs of tomorrow.
To ensure overtaking, the drivers get a set amount of overboost. That gives them 100kJ of additional energy that they can use for short bursts. Strategic use of this additional boost can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Is FanBoost still a thing?
Yes, it doesn’t seem to matter what the purists say. Formula E’s bosses remain convinced that giving a driver additional boost based on their popularity on social media voting systems is the way to go.
Honestly, we don’t agree, but then Formula E has achieved relative miracles in its short tenure and we’re prepared to let this one go.
So you can vote for your favorite driver and they’ll get a helping hand in the race. It feels wrong, but it’s just the way it is.
Who are the drivers to watch?
There’s an influx of new talent that could easily upset the applecart, but reigning Champion Sebastian Buemi has to be the favorite.
The Swiss driver is a real talent and he knows the car, which is a huge advantage. The Spark-Renault is a unique animal and metering out the additional boost is a skill all of its own. Then there’s the set-up for bumpy street circuits and we have often seen these cars launching off kerbs and rattling over manhole covers. Normal racing cars rarely do that, so experience is really going to count.
So expect Buemi to sit at the top table this year, his team-mate Nico Prost won the last round of last season in London, too. Their Renault e.dams team is one of the best, so they have to be a potent combination. Lucas di Grassi has always been there or thereabouts, too, so look out for him.
Still, there are some exceptional drivers coming in. Adam Carroll was once considered the best up and coming talent in Britain and we’re expecting big things from the former A1 GP Champion. Carroll has jumped into any number of race cars and got straight on the pace, but he’s with a new team and they might take time to catch up in terms of the car. He also has to contend with team-mate Mitch Evans, who is seriously quick.
Loic Duval is another exciting addition to the series and this Le Mans winner could be one of the up and coming stars that Formula E needs. He raced a partial program last year, but now he’s getting to grips with the car and he should run closer to the front.
If you’re looking for a surprise package, keep an eye on Felix Rosenqvist at Mahindra. He’s won the Macau Grand Prix in F3 twice and that is generally considered the toughest single-seater street race in the world. If he can win there, he can win here.
What’s new with the teams?
Jaguar Racing landing is a really big deal and it brings title sponsorship from Panasonic. So this is a team that really is destined to win, some day, but we just don’t know how long it will take the British manufacturer to settle in.
If it really hits the ground running and potentially just buys in some top tech to get started, then the Leaping Cat could become the king of the Formula E jungle.
TECHEETAH is another new signing and it has bought the championship winning powertrain and former F1 driver Jean-Eric Vergne to the party, along with former F1 test driver Ma Qing Hua.
Faraday Future has stepped up its involvement with Dragon Racing and will help develop the powertrain. The fledgling car company will launch its first road car in the coming year and Formula E is going to be a critical part of its marketing campaign. Virgin will continue its partnership with Citroen’s DS brand. Audi has made its presence known to a much greater degree with its ABT-Sportsline team too.
Mercedes has already committed for 2018 and the likes of Porsche or Nissan could also sign up as the grid will swell to 12 teams. McLaren will also supply the batteries for the series, which probably rules out active participation as a race team and yet is still a coup for the series as a whole.
What about the best tracks?
Formula E has really got it right with the city center street circuit concept. It doesn’t always provide the best track for the drivers and they can be tight and tortuous, so overtaking opportunities are sometimes limited. Formula E is learning and modifying the tracks on the fly.
But there’s a sense of theater about a street circuit that the big, purpose-built tracks just can’t hope to replicate. The skyline of some of the world’s most glamorous cities provide the backdrop, the surface isn’t marble smooth so it asks a lot of the car and driver and it’s a novelty that hasn’t worn thin yet. We don’t think it will.
As for the races to watch out for, the season opener in Hong Kong promises to be a belter. It’s a scintillating, high energy city and the track itself should do it justice with a seriously long straight that should prove the focal point for overtaking.
Then there’s Monaco, which has become synonymous with Formula One and it’s literally like setting up shop in the competition’s back yard.
Have you heard about the virtual race?
Yes, really, the Las Vegas round will give you the chance to race against the Formula E grid in the virtual world. There’s talk of a $1 million prize fund, so if you really want to have a shot then make sure you sign up for the ‘Race to Vegas’ competition.
The best online drivers will get the chance to go at it with some of the best drivers in the world at the CES show in January. It’s a big deal and it could be the start of a much more interactive championship. That’s something we’ve campaigned for ourselves.
Then there’s RoboRace
This is technically the support race, but we get the feeling it might just upstage the main series. These autonomous EVs are controlled by algorithms and we just don’t know what to expect from the first race.
It could literally be a catastrophe. We could witness one of the biggest first corner collisions in racing history, or it could turn into one of the most interesting forms of motorsport we’ve ever seen.
With no lives at risk, apart from the spectators if it goes horribly wrong, these cars should be free to make contact. With no fear on the part of the driver, then technically the cars will go to the theoretical limit, not the physical one. That’s an enticing prospect, but then removing the human element might simply sterilize the whole thing.
This is a fascinating series that has simply never been tried before. So we’re all just armchair enthusiasts for this one, we have absolutely no idea how it’s going to pan out.
Formula E is just getting better, this season looks like it’s going to be an almighty scrap between some great drivers and stunning cars in great locations. RoboRace is a total lottery and whatever happens it’s going to make for compelling viewing, so make sure you follow the action this year on TV and of, of course, with us here at Charged.