If you think that motor racing is all about gas-guzzling cars driving around large boring circuits in the middle of nowhere that you have to spend ages getting to, then think again. Formula E is reinventing motor racing in city locations and guess what, it’s actually quite exciting.
I say quite because, obviously, it helps if you like motorsport. But what I like about Formula E – apart from the fact it is obviously a lot less damaging to the environment than Formula 1 – is that the races are approximately 45 minutes long, during which time there is plenty of action, thanks to the tight little circuits they have to race around.
It’s also in, many ways, more tactical than Formula 1 because the drivers have to focus much more on the energy management of the car if they want to complete the race. There’s also a very exciting attack mode – where drivers can raise the power output of the car and drive faster for a limited time only (that’s when the cars light up blue).
Nissan took Tech Digest to London’s Docklands recently to watch its Nissan e.dams drivers, Oliver Rowland and Sebastien Buemi, race the unusual circuit which combined driving around the narrow streets of London with an indoor track around the ExCel arena. This weekend they travel to Berlin for the final two races of the season.
Chris Price talks to Martin Smith (below), garage tour host at Nissan e.dams, about the challenges that the drivers, and the support team, face in Formula E.
We started racing in season five back in 2018 at the beginning of the generation two era. What Formula E does is that every four years we get a new generation of cars. Over the last four years we’ve been taking what we call a road to track approach using the expertise of creating powertrains for the road to create powertrains for these cars. But now we’ve just signed up for the generation three era which takes us to the end of 2026. And instead, we’re going to start turning it from a road-to-track to a track-to-road approach so all the learnings are going to go full circle back into the road car programme to make Nissan’s future EVs more efficient and more exciting.
Can you tell us more about the Formula E cars. How do they vary from one another?
The cars themselves are what we call a spec formula so Formula E has a number of control parts which means all 24 cars look very similar with the exception of their liveries because there’s a number of parts we have to use. So this includes the chassis, the front suspension, the front brakes, the bodywork, aerodynamics, the Michelin all weather 18-inch tyres and the battery. The reason for this is that Formula E wants the manufacturers to focus their resources, their money and all their energy into developing power trains. Because, on the flip side, if we had aerodynamics as a part you can change the teams would spend millions in wind tunnels, trying to make their front wing a little bit more efficient, which would really only benefit their own two cars. Instead, all of the energy goes into power train development as well as the software development within that power train.
Where are you able to differentiate yourselves from other teams in Formula E?
It’s all in the powertrain which starts behind the battery. Within there we have the inverter which converts the DC power of the battery to AC and the MGU (Motor Generation Unit) which obviously propels the car, but which also looks after the regeneration of energy back into the battery. The rear suspension, the transmission and the drive shafts are also developed by Nissan which is why you’ll see blankets covering that side so people can’t take photographs or see what’s going on. That’s where Nissan can make gains and take advantage. However, software is also really important in Formula E which is why you see you only a handful of mechanics working on this car with spanners, compared to many more engineers in the secret room here working on computers. Such is the importance of constantly tweaking those electrical and software systems.
How does the braking differ from a normal road car?
We use a braking-by-wire system so the driver’s right foot isn’t directly connected to the braking system. Instead the computer sorts that out, deciding how much braking forces go through the electric motor regeneration and how much is through the friction braking system. You’ll notice how small the brake discs are on the car because most of our braking is from the electric motor. The driver has a paddle in the car, which they can also pull to give it an extra bit of regeneration. They have to work really carefully with their engineers to maximise the amount of regeneration, but also make sure the braking forces and the brake bias is comfortable for them, because if the car doesn’t inspire confidence and they’re not comfortable, they won’t be fast. So, the drivers will sit with their engineers talking about the specific software, and they’ll update the software every session.
Are you not able to download information from the cars during the race?
No, one of the key differences between Formula E and other championships is that we’re not allowed telemetry, so there’s no live data beaming back to the engineers. It all has to be downloaded by that umbilical after the race. Now that might seem a bit odd because telemetry has been around motorsport for donkey’s years, but they don’t want the manufacturers having armies of people back in factories looking at the data – they want to keep it local. Only 20 people wearing the yellow armbands are allowed to work on the cars on the computers. It’s to try and keep a level playing field for everybody, to stop massive manufacturers coming in and just throwing hundreds of people at it.
What batteries do you use for the racing?
The batteries are standard 54 kilowatt per hour units which were specced for the start of generation two so they’re actually quite heavy at 385Kg. But now generation three has been announced they’re going to make a big weight saving on batteries so we’re looking to knock 200Kg off the weight of a car. Obviously, as time goes on, as that four year lifecycle of the car goes up, battery technology is moving on and we can now have smaller batteries with more power and less weight. The result is that generation three cars will be quite a bit faster.
There’s also a cooling system for the batteries which is important when you have so little time to charge the batteries up between sessions, especially when you have several practice sessions and the race on the same day. But they charge very, very quickly – less than an hour to full capacity – and that’s helped by the fact we also cool the batteries whilst recharging. What this means for the manufacturers is that everyone is on a level playing field at the start of the race with exactly the same amount of energy. It’s then up to the drivers and their engineers to use it as possible to regenerate energy.
A 54 kilowatt per hour battery will last 45 minutes plus one lap which is the length of the race. During the race the drivers are constantly talking to their engineers about how much energy they have left. They’ll also look at readouts on the dash, which tell them whether they’re over or under consuming for each lap. For example it will tell them if the driver has over consumed for a lap he is going to have to under consume a little bit later in the race to get that balance. So although the teams don’t use telemetry, there’s communication going on the whole time.
As well as driving fast and working the computer screen, the driver is constantly communicating with mechanics using special codes to make things easier. How the driver communicates with his engineer and how between them they manage the energy during the race is the secret of success in Formula E. Young drivers who come in and are super quick tend to shine a bit in qualifying but then drift away in the actual race. The experienced drivers who have been doing this a long time tend to rise up. It’s no good just being super fast, you’ve got to be an intelligent driver who understands how strategic issues as well.
The Formula E championship heads to Berlin next for rounds 14 and 15 – the last of season seven – on August 14 and 15. For details on how to watch go to https://www.fiaformulae.com/en/watch/ways-to-watch