This weekend the hotly anticipated Formula E World Championship finally gets underway in Beijing, following five test sessions through July and August at Donnington Park race circuit. Whilst the first couple of test sessions were washed out and did not feature race runs, the final one in August four weeks ago allowed the teams to run their cars as if it was the fifty-minute race session that is set to take place after both Practice and Qualifying.
I was there for that test, and I was able to experience trackside what the cars were like and how the experience of electric racers differed from the usual petrol-fuelled madness we’ve come to grow accustom to for over sixty years now. As you can imagine, the biggest difference is the sound. Having been to a Formula 1 race not long before I’d been to this test session, my ordinance for how loud this years Grand Prix cars are was fresh in my mind, so I had something to compare it to.
Whilst it isn’t the assault on the senses that so often describes any race car coming past at 100mph-plus, the cars still have a distinct sound to them which make them different. Its not a whine so much as its a play on the sound of electricity itself. If your fiber-optic broadband connection had any noise to it for instance, these cars would probably sound just like it. The presence of the electric motor coupled with the velocity at which the car is travelling at [i.e. the wind] are the main sensations you get when one of these RC cars x1000000 swift past you on the straights.
Its even more amplified when you get a pack of cars going past all at once, however I found that if you stand one hundred meters or more away from the tarmac, the sound gets suppressed. Especially on a windy day. But at no point did I get that feeling of, “if it doesn’t sound fast it doesn’t look fast.”
At the corners its a different matter. I mainly watched the cars come through three sections which required them to brake and turn in; Redgate, Fogarty, and Goddards. The heavy braking zone of Redgate didn’t seem like much of a challenge to the drivers. They were all pretty much taking the same line without any sort of dramas or corrections of the steering wheel. Goddards was a similar affair. I think I saw only both Nick Heidfield and Takuma Sato run wide and take a late apex, before they went back down the start finish/straight towards Redgate. I also saw some drivers run quite wide over the rumble strip, even getting onto the grass at stages.
Fogarty was perhaps where the cars were more entertaining. Almost every driver I saw go into there outbraked themselves because of the slightly uphill nature of the road that leads into a chicane that – in the words of Martin Brundle – was most likely designed by a Mr M. Mouse. Nicholas Prost was probably the most dramatic, braking way too late and locking the fronts for about 10 metres, before he swinged the car round and took to the escape road that leads back onto the start/finish straight.
Bruno Senna also got his braking wrong and nearly binned it into the kitty litter, just stopping short of the gravel trap before he was able to put the car into reverse, and rejoin the track. Another driver who was also pushing his luck through there was Takuma Sato. In true Sato style he well and truly tested the limits at which you could brake into that chicane, by running completely through the gravel in the second part of the corner, after he just carried too much speed on entry.
For those who were able to carry speed through the corner, you could really hear a lot of what was going on as they went over the kerbs and exited the corner. Mid-way through the second part of the chicane for example, you could hear the cars bottoming out, and see the steering wheel kicking back on the driver as they wound off the lock, and went wide into the rumble strip. The high-pitched sound of the brakes was also in there somewhere, although you heard more of the car hitting the ground and lower tones of the motor.
What was also interesting throughout my time spent trackside, was the apparent presence of gear shifting. The shudder of one gear changing into the next was there, although I’m told that its actually a software thing rather than an actual transmission that takes place.
All in all, trackside at an actual racetrack these cars look like racecars. The drivers perhaps look a bit more robotic considering they seem to be fiddling with knobs and dials more than looking straight up in front, particularly on the straights. But with the bumpy nature of street circuits coupled with the complicated braking system that regenerates energy from the flywheel much like it does in Formula 1, these cars will look pretty spectacular.
Then we get to the racing experience itself. The aero package on these cars resemble IndyCar’s in a way, however I found that it took around three laps of staying within the slipstream of another car, before the drivers were able to be close enough to make a move. Whether they will be more aggressive in the race is something to consider, since this was pre-season testing. But it wasn’t like F1 DRS where they could get within a second and sail past, it was much more of a closer racing format that will perhaps rely mostly on energy usage and recovery.
As for the format, I find it all quite hilarious yet pretty brilliant to watch at the same time. As absurd as it looks for a driver to jump from one car to another during the pitstops, it really does add an interesting dynamic to the racing. It may prove to be hard for some to follow, since a whole lap can go by before a driver eventually gets out of their pit box in the new car, so keeping up with the order will be a lot like it is for ovals in IndyCar. But it will be interesting to see the reaction to drivers switching cars on Twitter and the like.
Speaking of Twitter, lets get into the gimmicks. In order to appeal to what is presumably a younger racing audience, Formula E will be adding two new dynamics to motor racing; fans interaction and a soundtrack.
The soundtrack seems a bit babyish to me. Its the sort of thing I remember having on my PS1 games, it just sounds ridicules and I think takes away from the spectacle of the cars themselves. In a live capacity its bound to be loud enough to drown the noise of the cars out, and on top of that it masks the sensations I talked about earlier regarding hearing the cars bottom out and the tyres squeal through the corners. Its also downright cheesy, and something I would like taken away to avoid Formula E loosing its signature brand trait.
Then there is the “Fanboost” system. Unlike the soundtrack, I can see why they might have added this to the racing dynamic. Formula E needs to appeal to the masses, and they’re all on social networks at the minute. However I think this was best summed up by @charlie_whiting [Fake Charlie Whiting] on Twitter. This whole concept is breaking the fourth wall, fans support should not go beyond clapping and cheering. And I fear Formula E risks loosing a lot of the support from motorsport purists – the people who will be key to the series’ promotion – if it becomes too much of a deciding factor during the races.
I think the best thing Formula E does to appeal to younger fans and even the die heart motorsport fans, is give them access. During the day fans will be able to do the pit walk, getting close to the cars and being able to meet their favourite drivers. Thats ultimately what sports like Formula 1 don’t readily offer without you spending in excess of £1,000 to do so. And even then you’re not guaranteed to meet the drivers. But with the access Formula E is willing to give at such an affordable price, I can see it being a worth while day out for families.
Finally we’re going to talk about the teams. I think the three best teams that looked like they had everything pretty much wrapped up at the final test were eDAMS, Mahindra Racing, and Virgin Racing. You could see it when I did the pit walk, their drivers and team members were open to a chat and didn’t seem in too much of a hurry to get things done. And they were posting the quickest lap times of each session. I’d say the teams in the middle are probably the Audi Sport ABT, Venturi, and Andretti, with Trulli GP, Dragon Racing, China Racing, and Amelin Aguri looking like they still have some work to do with regards to figuring out the optimum energy saving techniques. There will be a clear pace difference between the teams, but I expect them to get on top of things later on in the season to produce some competitive racing.
I was quite cynical last year when Formula E was revealed. I didn’t think it would be the spectacle of motorsport that enthusiasts and even casual fans would grow to appreciate and obsess over. But having been to the test and been in amongst the people making this whole thing work, I think its a pretty amazing operation.
They’ve got a great driver lineup, and the cars themselves are truly fascinating pieces of kit that I can’t wait to learn more about as the season progresses. I don’t think I judged a book by its cover, since I’ve professed from the start that it needs to make an impression in terms of its racing format to truly appeal and carry across the message that it wants to about electronic vehicle technology. But I think with spectacle being as unique as it is and the grassroots motorsport feel still being there, Formula E has a lot to give now this type of technology is starting to become increasingly more relevant to todays road cars.