Quick, name a form of racing that boasts the support of no fewer than five major manufacturers, with more looking to follow suit. One with a forward-thinking, technologically sophisticated set of rules, world-famous team owners and races that take place in major cities such as Berlin, Paris and New York.
Formula One? Nope. NASCAR? Also incorrect. Ditto for Le Mans or MotoGP or rallying or drag racing or even jet-plane racing. The correct answer: the FIA Formula E Championship.
Now in the midyear break of its third season, the series is gaining in the collective consciousness and has lured Audi, BMW and Jaguar into the fold. It’s also staking a claim to being the most important form of motorsport when it comes to sustainability.
To be clear, Formula E has faced challenges and has its detractors. The cars are 100-per-cent electric, so the only noise they produce is a persistent whine from the lithium-ion battery packs and the squealing of the Michelin tires as they round corners. The sound of performance cars is a constant theme with manufacturers and the sole reason cars now feature “doctored” exhaust notes.
Also, while the single-seater formula cars may resemble Formula One cars, there is a disparity in terms of performance. The hybrid powertrain of a modern Grand Prix car develops more than 900 total system horsepower. The electric powertrain of the Formula E car churns out around 250 horsepower. Top speed in an F1 car is 375 kilometres an hour; the all-electric series tops out at 225.
But the most glaring weakness of the Formula E car is a familiar one for battery-powered vehicles: range. Drivers have to enter the pits mid-race to swap cars because the battery packs cannot last the full 50-minute race. But a major boost is planned for the 2018-19 season, when battery supplier McLaren Applied Technologies (a division of that McLaren) will deliver a single-charge pack that goes the distance.
As the championship roared into its third season, other F1 manufacturers involved in Formula E, or looking to become involved, included Williams, Renault, Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz.
Mainstream manufacturers and race teams aside, the field of Formula E competitors, partners and sponsors also includes celebrities and fascinating technology companies.
Sponsored by Citroën luxury brand DS, the DS Virgin Racing team was formed by Richard Branson. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the backers of the Venturi Formula E team. Another team, NextEV, is a startup manufacturer of all-electric vehicles; its NIO EP9 recently set the Nuerburgring lap record for EVs.
Yet another startup, Faraday Future, is the title sponsor and technology partner of Dragon Racing. The association between the team and the EV manufacturer, which stole headlines at CES (formerly named the Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, is set to grow stronger over the next three seasons.
“Motor racing is one of the most extreme and challenging environments in the auto industry,” says Richard Otto, corporate communications specialist with Faraday Future. “Ultimately, we will take what we learn from Formula E and transfer that knowledge directly into future FF technologies and production cars.”
Meanwhile, motorsport mainstay Audi has shifted much of its focus away from Le Mans – where the fastest cars are fossil fuel-electric hybrids – to all-electric racing. Audi has been involved in Formula E from Season 1, winning its inaugural race in 2013, but now plays a larger role in the ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport team.
“Audi has consistently been using motorsport to test and develop new technologies further for subsequent use in production,” says Stefan Moser, head of motorsport communications for Audi. “In the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi was the first manufacturer to have achieved victories with a TFSI engine, a TDI and a hybrid race car, so writing motorsport history on several occasions. Now, we intend to repeat this in fully electric racing.”
BMW has also reaffirmed its involvement in Formula E. As the official vehicle partner to the series, the Munich-based brand provides pace cars on race weekends and is also a technology partner to the MS Amlin Andretti squad. BMW is eyeing full factory involvement when the single-charge Formula E car comes to fruition.
“The series has undergone a very interesting development in recent years, which we have followed closely,” BMW motorsport director Jens Marquardt says. “As a pioneer in the field of electric mobility, we know that we must forge new paths, while at the same time remaining true to our fundamental values.”
In other words, the idea of racing resonates strongly with certain brands and their core following – and the idea of emissions-free racing represents a compelling notion.
So compelling, in fact, that the latest incarnation of the hard-charging Jaguar brand has skipped Formula One and Le Mans competition altogether in favour of joining Formula E; the manufacturer last raced in F1 in 2004 and at Le Mans in 2011.
“Jaguar is a brand that’s always had racing in its DNA – right from the start, we’ve gone motor racing,” says James Barclay, Panasonic Jaguar Racing team director. “We’ve been looking at getting back to racing, and Formula E was the right fit. The championship focuses on a number of elements, [but] the main reason is to develop the battery technology. Racing is very aggressive in terms of timing; ultimately, out of it comes a better product.”
The 2016-17 FIA Formula E Championship resumes it schedule in Buenos Aires on Feb. 18. The final rounds of the championship are set for Montreal on July 29-30.
Sign up for our newly-designed weekly newsletter
Like us on Facebook