Is Formula E really challenging Formula One?

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The world of automotive industry is changing. To reduce our dependency to oil for various environmental reasons, electrically propelled road vehicles are cruelly conquering the public transport at a staggering pace. F1technical.net's Balazs Szabo analyses how Formula E's green powertrain could threaten Formula One.

To stabilize human-induced climate change, the speed of transitioning to sustainable technologies such as solar and wind power has been increasing for the past years. One of the most important goal to achieve is to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide because it is considered as the primary culprit in global warming.

To achieve that goal, the transformation of transportation may serve as the main scene of action as around a third of the CO2 emission comes from transportation in many countries. This need led to the ongoing expansion of the electric car market.

However, cars propelled by electric motors have a century-long history. In fact, more than that. The first electrical cars were produced in the 1880s and were popular until the early 20th century. With the rapid development of the cheaper gasoline vehicle, the mass production led to a decline for the electric vehicles.

Almost a century has passed since then and now the automotive industry sees the renaissance of electric vehicles due to the advances in the battery technology, concerns about constantly increasing oil prices and the desire to reduce CO2 emissions.

The world of motorsport can’t leave it unnoticed. Carmakers which are interested in motorsport want to gain experience by trying out their latest technologies which are or can be road-relevant for their involvement and huge investment.

Formula One’s first experiments with electric energy trace back to 2009 when some teams introduced KERS to their car which meant the very first sign of exploring alternative energy next to the usual petrol-powered combustion engines. In 2014, F1 launched its innovative, in many ways revolutionary power units with double hybrid systems which deliver around 160bhp supporting the usual combustion engine.

That year saw the birth of an entirely new series which totally neglects the use of the good old petrol and instead is propelled by electric motors, using electrical energy stored in rechargeable batteries.

The new series called Formula E was launched three years ago when the inaugural race was held in Beijing on 13 September 2014. In contrast, Formula One can look back at a much longer history as it opened its history book on 13 May 1950.

The series which interestingly starts its season in autumn and ends it in the following summer bridging two calendar years has had three seasons up to date. Some are already forecasting a leading position in motorsport for Formula E, some dare to envisage the electric series will easily overpower the beloved Formula One in the near future.

Leading carmakers are heavily investing in the new electric technology. Some of them are already endeavouring in Formula E. BMW, Renault and Jaguar already have interests in racing teams while Porsche, Audi, Mercedes and probably Volvo are expected to enter the fray soon.

Formula E is enticing for the leading carmakers because the costs are just a pocket change compared to the soaring costs of Formula One or the World Endurance Series. It means Formula E provides them with a playground where they can try and test the latest, road car relevant technologies.

Does it mean Formula One has now to rush into a new era, give up its roots, copying Formula E’s technology and following the paradigm of its electric rival series?

The fact that sport cars manufacturers still hesitate about joining the series indicate that electric cars first have to conquer mass production before spreading in the world of sports cars. Ferrari’s parent company FIAT doesn’t want to send its Prancing horse into the scene, but another brand from its family, Lamborghini or Aston Martin do not want to join the fray either just to pick out a few brands.

The problem with electric race cars are the limitations in batteries and deprival of basic, core features of racing cars like the roaring engine sound or astonishing cornering speed. This disappearance does not pose a problem for casual road cars, but it does for sport cars let alone racing cars.

Formula E cars muster up a list of limitations due to the battery capacity. The most visible is the need of swapping cars during races. Drivers have to change machineries at the midpoint of races. Many find that disillusioning.

For costs reason, there is only one type of tyre, the sculpted 18” Michelin which is designed to run in both rain and dry condition. Using an ‘all-season-tyre’ is a considerable excursion from the roots of motorsport. Not to mention the width which has just become fascinating in Formula One for this year.

Race strategies have played a crucial part in making a race interesting. Without tyre change, with hardly any tyre wear and with the only mandatory visit of the pit lane for the car swap, strategies show barely any differences. Teams tend to arrange the pit visit for the midpoint of the race in a race without safety cars. Using different power modes, the only real difference can be made by offsetting the pitstop time, thanks to saving power early on in the race.

The severe limitations in battery capacity also forces the Italian company Dallara, which is responsible for designing the chassis to produce aero kits, spoilers and airdams with the desire and aim of achieving minimal drag. It means downforce levels and cornering speeds are a far cry from what can be achieved under Formula One's current set of regulations.

FE cars achieve 270 HP in qualification mode. That power is reduced to 180 HP in the race to increase the distance. Those values are far from the staggering 900+ bhp produced by the current F1 double-hybrid power units. That said however, improvement is on the way, as the battery specifications for the 2018-2019 will see a doubled total capacity, and an increase of peak power from 200kW to 250kW.

To save energy in a bid to achieve the race distance, drivers have to get off the throttle and brake with engine braking into the corners. This ‘lift and coast’ is probably the most hated action a racing driver is asked to and has been the main topic of complaints of F1 drivers over past years before it was addressed for this campaign with an additional 5kg of fuel. However, the lift and coast was not even close to the constant ‘economical mode’ applied in FE.

Sounds. It sounds to be secondary, but if you spend just a moment among fans during a race or demonstration event, the sound is the first which impresses the fans the most. Formula One has been constantly criticised for the loss of sound since the introduction of V8 engines in 2006 and those complaints have just grown since 2014 when the double-hybrid power units arrived. For understandable reasons, Formula E with its status of the quietest racing series misses out on an opportunity which can carry the fans away the most.

To demonstrate the fresh breeze of technology, the championship predominantly runs on street circuits inside spectacular cities. It means traditional tracks and beloved circuits with cambered corners, elevation changes, wide layouts, high-speed corners are all missing from the calendar. The FE tracks suits the need of fans visiting the event with their tight, slow-speed nature and with the grandstands touching the edges of the track. However, they also tend to be a bit boring with the dominance of slow-speed turns. To be harsh, but honest, the current FE technology with its limited peak performance would not suit the traditional circuits.

Formula E has a high mountain to climb if it intends to take over the crown from Formula One. Even if new technologies will see the introduction of batteries capable of finishing the race in one car in the near future, Formula One could maintain its position if it protects its great values.