Formula E: The cleaner side of racing with less air pollution

With drivers, constructors as well as sponsors quickly taking to the environment-friendly version of racing, the future of Formula E looks electric.

Top manufacturers from across the world such as Audi, BMW and Jaguar are associated with Formula E.   -  Getty Images

Eight years ago, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the global motorsports ruling body, conceived the idea of the world’s first all-electric, international, single-seater championship. Three years later, on September 13, 2014, the idea became a reality as the Formula E Championship officially began with the Beijing ePrix in China.

The first season involved 10 teams and 11 races. The championship has grown through the years and now, in season six, it consists of 12 teams and 14 races. More importantly, Formula E will officially attain the status of an FIA World Championship from the 2020-21 edition.

Top manufacturers from across the world such as Audi, BMW and Jaguar are associated with Formula E, and this term they are being joined by Porsche, the most successful manufacturer at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and Mercedes, the winner of the previous six drivers’ and constructors’ championships in Formula One (F1). The two giants of motorsport made their much-awaited Formula E debut at the Diriyah ePrix in Riyadh on November 22.

With the involvement of the best teams around, what’s next for electric racing?

First of all, the main motive behind the launch of Formula E, at least according to its official website, was to reduce air pollution in motorsport and conserve natural resources.

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To attain the concept of energy-efficient racing with lower budgets, the FIA introduced a few important guidelines: Formula E is conducted on street circuits, which are temporary tracks, in some of the leading cities of the world, removing the need for expensive infrastructure – purpose-built race tracks, that is.

Formula E cars are powered by glycerine-fuel – which is 100 percent renewable and virtually emission-free – generators. What this means is a significant reduction in the emission of oxides of carbon and nitrogen.

A developing sport

Until season four, the Formula E cars’ batteries lasted only 25 minutes. So each driver required two cars per race. He had to pit halfway through and jump into the next car. But now, the batteries last the entire race duration of 45 minutes plus one lap.

The only problem is that batteries take too long to charge, in some cases requiring half a day to reach full charge. For the 14 full races, approximately 90 hours of charging is needed – a copious amount of electricity. Consequently, Formula E is trying to find a more sustainable energy source to reduce the charging time.

The Formula E format

Eighty percent of the Formula E car is similar for all the teams – a standard chassis and battery, and most of the other hardware stuff, too. The remaining twenty percent includes the software and certain mechanical parts. The FIA provides the teams with two specific systems – a safety system and a Big Brother-kind of system – to monitor the adherence to the rules.

During the race, the drivers have access to additional power in two ways – Attack Mode and Fan Boost – that have been introduced to make Formula E more interesting.

Under Attack Mode, which came into use from the beginning of the fifth season, drivers get additional power by driving through a specified area on the circuit. This, however, can’t be used during safety car periods.

Fan Boost, meanwhile, is awarded to drivers based on the results of a poll that begins six days before the ePrix and ends after the opening 15 minutes of the main race. The five drivers with the most votes get an additional boost that they can use during the second half of the race.

Offering equal opportunities

Formula E’s qualifying process is mainly credited for its level playing field. There are two sessions – provisional qualification and the Super Pole shootout. In the first, the drivers are divided into four groups of six each, with each group having six minutes to set the best lap times. The higher you are in the championship, the earlier you go in during qualifying. So the favourites on top of the standings will be part of the first qualification group when the track is at its slowest, while those at the back of the pack get to set times on a faster track.

During Super Pole, the top six in qualifying get another 15-minute session with a clear track each to determine their starting order for the race. The drivers with the best timing in initial qualifying and Super Pole get one and three points, respectively, as well.

DS Techeetah's Jean-Eric Vergne is the two-time reigning Formula E champion.   -  Getty Images for Formula E


Alternative to F1?

Currently, Formula E is seen an alternative for drivers who haven’t found success on the bigger stages of racing. All four drivers’ champions so far have raced in F1 – three of them in more than 50 races.

However, unlike F1, the top tier of racing, the competition in Formula E is very high. In only two of the five seasons so far have both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles gone to the same team. In the 2018-19 edition, there were nine different race winners across 13 ePrix.

But it’s unfair to compare the two at this stage. F1 just completed its 70th season, while Formula E is still at a nascent stage, though with huge potential. With drivers, constructors as well as sponsors quickly taking to the environment-friendly version of racing, the future of Formula E looks electric.

Dominic Richard L. was in Riyadh on an invitation from Porsche.