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How Formula E teams are adapting to the challenge of new venues

Formula E is no stranger to America, having raced at three different circuits in the States over the years. But the new venue in Portland, host of this weekend's US round, poses a new challenge for teams. To prepare, squads have been turning to simulation technology to make up for the lack of data on the new circuit.

Lucas di Grassi, Mahindra Racing, Mahindra M9Electro, Robin Frijns, ABT CUPRA Racing, M9Electro, Sacha Fenestraz, Nissan Formula E Team, Nissan e-4ORCE 04

Formula E returns to America this weekend and while New York City, Miami and Long Beach have each played host to the all-electric championship in the past, a new location awaits drivers and teams this time around Stateside.

It will be the first time the series has used the Portland layout which, for fans of IndyCar, will be a familiar sight having been a staple on the American single-seater calendar for decades.

Other than a tightening of the first right-hand corner, the rest of the 12-turn, two-mile permanent layout remains unchanged and will provide a high-speed challenge for drivers. Not only because of its sweeping bends and heavy braking zones but, perhaps more significantly, because the grass lining the edge of the circuit will offer drivers some margin for error, unlike other Formula E destinations.

“It’s the most insane track that we’ve ever been to in Formula E because it’s already a fast track and for Formula E with the Gen3, which has a lot of power, we’re going to reach speeds of 280kph [174mph],” says Mahindra’s Lucas di Grassi. “[At] Portland, you can make mistakes, so you can overdrive and still get away with it. Maybe not in a perfect lap but in a race, if you brake two or three metres too late you go wide, you come back.

“In terms of the technique, to have an optimum lap it’s as difficult as any other track, but in terms of how punitive the mistakes are in a track like this is much less than what we currently have [in Formula E]. So you change a bit the approach, you can actually be a little bit more aggressive when you drive.”

The American venue is the championship’s fourth new location this season after inaugural visits to Hyderabad, Cape Town and Sao Paulo – the latter the only one along with Portland currently confirmed on the calendar for next year.

Portland is one of four new venues on the FE calendar this season, which also included a trip to Hyderabad in India

Portland is one of four new venues on the FE calendar this season, which also included a trip to Hyderabad in India

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

With no previous data from these four new venues, it means time spent on the simulator back at the factory has played an even more integral part in preparing for a weekend, as well as adapting to situations during the event itself.

“The main function of the sim is for you to learn the track as a driver,” adds di Grassi. “Second is to do the management of energy. How to do the slipstream and how to save energy and how to be efficient, up to a certain stage because after you have the dynamic of 20 cars around you, which is a bit different.

“To practice how to save the energy in the right moment, where to attack, where to be more efficient to attack and to defend. So there are a lot of combinations that can be practiced on the sim.”

Mahindra has the use of two simulators at its Banbury factory to prepare ahead of a race weekend, with di Grassi and current team-mate Roberto Mehri spending up to two days in the bespoke rigs prior to every event.

“We’ll be running the sim alongside the race weekend, and we’ll have Jordan in the sim. Any requests from the track, we’ll filter through the requests, put them onto the sim and Jordan will drive it," Bradley Collins

Di Grassi states that the correlation between what can be achieved in the simulator and it then being replicated on the track sits at around “95-96%, so quite good”.

“You can have a very nice sim, spend tens of millions of dollars to have the best sim ever,” adds the Brazilian. “If it does not correlate to reality, it's useless. So tyre model, car model, track model, there are a lot of things that need to be spot on because if they are not spot on they could also lead you in the wrong direction.”

Once the team and drivers are in America, the work back at the factory doesn’t stop as the simulator will run in tandem alongside the race weekend in Portland. Jordan King, Mahindra’s simulator driver, is allowed to spend a set amount of time – as dictated by the championship’s regulations – in the rig during an event.

This includes running through any updates to the physics model, as well as dealing with requests that come through from the team trackside in Portland with regards to set-up and software.

Mahindra's sim set-up it will use to prepare for - and use during - the Portland round

Mahindra's sim set-up it will use to prepare for - and use during - the Portland round

Photo by: Mahindra Racing

“His feedback is incredibly valuable,” says Bradley Collins, a junior simulator engineer with Mahindra. “It’s quite apt for Portland because [King] used to do IndyCar, so he’s driven there before.

“We’ll be running the sim alongside the race weekend, and we’ll have Jordan in the sim. Any requests from the track, we’ll filter through the requests, put them onto the sim and Jordan will drive it. Give the feedback and then we can send it off to the track and then they can do what they need to. If they need to do a set-up change on the actual car, or if it’s a software change, we can test that as well.”

One of the bigger challenges facing teams in Formula E has not only been the new venues on the calendar, but that many of the circuits used by the championship are temporary facilities – Portland being one of just two permanent tracks alongside Mexico City this year.

It means getting accurate models of the circuits can be a challenge, especially when last-minute modifications are usually still being made, such as the resurfacing at Sao Paulo which took place just days before the event. Changes to the track model on the simulator, therefore, need to be made in step with what the drivers and team at the track are reporting.

“When they do the track walk there, we will take pictures or take a video of the track and send it to the company that makes the track model,” adds Collins. “They will update the track model for us and then send it back to us so then even the track model we’re running is correlated as it can be to the real world.”

With Tokyo announced as a new venue on the calendar next year and the championship proclaiming that further new locations could be added, there has never been a more important time for teams to embrace simulators.

As Collins adds: “There’s some performance items that we’ve been testing and the fact that you can test them on the sim, see that it’s made a positive improvement, and see that change you’ve made on the sim has then impacted the real car. It shows that it’s just a very powerful tool.”

Di Grassi will be relying on the sim work back at the Mahindra factory to aid him through the Portland weekend

Di Grassi will be relying on the sim work back at the Mahindra factory to aid him through the Portland weekend

Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / Motorsport Images

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