One year from now, an all-electric single-seater series is scheduled to become reality. You may be excited by this fact, or abhorred by the very prospect of it, but one thing is for sure: you will have an opinion one way or another.
Electrically-motivated racing cars are becoming increasingly prevalent. From KERS in Formula 1 to hybrid power units in sportscars, Formula E is the next logical stop. Its 10-race, city-centre-based schedule for 2014 will pitch identical open-wheel cars and, as you will hear from series chief Alejandro Agag in this week's magazine, there is plenty to be intrigued by.
Races will be of one hour's duration, with drivers making two mandatory pitstops in order to change cars. Cars will be run in power-saving mode (133kW) but will have access, via a push-to-pass boost system, to a maximum 200kW output. The full 200kW will be available throughout practice and qualifying.
But what about the technology? What makes this car tick? Launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show on Tuesday of this week, Formula E's car - the basis for the first-ever all-electric one-make series - is packed with innovation from a plethora of engineering experts, with Formula 1 giants McLaren and Williams supplying the hardware and Renault having a more holistic, overarching involvement.
Agag is the series chief, but the man responsible for the machinery is ART Grand Prix's Frederic Vasseur, who heads-up the Spark Racing Technology firm that has produced the SRT_01E.
Vasseur, who like Agag is the boss of a GP2 team (ART competes against Agag's Addax squad), became involved in electric racing cars when he built the Formulec electric single-seater demonstrator for Eric Barbaroux and Pierre Gosselin, who both remain involved with this initiative.
It was 18 months ago, at the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix, when Vasseur and Agag hatched their new plan. As Agag won the tender from the FIA for the commercial rights, Vasseur embarked on pulling together the technical partners to deliver the project.
"From my point of view, full electric is perhaps the extreme when you consider the big range from full atmospheric," says Vasseur. "It was important for my company to be involved in such an avant-garde project; I think it's the future of our business.
"In terms of the technical side, it's really very interesting. There is new technology in almost every part of the car. Everything is completely different, to the point of having to write our own safety rules - it's such an interesting project. To have such access to the electrical technology, for the future it's the right way."
From his Formulec experience, Vasseur knew that outsourcing the technology was imperative to getting the project off the ground.
"You can't build everything yourself - even in F1, with their big factories, they struggle to do that with their KERS systems, so they have many suppliers for parts," he says.
"The connections we had already at ART meant we were able to sit around the table with Renault F1, McLaren, Williams and Dallara. The challenge was asking them to work together in the same direction - which was tough at the beginning!
"We all have our different racing activities, but now I'm fully convinced that the way we've done it was actually the only way to do it. They are very high-level partners and they all played a very fair game in putting their technical resources on the table. A very interesting, but necessary, situation."
The car has been designed by Dallara, in conjunction with Spark
Dallara, which designed the car in conjunction with Spark, will produce 42 monocoque chassis, constructed from carbonfibre and aluminium.
Two prototypes will be track-tested from December, after all the FIA crash-test procedures have been completed. Following the rigorous testing programme, the chassis and powertrains will be put into production. Delivery to teams will start next May.
"The biggest challenge is to manage the safety aspect," says Vasseur. "Comparing it to F1 or GP2, their regulations are an evolution. When you have to build up not only a new car, but take into account its safety levels, such as the fireproofing of the battery box, you've got to test so many different new parts for safety that it's a completely different story.
"The first car is like an open book. We had a very good collaboration with the FIA to write the regulations, and now we will have to show them the results. It was very important to have such a good collaboration to make this project happen."
Formula E turned to McLaren Electronic Systems, provider of ECUs in F1, NASCAR and IndyCar, for its expertise in this department. Not only will it supply the electronic brains of the car, but also the electric motor and gearbox.
The actual powerplant is far smaller than an internal combustion engine, the main motor weighing in at just 26kg, and its ancillary motor control unit at a further 16kg. The motor technology is simple: the electrical current activates magnets in the stator to make the rotor turn, creating kinetic energy.
"The tricky bits are the detail, but conceptually electric motors are quite straightforward," says MES managing director Peter van Manen.
"The interesting part for us was the requirement of a lightweight and compact powertrain. We had just developed one of those for our P1 sportscar, so there was serendipity when Formula E came along. We had just the right powertrain to supply their racing application."
Unlike a KERS system, where a reasonably high amount of power is unleashed for a small amount of time, key to the continuous use of the Formula E car's electric engine will be cooling.
"With KERS there's a lot of time where it's not being used and can cool down," says van Manen. "Whereas here, it's another magnitude of difficulty. The magic in an electric motor, given such high densities, is being to get the heat out or the whole thing will melt."
This will require water-cooling systems for both the main motor and its control unit, but the requirement is less than for a normal single-seater racing car, so radiators are smaller than usual.
McLaren is also responsible for the transmission, which will have to carry unusual loads due to the instant torque demands of electric motors.
The engines will produce around 260bhp
"The main difference between an electric motor and an internal combustion engine is everything happens much more quickly," says van Manen.
"One of the exciting things about the racing is you've got instant torque and instant engine braking... But in terms of the transmission, you have to deal with the fact you've got instant torque and instant engine braking!
"The transient loading on the gearbox has to be managed, and we've been running on the dyno all summer to prove it's working. It's a reasonably straightforward gearbox, a four-speed sequential. The electric motor has an input shaft as you'd expect from a normal engine, albeit the engine is so much smaller."
The business end of the car is where all the noise will be produced, so a key question is: what will it sound like?
"The intention is to produce natural noise," says van Manen. "It will be quieter than an F1 car, but much noisier than a road car, because the motor is turning at a very high speed. I've only heard it on the dyno; I think it sounds quite cool!
"Electric motors have a characteristic sound, and you'll be able to hear the gearchanges, but I suspect because the ambient noise is somewhat less than normal racing cars you will hear a little more of the tyre noise."
THE POWER SOURCE
To deliver the required level of electricity to power the car, perhaps the beating heart of the Formula E car is the battery. Drain that, and you're literally going nowhere.
Williams Advanced Engineering has designed and supplied the batteries and the management system. They will allow a 200kW power output (in the region of 260bhp) in a car that weighs 800kg, so it should mean a ballpark performance close to that of a Formula 3 car.
"It's a natural progression for us as a company with a Formula 1 team that has developed its own KERS system entirely, and also supplies Marussia, to take that to the next level, which is obviously electric-only vehicles," says WAE head of commercial operations Kirsty Andrew.
"We've brought our melting pot of skills into this. It's going to be a high-profile series, in some exciting locations around the world. It's not the limit of the technology, but it's a line in the sand."
The FIA has high hopes for Formula E
WAE electronics expert Okan Tur explains of the battery: "It's similar technology [to KERS in F1] but not exactly the same. There is much more stored energy compared to F1, which means a lot more power."
The battery pack will weigh 200kg, so heavier than a full F1 fuel tank. It is sited behind the driver, effectively where the fuel tank and engine would be in a normal racing car. WAE chief technical officer Paul Newsome says: "The battery pack gives a structural element much in the same way the engine block does in a Formula 1 car."
A battery management system maintains performance in each car and ensures parity across the grid, but managing the rate of battery usage will be one of the driver's new challenges.
"The battery and electric motor solution is very different to a high-performance combustion engine," adds Newsome. "We deliver a peak of torque at zero speed. It's capable of sustaining that torque throughout the rev range of the motor. The driveability characteristic is totally different... theoretically it will be easier, but the capability of the driver will be brought out in a different way."
HARMONISING THE PACKAGE
This is where Renault's role comes in, given its long history of electric-vehicle production, making sure that all constituent parts form the whole to deliver the performance levels the series is looking for. It is responsible for systems integration, performance optimisation and powertrain electrical safety.
"The big difficulty is to get the balance right between the power and the duration of the race," says Renault Sport Technologies CEO Patrice Ratti.
"It's about how you manage the energy between the battery and engine and, since we chose two different suppliers in McLaren and Williams, there's a big challenge in how you make that work together, and that's where Renault's expertise is involved."
PLANS BEYOND 2014
Formula E's year-two-and-beyond plan is to move away from its one-make starting point to allow different chassis and variant technologies. With so many potential players in the marketplace to showcase their wares, this is where the category can truly come into its own and be more than just a racing series.
Williams's Newsome sums up: "It's a very important element to the success of this series that it becomes the technological development arena in motorsport for EV systems. If it stops at the technology it's being launched with, it will fail in that aim.
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"Its development is extremely important, and our expectation is that there will be a lot of technological improvement in the coming years in the energy-storage areas, delivering at a rapid rate in the way that only competitive motorsport can."
Vasseur concludes: "The target of this series is not to spend €10 million on aero development of the chassis. The philosophy is to concentrate on the electric engine, and when it becomes an open championship it will be interesting to see what happens with new suppliers."
MICHELIN'S TALL TYRE: VERSATILE AND FAST
Michelin is the control-tyre supplier for Formula E, and it aims to capitalise on the series' revolutionary philosophy too.
The French giant will produce a single-specification tyre, capable of running in both wet and dry conditions, that taps into the compound work it has done in the World Endurance Championship (including its 'slick' intermediate) and robustness lessons learned from the World Rally Championship.
At 18 inches, its tyre is much taller than usual for single-seaters, and features a tread pattern. "It's totally in line with our philosophy of finding relevance in motorsport to test our ideas," says Pascal Couasnon, Michelin's motorsport director.
"The combination of tread pattern and rubber will allow this tyre to be very fast in the dry and safe in the wet. Current single-seaters run 13 inches with a very tall sidewall, which makes the mechanics of the tyre very different from a road-car tyre."
The tyre also fits in with the series' aim of efficiency. "Our tyres will have great range as well as allowing the car to be very fast," promises Couasnon.
"We know that some tracks will be very challenging for us, but we have simulated them to give us an idea of the compounds we will use, so we can optimise our tyres' performance."
Formula E has yet to reveal any dates for its 10-round 2014-15 calendar, bar that it will start in September '14, and the cities that will host the street races.
Bangkok (T) Beijing (PRC) Berlin (D) Buenos Aires (RA) London (GB) Los Angeles (USA) London (GB) Putrajaya (MAL) Rio de Janeiro (BR) Rome (I)