The second race of the second season of all-electric racing series Formula E takes place this weekend in humid Putrajaya, the government seat of Malaysia. The race starts at 12:30AM ET on Saturday, a slightly more forgiving time for fans in the Western Hemisphere than the season debut's 4AM start time. US fans can watch live on Fox Sports 1, Canadians can find it on Fox Sports Racing, and UK fans will find the race on ITV4. The FIA will also live stream the race, which is available for free in dozens of countries or with a cable subscription in the US and Canada. Other local listings can be found here on this handy map.
If it seems like this was a quick turnaround from the first race, it is. The season two debut was only two weeks ago, which makes this the shortest break between races that the teams have ever had to deal with. There's typically a month or more between each of the 11 races; last year, when the series debuted, there were nearly two whole months between the first and second competition.
Season two of Formula E is all about how the drivers, their cars, and their teams all cope with new rules surrounding drivetrain development. The cars were all virtually the same for the inaugural season, but this time around the teams were given the opportunity to bring in manufacturers to develop their own electric motors, rear suspension, and gearbox. Eight of the 10 teams took advantage of the new rules, while two are running ostensibly the same five-gear, single-motor car as last year. Some cars have one gear and two motors, while other cars have two, three, or four gears and just one motor.
To get a sense of what any of that means for the actual racing, we can look at the season debut for some evidence. (You can watch a 15-minute cut of the first race here.) The clearest thing by far is that Renault e.Dams — the winner of last season's team championship — is the team to beat. They're running a two-gear, single-motor solution powered by an electric motor from Renault. That's especially noteworthy because Renault was involved in creating the Formula E car that everyone used last year, so the company is perhaps the most familiar with the sport out of all the new manufacturers. On top of that, Renault is rumored to have put more than $10 million into development for this season, and the whole process is being overseen by Vincent Gaillardot, who develops electrical systems for Renault and even liaises with Formula One.
The Renault e.Dams team is very fast
This gives the team a few advantages. They have one gear to get started, and a second gear for most of the racing. That eliminates the momentary lapses in power that come with making gear shifts, but also eschews the extra weight necessitated by going with a single-gear, twin-motor setup. Combine that with a custom carbon fiber gearbox, and the result is that the Renault e.Dams cars are the lightest on the track, hitting the minimum weight of 888kg.
What did that mean in Beijing? Renault e.Dams driver Sebastien Buemi backed up a strong first season (four wins and lost the drivers' championship by one point) with an utterly dominant win. He started on the pole and ran away with the race, sporting anywhere from a 4- to an 11-second lead during most of the competition. His teammate, Nico Prost, was in the top five the entire race and was competing for a podium finish when he knocked his rear wing loose. (He was still in the top five after this happened, but was black-flagged by race officials.) From qualifying to the checkered flag, Renault e.Dams was the strongest team in Beijing.
Nico Prost at the Miami race in season one.
Luckily for the fans, the racing from second place on back was fantastic. Before Prost was waved off the track, he and Mahindra Racing's Nick Heidfeld had an excellent battle of their own. The two famously clashed (and crashed) at the end of last year's race in Beijing, but this time around they were able to avoid going airborne. Heidfeld was no match for Buemi, or even second-place finisher Lucas di Grassi, but was good enough to give Mahindra Racing its first podium finish ever.
The middle of the pack was full of dogfights
Deeper in the pack, Virgin Racing teammates Jean-Eric Vergne and Sam Bird battled Dragon Racing's Loic Duval (and each other, really) hard in the first half of the race, diving deep into corners and braking late to make sketchy passes on the tight street course. By the second half, however, Vergne and Bird dropped in the standings because their battery power was low. Duval, meanwhile, had as much as 8 percent more battery than Bird or Vergne, and was able to finish fourth. Was the Virgin team's misfortune just a result of their aggressive driving? Or did their heavy, single-gear, twin-motor setup mean their cars needed to draw that much more power from the batteries to fight for position? The NextEV team (including last year's drivers' champion Nelson Piquet Jr.) ran the same setup and had similar problems, so these kinds of questions will keep coming up this season.
Of course, a lot of this could (and likely will) change. At 3.5 kilometers, Beijing is the longest track on the Formula E schedule. (Putrajaya, for example, is one kilometer shorter.) The differences from team to team might mean much less on shorter, tighter tracks, where the cars have less room to max out their performance. The teams might also be able to make adjustments throughout the season, which is likely considering that an extremely rainy week of preseason testing at the UK's Donington Park left many teams scratching their heads. They won’t, however, be able to change their drivetrain strategy mid-season.
Another thing to watch going forward is how each driver deals with racing two cars in one race. Remember, Formula E’s battery is still only good enough to make it through half of the hour-long races, which means the drivers make one pit stop in the middle to hop into a new car. (It sounds goofy, but it’s innocuous.) This gives the teams more room to play with race strategy, similar to how NASCAR teams handle fuel mileage during long races. In Formula E, you have to make sure you don’t use too much power in the first half of the race, otherwise you have to pit early, which could mean your second car won’t be able to make it to the finish.
Pit strategy is more important than Fanboost
The flip side of this is that, if you conserve energy early on, you can pit one lap later, meaning you can drive more aggressively in the second half. A handful of drivers tried this in Beijing, and while it didn’t win them the race, it jumbled up the results enough to show that it’s still a worthy strategy to consider even with the new drivetrains — especially for drivers in the back of the pack. (To wit: Piquet did this a number of times last season, and he won the drivers' championship.)
Oh, and if you’re wondering, the new-rules version of Fan Boost still had little impact on the outcome of the Beijing race. Piquet used his early in the race to make up a tiny bit of lost ground in the back of the pack, and the broadcast never mentioned when (or if) drivers Sam Bird or Oliver Turby used theirs. Angst over the idea of Fan Boost still feels like misplaced emotion; if and when it affects the results of a race in some appreciable way, that seems to be the exception, not the rule.
This weekend's race in Putrajaya will start to answer many of these questions. As the sample size grows in the second season, the impact of the new rules will be easier to grasp. But despite the disparity between Renault e.Dams and the rest of the field, the first race was still excellent, and it's clear at this point that you can expect as much from the next.