We’re now two full seasons into the wild experiment of Formula E, a racing series that pits 20 F1-style electric racecars against each other on the streets of the biggest cities in the world. The racing has so far been excellent — the races are short, close, and competitive, and in both seasons the drivers’ championships were decided on the final day. Formula E has provided the kind of drama you hope for in any sport, but to find it in a series that’s brand-new is surprising.
An extra level of drama is coming in season three, kicking off this weekend in Hong Kong. Last year, teams were allowed to tinker with certain parts of the cars for the first time — in season one the cars were all identical — and that freedom to innovate attracted a few of the world’s biggest carmakers to the sport. Renault, Audi, and Citroën were some of the first to bite, and they spent season two fighting for wins while learning what worked and what didn’t.
Formula E is becoming the premiere venue for EV makers
This year, the carmaker ranks have grown. Jaguar has entered the series. BMW partnered with the team run by Michael Andretti, the son of racing legend Mario Andretti. Faraday Future, a flashy-but-secretive startup with roots in Silicon Valley, struck a deal with the Dragon Racing team. And more, including Mercedes-Benz, are coming.
Glance at any of these names on a sheet of paper and you might think you’re looking at a top-flight series that has been around for years. Formula E has just 21 races to its name, but it’s already a freight train. Whether spurned by Tesla, the environment, or government regulations on fuel efficiency, car companies around the world are shifting to electric vehicles. And Formula E is becoming a premiere venue for that fight.
The first season of Formula E was a proof of concept. Don’t get me wrong, it was exciting at times — the leaders of the inaugural race wrecked in the final turn, and then the championship was decided by one point on the last lap of the season. It made for great spectacle, but there were also a few bugs in the system, like how the broadcasts weren’t quite right. Some networks, including Fox Sports 1 in America, seemed like they didn’t know how to time commercials against a global broadcast feed, for example.
That’s why CEO Alejandro Agag and the FIA — the series’ governing body, which also oversees Formula One — were wise to use “spec” cars. Every team had to race the same car, and no big changes were allowed. The cars were remarkably reliable, too, surviving the stresses of racing in hot cities like Buenos Aires or Putrajaya. Agag made sure the damn thing worked so that later, it could become more. It was a racing series in beta.
A racing series coming out of beta
Season two was version 1.0, our first glimpse of where things are now headed. Each team was again provided with the same car, but the series allowed them to customize the powertrain (or “drivetrain”) — namely, all the stuff that connects to the battery. Teams could now build their own motors, inverters, gearboxes, and rear suspension. It was still a million miles behind F1, where every tiny bit of carbon fiber gets customized to the millimeter. But it was enough to create great drama across the season.
Renault eDams, the team that won the championship in season one, reportedly dumped millions of dollars into creating and sourcing those customizable components. They used exotic materials and opted for fewer gears than most other teams, essentially cutting the weight of their cars down to the minimum allowed by the series. They were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the class of the field. The ABT-Schaeffler team got involved with Audi and came up with a slightly less radical solution, but were consistently on Renault’s heels.
Behind the two frontrunners it was a totally mixed bag. Richard Branson’s Virgin team partnered up with French automaker Citroën’s DS Automobile offshoot and created an unruly monster of a car — driver Sam Bird spent almost the entire season sliding around corners because the rear end of the car was so heavy. And yet he was often in the top five, and even won the Buenos Aires race.
“Last year we started in a rush,” says Xavier Mestelan Pinon, the director of DS Performance, who oversees the racing efforts of the Citroën offshoot. (Pinon also used to lead Citroën’s World Rally Car efforts.) “For this next season we changed everything. We started from white paper and we redesigned everything. All new gearbox, new motor, new software, new wiring — everything is new.”
Mahindra — one of India’s leading car manufacturers — spent the second season optimizing an evolution of the car’s first season tech while competing in the middle of the pack. Like most other teams, Mahindra hedged. They opted to iterate on the spec car’s electric guts instead of ripping them out and starting all over.
“We just wanted to get to grips with the championship, so we said ‘Okay let’s focus on reliability’ and just took an evolution of what we had in season one with the same suppliers,” Mahindra team principal Dilbagh Gill tells The Verge.
That’s no longer the case. “For Mahindra, we’ve gone and changed every component we could change so that there’s no carryover from season 2 to season 3 in our car,” Gill says.
Why the big change? For one, Mahindra learned a lot about how to make the cars better with software in season two. But mostly it’s because the wick is about to get turned up, thanks to new manufacturers knocking down the doors.
Jaguar is one of the most recognizable auto brands in the world, and it used to compete regularly in motorsports, with multiple wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But the company has spent the last few decades dormant, save for an iffy stint in F1.
The series is less of a financial burden than F1, and it’s more relevant to road cars
“Rather than just racing for the sake of it, we wanted to race for the reasons that are true to our ethos, which is about proving our technology on the race track for the road,” says Panasonic Jaguar Racing director James Barclay. “That work led us to identify Formula E, and to really ratify that Formula E was really the perfect next step for us.”
The British company reached out to Formula E early on and kept in touch, waiting for the right moment to pounce. When the the troubled Trulli Formula E team left the series near the beginning of season two, Jaguar got the spot. The company announced it was joining the electric series last December, and at the same time disclosed that it was working on a few road-going EVs.
“Formula E is an international championship that is moving into the bullseye of where the automotive industry is heading,” Barclay says. “We felt that was really important to choose a form of motor racing that was moving more into that bullseye, but would also give us the true learning from a race track perspective to apply [the technology] to our road cars.”
That’s a popular refrain from manufacturers when you ask them the question of “why Formula E?” But Barclay thinks it’s more than just a convenient answer. “We can learn a lot from Formula E about managing [battery] thermal heat issues. We can also learn about the programming, how to get the maximum out of our cars,” he says. “The hardware isn’t likely to be the same, but it’s the philosophy, the technique, the systems, and the programs that we’ll learn a huge amount from. And those are really relevant for our road cars.”
Century-old names are great, but at the other end of the spectrum is Faraday Future, the kind of fresh faced company that the series needs with Tesla not in the mix. (The word is that, since Tesla is developing its own battery and electric tech for its road cars, the company doesn’t see the need to be involved in Formula E.)
But Faraday Future’s involvement in Formula E is also part of a deeper, more subtle story that reflects the automotive industry at large. It has to do with money — specifically, money coming from and going to China. Faraday Future might be a Silicon Valley startup on its face, but they’re being funded by a Chinese company called LeEco (nee LeTV).
Once referred to as the “Netflix of China,” LeEco is ostensibly a media and electronics company, but it had a pretty busy 2016 that showed its broader ambitions. In April, the company unveiled its own electric car. In July, Leeco bought Vizio. On top of it all, the CEO criticized Apple as “outdated,” — which in hindsight was more kind than the time he compared the company to Hitler.
China is playing an increasingly big role in the series, too
Faraday and LeEco aren’t unique in Formula E. NextEV is another Chinese EV maker that positions itself as a Silicon Valley-style startup, and this will be the second year the company has fielded a team in Formula E. And a new Chinese team called Techeetah, backed by a major sports marketing agency from China, is courting potential OEM partners as it dips into the series for the first time this year. If Formula E is where the big-name companies are going to fight it out in the next decade, it’s only fitting that these startups with connections to China are in the mix as well.
More big companies are vying for a spot in the series, too. Agag wants to expand the number of teams from 10 to 12 in season five, and Mercedes-Benz has already reserved one of those two spots. Nissan, which makes the Leaf EV, and has a contractual alliance with Renault, is reportedly very interested in joining the series. Porsche — with a strong motorsports program and EV plans of its own — would be a good fit. The German company even submitted to make a new, more powerful battery for Formula E, but the contract was awarded to McLaren.
Others will likely find themselves attracted to the series when that battery — which will allow the cars to run a full race on a single charge — is implemented alongside a radical new chassis design in 2018. But there’s a lot to like already. The series-issued car means companies don’t have to dump billions of dollars into developing their own team. Formula E requires far less of an investment, and what they can tinker with is more immediately relevant to most road cars than the hypercar tech found in Formula One.
Audi team driver Lucas di Grassi — who nearly won the championship last season — says that all this new manufacturer competition makes a “big difference” for why he races in the series. He’s also excited that more carmakers are on the way.
“Manufacturers want to use it to showcase their technology,” di Grassi says. “It’s still not F1 of course, but in the next few years I think there is a big chance that Formula E becomes one of the main, if not the main, series in the world.”