Formula E is now three and a half seasons old, meaning it’s been around about three and a half seasons longer than many racing fans and critics thought an all-electric motorsport series could last. The mix of racing largely unproven technology with only semi-recognizable drivers has somehow resulted in more excitement than anyone expected. Big-name manufacturers have joined in droves. And yet, this early success is beginning to feel more and more like a prequel of sorts. That’s because, in a lot of ways, the series starts anew this coming winter with the arrival of the radical second-generation Formula E racecar in season 5.
The new car, unveiled earlier this year, looks unlike any other racecar being used in motorsports at the moment. That’s both good and bad. It’s good because it stands out, making Formula E more distinguishable to casual (or even non-race fans), which the series claims as its target audience. It’s bad because it runs a higher risk of turning people off, and therefore turning them away.
Looks are almost moot because fans won’t stick around if the racing sucks. So it’s important to know whether the car lives up to the billing that it is fast and powerful. As such, a handful of Formula E teams are stationed at the Monteblanco Circuit in the southwest corner of Spain this week trying to answer that question for the first time.
Felix Rosenqvist, a driver for the Mahindra racing team and the man who is currently second in the hunt for the season 4 drivers’ championship, spoke to The Verge via phone about how his first test day went.
“We’ve all been really excited to see what it’s like on track. The design is one thing. It looks very cool, looks a bit like the Batmobile, but driving it has been pretty cool,” Rosenqvist tells The Verge. “It has a lot more power than last year, basically 70 to 80 horsepower more.”
Rosenqvist is referring to the bump from 200kW of total power to 250kW, which gives the cars a new top speed of around 174 miles per hour. That’s still noticeably south of the 200 mph mark that top motorsports like IndyCar, NASCAR, and Formula One all clear with ease. But it’s not nothing, according to Rosenqvist, especially for the tight street circuits Formula E competes on.
“It was very powerful, and for the first time it feels really like a quick racing car,” he explains. “The main complaint [about Formula E] has always been that the cars are too slow, and I think next season it will be as quick, on a straight line, as a Formula 3 car, or maybe quicker. I think that’s way more than enough to stop all these critics who say it’s just an RC car or whatever.”
In fact, Rosenqvist says, he thinks the power bump with the new car is significant enough that it’s going to start stretching some of the current limits of the series. “It’s going to be quite difficult to manage this car on the tight circuits that we drive. It’s going to be almost overpowered for tracks like New York, which is very tight. That’s going to be very rough for the driver,” he says.
Rosenqvist has only had one session with the new car so far, but he says he’s already noticed a number of differences to the current car beyond the power increase. For one thing, he says it’s louder. That’s thanks to the extra noise coming out of the stronger electric drivetrain, as well as the way the wind breaks off the more complicated aerodynamic bodywork.
An even bigger difference is the braking. The season 5 car uses a “brake-by-wire” system, which means the brakes are electronically controlled, rather than through hydraulics and hoses.
This is a big deal because braking has been one of the biggest challenges of driving a Formula E car since the series began. Drivers have two ways to brake in a Formula E car: mechanical braking and regenerative braking. (The latter is where the electric motor takes kinetic energy away from the wheels and puts it back into the battery.)
The drivers have to constantly balance these two braking systems throughout each race by adjusting a knob on their steering wheel, known as “brake bias.” Those adjustments not only require concentration, but each twist of the brake bias knob changes the way the car behaves since the mechanical and regenerative brake systems are on different axles.
Moving to brake-by-wire means that this balance will be handled electronically, which means more software that the teams will have to manage. Since the teams and manufacturers are only able to develop specific parts of the electric drivetrain, software plays a huge role in who wins and loses Formula E races. Rosenqvist says the change to brake-by-wire will make it an even bigger factor.
“I think there are many ways to play with it, and that’s probably going to be the biggest performance factor next year between the teams,” he explains. “The one that’s most clever with how to deal with that, software-wise, is going to be the quickest one, I think.”
There are other changes on the horizon that Rosenqvist and the other drivers didn’t get a chance to test out this week. One idea being floated is that the new cars won’t run the whole race at full power; rather, they’ll run closer to 200kW and will be able to switch to 250kW for a limited time. This is sort of how they run now. For example, the cars have 180kW of power available during each race, but they qualify at 200kW.
Another is how things will change now that the new car has a battery that can last the whole race. Drivers currently have to swap cars during a mid-race pit stop, but the new car has a battery with almost twice the capacity. Whether the series will still mandate pit stops (which provide a source of drama during each race, since mistakes are easy to make under high-pressure situations), or something else will take their place, remains to be seen.
One thing Rosenqvist says he didn’t notice during his test, strangely enough, was the new head protection device known as the “halo.” A mandatory addition to all top-tier Formula series this season, the ring around the cockpit is meant to protect drivers’ heads from being hit by flying debris. It’s a rare occurrence, but one that has taken lives and damaged others in recent years. The halo has caused a lot of controversy for the way it looks, but ultimately the FIA (the governing body of most major international motorsports like Formula One or Formula E) decided that it was worth dealing with the negative feedback from fans — and even from drivers like Rosenqvist.
“I’ve always been a little bit of a complainer about the halo. I didn’t really like it,” Rosenqvist says. “But driving with it was completely fine. Honestly, I didn’t think about it when I was in the car. And I think also it looks actually quite cool on the Formula E car, and it looks quite ridiculous on the Formula One cars. I think [Formula E chassis designer Spark] did a good job integrating it in the design. I think if you took it off, it would probably lose a bit of its charm.”
So the new car is faster, safer, and should stretch the boundaries that Formula E has etched out in its first few seasons. These are all important things for the drivers in the series, according to Rosenqvist, and are also a reason why the series keeps attracting new talent and big-name manufacturers. It should also help Formula E keep an edge over what is now a number of other all-electric racing series popping up around the world.
That said, he adds, it still doesn’t hurt that the new car looks as outrageous as it does.
“I’ve been driving Formula cars since 2007, and so you usually have a good idea what a Formula car is. But when you arrive to the garage and you see this standing there, it’s quite a game-changer, and something we haven’t really seen before,” he says. “We all race prototypes and Formula cars and GT cars, but this is definitely a new breed.”