World champion Lucas di Grassi explains why Formula E is so fascinating. And why it is the racing sport of the future.
Conceived in 2012 and inaugurated in 2014, the FIA Formula E Championship quickly established itself in the racing world, revolutionising motorsport. Formula E is the world’s first fully electric international street-racing series and consists of 12 ePrix competitions in 10 cities. It is currently broadcasted in 117 countries, and is covered by international channels.
Last season’s final in downtown Montreal drew some 45,000 spectators. The races all take place on city-centre circuits. For the fourth season, namely the 2017/2018 championship, Formula E is visiting Hong Kong, Marrakesh, Paris, New York City, Santiago, Rome, Berlin, Mexico City, and Zurich. The 20 drivers (two per team) include many famous names such as Nick Heidfeld and Nelson Piquet Jr.
And the number of participating teams and manufacturers is constantly growing. Porsche AG will enter Formula E from the 2019/20 season, while the Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler team has been a regular competitor in Formula E since the inaugural season, with drivers Lucas Di Grassi and Daniel Abt achieving several podium finishes. Di Grassi was not only the winner of the first ever Formula E race, he is also Formula E’s reigning World Champion. So who better to summarise the allure of this competition in seven points?
1. The driving
Formula E is very different from other racing series. First, we only drive on street circuits. They are much narrower than racing tracks so the drivers need total concentration. Then qualifying driving and race driving are very different. In qualifying, you go as fast as possible, just as in any other race series. In the race itself, though, you only have a limited amount of energy. Strategically, that makes it very challenging. Then there is lots of overtaking because the technological level of the cars is quite similar and so there is a lot of attacking driving. Finally, there is a lot of contact, particularly on bends, meaning great action for spectators. This is because the cars get damaged to a lesser extent than in Formula 1, and so can continue racing after a minor “fender bender”.
2. The tracks
It’s amazing to race through the very heart of magnificent cities such as New York and Paris, Mexico City and Marrakesh. Hong Kong, for example, where this season began, is a very small urban circuit. The total distance raced is only 80 kilometres. Of course, when I’m racing, I don’t have time to appreciate my surroundings, but when I’m in the pit and I can take a closer look at the scenery, it’s quite spectacular. We can race in city centres because the cars are so quiet. Electric cars are mostly designed for urban environments, so it’s the perfect technology for metropolitan races. That’s why so many cities worldwide want to promote Formula E.
3. The rules
Formula E has some special rules. Like FanBoost, for example, an online voting system where fans can choose who to give extra power to for the second race in the second car after the mandatory pit-stop. That’s a great opportunity for the fans to interact with the race, even if the boost doesn’t make much difference to the outcome. It’s your performance as a driver that counts, much more than the superior quality of your car. FIA made the regulations very strict so that the cars are very similar and every driver has an equal chance to win. The batteries, for example, are all the same. The team rules for developing aerodynamics and chassis are really tough. This is a positive thing, but it means that a minor bureaucratic oversight can lead to disqualification, something which has happened both to myself and teammate Daniel Abt in the past.
4. The strategy
Because the amount of energy per race is limited, we have to shape our strategy according to our goals. Let’s say each battery has 28 kWh and you have to drive 28 laps. That means you can only use 1 kWh per lap on average. But how do you use this power? That’s the tricky part. Where do you accelerate with maximum power, where do you ease up a little bit and save power? Where do you lift before a corner? How do you recuperate the energy when you brake? Sometimes when you’re fighting another driver it’s better to save energy until your opponent hasn’t got much energy left. Or the other way around – when you’re defending you need to drive smart so that the guy can’t overtake you. That’s why I say it’s like playing chess at 200 kph. We have a clear goal before the race, but we have to adapt fast while we’re racing. You never become perfect at that, you’re just learning all the time. It always depends on what the other drivers are doing.
5. The fans
We race close to the spectators. That’s a great way of demonstrating the advantages of e-mobility directly to the crowd. We take Formula E to the fans, they don’t have to drive a couple of hours to get to the racing track. The fans are really excited about the new technology. We organise some events with them ahead of the race, such as driving with them in the simulator or saying hello during the driver parade. And I guess it’s why people like Leonardo Di Caprio, Bar Refaeli and Adrien Brody come to the races.
6. The technology
Formula E is all about sustainability and high-tech. When I started out in Formula 3 back in 2004, I only had nine engineers and one data expert. It’s completely the reverse now. We do all the digital race and structure analysis before the race, and then during the race itself we fine-tune the last 1 percent. The driver, the team, the hardware – in Formula E you have to get everything right. And sometimes you need to get lucky in the right place at the right time. Things will get even more exciting as driverless cars advance. In Hong Kong we put on a “Human vs Machine” race. You’ll find the video on YouTube. A Formula E presenter drove five laps and then artificial intelligence tried to beat her. This time round, the human triumphed, but we’re working on the software. Roborace will never replace motorsport, but it can become a great addition. Formula E is an ideal platform for promoting this new technology.
7. The vision
The quicker we move towards e-mobility all over the world, the better for everyone. Electric racing has great potential in two areas. The first is improving e-technology. And the second is showcasing the fact that electric cars are fast and really cool to drive. This changes our perception of electric cars. It’s not about us being the good guys and Formula One the bad ones because they are still driving combustion or hybrid engines. In racing, both will coexist for quite some time. But I’m very happy to be with Audi in Formula E. This is about promoting the technology for the future.
Source: Face the change – Volkswagen AG