Formula E now has three and a half seasons, which means that it has been about three and a half seasons longer than many racing fans and critics thought that a series of all-electric motor racing could last. The mix of racing technology largely unproven with only semi-recognizable drivers has somehow resulted in more excitement than anyone expected. The big manufacturers have come together en masse. And yet, this early success begins to feel more and more like a kind of prequel. That's because, in many ways, the series starts again this coming winter with the arrival of the radical second-generation Formula E car in season 5.
The new car, introduced earlier this year, looks like any other racing car that is used in motorsport at this time. That is good and bad. It's good because it stands out, making Formula E more distinguishable for casual fans (or even non-fans), which the series claims as its target audience. It is bad because it runs a greater risk of disconnecting people and, therefore, rejecting them.
The appearances are almost debatable because the fans will not stay if the race is shit. Therefore, it is important to know if the car meets the billing that 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 of the Mahindra racing team and the man who is currently second in the season 4 drivers' championship search, spoke to The Verge over the phone about his first day of testing.
"We've all been very excited to see what it's like on the track, design is one thing, it looks great, it looks a bit like the Batmobile, but driving it has been great," Rosenqvist told The Verge. "It has a lot more power than last year, basically 70 to 80 more horsepower."
Photo: Mahindra Racing
Rosenqvist is referring to the 200kW batch of total power at 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 major motorsports such as IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One easily clear. But it's nothing, according to Rosenqvist, especially for the tight street circuits in which Formula E competes.
"It was very powerful, and for the first time it really feels like a fast race car," he explains. "The main complaint [about Formula E] has always been that the cars are too slow, and I think the next season will be as fast, in a straight line, like a Formula 3 car, or perhaps faster, I think it's 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 clash with the new car is significant enough to start stretching some of the current limits of the series. "It's going to be quite difficult to drive this car on the tight circuits that we drive, it's going to be almost dominated by tracks like New York, which is very narrow, that's going to be very hard for the driver," he says.
Rosenqvist has only had one session with the new car so far, but says he has already noticed a series of differences with the current car beyond the power increase. On the one hand, he says he is stronger. That's thanks to the extra noise that comes out of the strongest electric transmission, as well as the way the wind breaks the more complicated aerodynamic body.
An even bigger difference is braking. The season 5 car uses a "cable brake" system, which means that the brakes are electronically controlled, rather than through the hydraulics and hoses.
A new cable brake system will make things a little easier for drivers, but more challenging for teams
This is a big problem because braking has been one of the biggest challenges in 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 removes the kinetic energy from the wheels and replaces it in the battery).
Drivers must constantly balance these two braking systems throughout each race by adjusting a knob on their steering wheel, known as "brake predisposition". These adjustments not only require concentration, but each turn of the brake change control changes the way the car behaves. since the mechanical and regenerative braking systems are in different axes.
Going to "brake by wire" means that this balance will be handled electronically, which means more software that the teams must manage. Since equipment and manufacturers can only develop specific parts of the electric transmission, the software plays a very important role in who wins and loses Formula E races. Rosenqvist says that switching to cable brake will make it an even bigger factor.
"I think there are many ways to play with that, and that will probably be the biggest performance factor next year between the teams," he explains. "I think the smartest one with regard to how to deal with that, in terms of software, is going to be the fastest."
There are other changes on the horizon that Rosenqvist and the other drivers did not have the opportunity to try this week. One idea that arises is that new cars will not run the full race at full power; rather, they will approach 200kW and may switch to 250kW for a limited time. This is a kind of how they run now. For example, cars have 180kW of available power during each race, but qualify at 200kW.
Another is how things are going to change now that the new car has a battery that can last the entire race. Drivers currently have to trade cars during a pit stop mid-race, but the new car has a battery with almost double the capacity. If the series will still order pit stops (which provide a source of drama during each race, since mistakes are easy to make in high-pressure situations), or something else will take its place, it remains to be seen.
Rosenqvist says he did not even notice the new "halo" head protection system
One thing Rosenqvist says he did not notice during his test, curiously, was the new head protection device known as the "halo." A mandatory addition to all the Formula Formula series this season, the ring around the cockpit is meant to protect the heads of drivers from being hit by flying debris. It is a rare occurrence, but it has claimed lives and damaged others in recent years. The halo has caused much controversy for its appearance, but finally the FIA (the governing body of most of the major international motor sports such as Formula One or Formula E) decided that it was worth dealing with the negative comments of fans , and even drivers like Rosenqvist.
"I've always been a little complacent about the halo, I really did not like it," says Rosenqvist. "But driving with him was completely fine, honestly, I did not think about that when I was in the car, and I think it looks great in the Formula E car too, and it seems pretty ridiculous in Formula One cars. [Formula E chassis designer Spark] did a good job integrating it into the design, I think if I took it off, it would probably lose a bit of its charm. "
Therefore, the new car is faster, safer and must stretch the limits that Formula E has recorded in its first seasons. These are important things for the drivers of the series, according to Rosenqvist, and they are also a reason why the series continues to attract new talents and renowned manufacturers. It should also help Formula E stay out of what is now a series of other all-electric racing series that appear around the world.
That said, he adds, it still does not hurt that the new car looks as outrageous as it does.
"I've been driving Formula cars since 2007, so you usually have a good idea of what a Formula car is, but when you get to the garage and see this standing, it's a big game changer, and something we have not seen before, "he says. "We all compete with prototypes, Formula cars and GT cars, but this is definitely a new generation."