Almost five years after the all-electric Formula E racing class made an exciting debut, the book is about to close the fifth season. Crucially, this was also the first season with the Formula E second-generation race-changing electric racing car, which is faster, lasts longer and can help the series become more legitimate motorsport.
In April I rode one on a race track.
I actually drove the first generation car of the series in 2017, but I've had the urge to try the new car since it was announced in 2018. It not only looks totally insane, but it is an important upgrade in just about every way. The old car had a maximum power consumption of 200 kW or around 268 hp. The second generation car (or "Gen2 car", as everyone in the sport calls it) has a top performance of 250 kW or 335 hp. The top speed of the old car was 150 miles per hour; the new car peaks with 174 mph and can go from 0 to 60 mph in less than 3 seconds. Given that the series hadn't run any race on this day five years ago, that's pretty good.
One thing that shocked me when I was driving behind the wheel of the new all-electric Formula E racing car in April is how easy it is to drive. There are no gears like in the original car. Like its predecessor, it uses tread tires instead of race slicks, so I didn't have to worry about warming them up exactly the correct temperature as I would in a Formula 1 car, for example. Even the halo – the flash-like safety device that is now above the car's cockpit – largely disappeared into my sight as soon as I was seated.
The most surprising thing, however, was that the Gen2 car of Formula E felt easier to drive beyond the first generation – and not just because I was driving it in an energy-limited mode. The gas is smoother. The brakes are much more forgiving and progressive than those of the old car (which were whole easy to lock) thanks to a new brake-by-wire design. The steering is smoother and more precise. In general, the car felt like it was rattling less – something that stands out very easily due to the lack of engine noise.
I'm not saying that the Gen2 car is actually easy to drive. That's not it: 335 horsepower may not sound like much, but get on the gas pedal too quickly when leaving a turn or with too much oomphand the electric motor and the instantaneous torque will spin the rear wheels (and probably the car) before you know it. Time braking poorly after exceeding 100 miles per hour on an instant, and it doesn't really matter how forgiving the brake pedal is. Circuit de Calafat, the track I was driving on, is tight and technical, and more than one other person there that day turned or sent the car into the gravel.
What's more, after just a few laps in the Gen2 car, which weighs 900 kilograms (1984 pounds) and has no power steering, my arms were fully cooked. Not to mention that I didn't have to deal with all the other things that have to do with participating in this car, such as doing 12-hour days in a simulator to prepare you for a race or the manage battery level while you fight for remote position from the imposing walls of a street circuit.
Yet I was comfortable enough with the Gen2 car that it gave the first generation a feeling of a prototype. In the old car I had the feeling that I was somewhat close to its limits. In the new one, I felt how much more it could handle.
I also did not rely solely on my memory; Mahindra Racing, the team that let me drive the new car, also let me take a few laps in one of their first generation cars in Spain. I worked with a new comparison and the differences were striking. Even after four seasons of development, the original car felt like the beta version of Formula E, the one that helped the series work out all the kinks.
That is largely true! The first generation car was known to occasionally overheat. It used a battery that could only last about 25 minutes, which meant that drivers had to stop halfway each race to change cars. It cost about half (about € 400,000, or about $ 445,000) as the Gen2 car, which has a price tag of just over € 800,000 (or about $ 900,000).
More than anything else, the calmness of the Gen2 gave me a signal that it is a car that can be pushed to higher limits in the right hands. The specifications may be slightly more impressive on paper, but the refinements I saw in my cockpit during my few laps ultimately determine a car that can drive more aggressively. Drivers are not so much at the mercy of this new car as they were in the old car, where, for example, they had to manually alternate the balance between the traditional brakes and the regenerative braking system of the electric motor. every round using a wheel on the handlebars.
The genius of Formula E during the first few seasons is that the organizers of the series did not fight the observed shortcomings of the first generation car, they embraced them. They used these limitations to the advantage of the series. The cars don't make much noise? Excellent. Host cities will love Which. The batteries do not last long? Great, the younger audience that we target has a short attention span anyway. Are the speeds not blinding? Fantastic. Smaller street circuits make top speed irrelevant, create more braking options to send energy back into the batteries and they will also (again) more digestible for host cities because they take up less space.
Now, with a more solid, capable and frankly exciting car in the middle of the series – not to mention the buy-in of some of & # 39; the world's largest automakers such as Audi, BMW, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche – Formula E & # 39; s Organizers build on that basis. They have fewer limitations to work with and they are in a rare position in the world of motor sport where they can now try even bolder ideas, ideas that can take the series apart and, if they get tired of it, help determine what the future of racing will look like. No pressure.