As Formula One prepares for a new hybrid era the new Formula E series is going one step beyond with its all-electric racing – so what are the technical specs and how could it affect motorsport’s future?
The dominance of Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One has been challenged in the past but while series like A1GP and Superleague have come and gone this one is very different. This one is all about technology, it already has some big sponsors – including two existing F1 sponsors - and it has the supplier support of McLaren, Williams and Renault.
The concept – a racing series run on electric power alone - is simple but the execution is not so easy and, at times, almost demonstrates the limitations of electric power rather than the benefits, as each one-hour race will have two pit stops not to change tyres but to change cars when they run out of juice.
That said, the fact that a performance level equivalent to that of an F3 car can be delivered without a traditional combustion engine shows how far electric vehicles have come.
The decision to race only on street circuits will make the cars look fast, even if they can’t reach F1 levels of performance just yet - but the point is if all goes to plan, one day they could do just that.
The aim (although they deny there is any contest) is to beat F1 to becoming the test bed for cutting edge electric technology.
This time next year, all being well, this plan will begin with season one, a proof of concept that will initially be a single make series.
The powerplant for this is a classic electric motor concept – in simple terms, a bigger version of what you’d find in a Scalextric car, with electromagnets in the stator that spin the rotor to create kinetic energy that powers the rear wheels.
The McLaren-developed powerplant for Formula E will deliver a maximum power of 200kw – equivalent to 260bhp – with full power available for practice and qualifying but a restricted 133kw available for racing, allowing the use of a KERS-like ‘push-to-pass’ system offering full power on the button.
In contrast, the current KERS motor used in F1 delivers just 60kw - equivalent to around 80bhp - useable for 6.7s during a lap. Next year, the more hybrid-focused F1 will have an electric output from the re-named ERS system that can deliver 161bhp for 33 seconds of a lap.
It is the requirement to deliver power for longer in Formula E that puts a challenge on the engineering design as the continuous use puts heavy demands on cooling.
This will be achieved through a water-cooled system, but the organisers say it will still require less cooling than F1’s combustion engines, so will have smaller radiators and smaller sidepods. The powerplant itself is also much smaller and lighter than an F1 engine, with the motor and control unit together weighing just 42kg.
The biggest challenge with these electric motors, however, is that they are very on/off.
That works well for their use in F1 as KERS as it gives a boost of instantaneous acceleration that helps create overtaking opportunities.
For all-electric power, however, controllability is a big challenge, particularly for more powerful electric motors, and McLaren – who has developed the entire electric system - has created a four-speed sequential gearbox design and put it through significant lab testing to achieve a smooth power gradient.
The battery pack is the heavy bit, weighing in at 200kg and heavier than a fully filled F1 fuel tank. It is positioned in the same place as an F1 fuel tank to make it a structural member in what is actually a fairly typical chassis layout.
The most unique aspect of the car is that it is designed specifically for street circuits, with reportedly an incredibly tight turn radius of 7.5m – a smart car manages only 9m and an F1 car is well into double figures – so it can negotiate tight corners and hairpins easily.
The tyres are the other revolutionary area, with sole-supplier Michelin getting to do what they wanted to do in F1 and run with 18-inch rims and low profiles – instead of 13-inches with big sidewalls.
This is typical of the series organisers’ approach to development – it resembles products used in road cars and allows Michelin to use the series as a platform to develop road-relevant single-spec grooved tyres that deliver good grip in both dry and wet conditions.
And that is the most crucial thing for Formula E – to become a platform for development.
Right now, it’s just a one–make formula but surely a series where the technology used is so new that they had to write their own rules will draw in interested manufacturer eyes when it kicks off.
In year two, it will cease being a one-make series and open its doors to anyone willing to construct a car to its regulations.
And that’s when Formula One will really see if it needs to worry...