Sparks will fly
A new Formula E season has charged off the starting line with the inaugural Hong Kong ePrix. The ground-breaking series for electric racing cars is attracting a huge global audience while developing technologies for road-going vehicles at the same time.
The battery-powered series is now in its third season, with 12 events scheduled around the world. Defending champion Sebastien Buemi won the harbourside opener in Hong Kong, watched by 30,000 spectators and a TV audience of 18 million. Buemi has again set the pace for the 2016-17 season but he faces stiff competition from a grid of highly experienced drivers including Nicolas Prost and Nelson Piquet Junior – both the sons of former F1 champions.
As well as being thrilling for fans, Formula E is proving to be a crucial testing ground for future electric technology. Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E, says car manufacturers have become increasingly interested in Formula E. “Many of us still remember the large mobile phones which plugged into your car and needed to be charged at every opportunity. They were heavy, chunky and had a short battery life.
“Now after years of research and development, we all have smart phones and tablets. These are not only a huge step up in terms of performance and battery life, but they are more ergonomically efficient too. This is what we want to achieve with the electric vehicle – shattering the current pre-conceptions about slow charging and restricted range. We want to ensure electric vehicles become the norm in cities around the world.”
Most of the new technology is focused on reducing battery weight and increasing range – the two key concerns for private electric-car owners. Currently, ePrix drivers have to pull in half-way through a race and swap to another fully charged vehicle. “This will change from 2018. For the fifth season, the cars will be able to race the entire distance without the need to stop. The battery weight is also decreasing every season – making the cars even faster,” says Mr Agag.
Formula E cars are charged from glycerol generators developed by UK-based company, Aquafuel. Glycerine is a carbon-neutral fuel that’s non-toxic and a by-product of biodiesel production. The liquid is so pure you can drink it. Another Formula E technology that will eventually filter down to road cars is wireless charging. Developed by US company Qualcomm, a ground-based pad charges the electric vehicle using magnetic power transfer – eliminating the need for a driver to plug the vehicle into a wall socket.
Jaguar has recently joined the race series for the new season too. The company says it is using Formula E as a major part of its research and development process for the electric cars of the future. Audi, Renault and Mahindra are already represented. Formula E may not offer ear-splitting decibels but nip-and-tuck racing on city-centre road circuits is thrilling. Spectators are closer to the action compared with most Formula One racetracks and they can even help their favourite driver win.
FanBoost enables followers to determine the outcome of a race using an online voting system. The driver with the most votes receives a power boost to their electric motor – it lasts only five seconds but can be a deciding factor on circuits with few overtaking opportunities. But while the spectators love the special atmosphere of an ePrix, it’s the behind-the-scenes race to develop electric-vehicle technology for the road that is driving the series forward at a faster and faster pace.