Smarter sports, smarter cities: 10 things you need to know about Formula E

Formula E

Lewis won in Abu Dhabi but don't forget Sam Bird who took first place in Putrajaya on the Formula E race circuit. Ross Ringham explains why the new formula electric vehicle race series is going to drive the future of smart ciites.

To meet many of the challenges faced by our cities today, greater intelligence must be built into our transport systems, power grids and urban spaces. The FIA, the international motor racing body, wants to amplify that conversation with Formula E, a new series that throws electric racing cars around temporary inner-city street circuits across the globe. 

For much more on Formula E, including live trackside updates from each race, technical analysis and exclusive features, visit here 

The series got underway in Beijing in September, and made headlines with a huge airborne crash. The second round took place on Saturday, in Putrajaya, Malaysia. Here are 10 things that you need to know before you watch the race

1. Formula E aims to advance road-going electric vehicle technology and, through the excitement, glamour and drama of motor racing, encourage widespread adoption of electric cars in city centres. The first year is a “spec series” (meaning that all teams use the same car and powertrain) to prove the concept works in the most cost-effective manner possible. The series will open up to other constructors from the second season, which is when marked progress in battery and motor technology is expected.

2. It's directly relevant to road cars. The Spark-Renault racing car used in the 2014-15 is not yesterday’s news, however. The motor is an upgraded version of the unit used in McLaren’s P1 hybrid supercar, turned up to deliver 200kW peak power. The 30kWh liquid-cooled battery has been designed and built by Williams, and is based on that used in the Jaguar C-X75 prototype. The battery safety cell is supplied by Dallara (along with the rest of the chassis), and forms part of the structure of the racing car. With the cells installed, it weighs more than 300kg; it is also the first to be subjected to the full range of FIA impact tests (if you’ve seen the last lap crash from the opening race in Beijing, you’ll know why that was important). Michelin has supplied the 18” low profile tyres, which are another first for open wheel racing. They’re also treaded and all-weather: no slicks and rain tyres here. The underlying message is that Formula E is directly relevant to road cars, a claim that other top end motorsports, such as F1, struggle to match today.

3. The racing cars aren’t the only electric vehicles at each event. The race director has use of the frankly-insane Rimac Concept One, the £750,000 supercar that uses an electric motor at each wheel to develop more than 1000bhp and sprint from rest to 62mph in 2.8s. The medical vehicle is the BMW i3, and the safety car, which herds the race drivers around the circuit at a reduced speed when there’s an obstruction on track, is the much-acclaimed BMW i8. The involvement of both Renault and BMW at this early stage is significant: both are huge manufacturers with small but growing electric vehicle offerings – and both hope that Formula E will help them quickly sell more EVs in cities worldwide.

4. It's testing out glycerine generators which have potential for urban EV fuelling. Limitations in today’s battery tech means that every one of the 20 drivers needs two cars to complete the race distance. (Yes, cue a wacky mid-race hop from one car to another.) That means that at every Formula E event, the power supply needs to support 40 fast-charge race cars, four safety cars and the race director’s car. Here’s the clever bit. While the conventional electricity needs of the circuit are taken care of by the host city’s grid, the cars themselves are charged up using prototype 1000kW generators. Supplied by Aquafuel, these units run on glycerine, a naturally-occurring substance that is produced during the manufacture of biodiesel, and producing virtually no emissions. The system could inform solutions to meet surges in EV ownership in urban areas facing already-stretched power networks.

5. When it comes to electricity, the series isn’t just exploring new ways of generating power: distribution is also on the agenda. The safety cars use the Qualcomm Halo wireless charging system. All the drivers need to do is roll the cars over a pad laid on the ground, and the batteries are replenished without having to connect cables. The pads are laid at the end of the pit lane where there is heavy foot traffic when the track is not in use; safety systems prevent the wireless system frying pedestrians, and worked flawlessly in Beijing. The Trulli GP team is already working with Qualcomm and licensee Drayson to design a wireless charging system for its race cars from season two. Such technology is likely to form a vital component to urban charging infrastructure. Qualcomm is also working on augmented reality features that will bring each city, track and race car to life on spectators’ mobile devices and tablets, something that is beginning to find its way into design and construction.

6. Formula E aims to be completely carbon neutral. To reach that ambition, the calendar has been designed in close collaboration with logistics partner DHL. Low-carbon transport methods have been prioritised, with train and ship preferred wherever possible. That is largely why the nine-venue season stretches across 10 months. None of the equipment returns during the season – the whole lot is shipped directly from race to race. The city centre nature of the sport eliminates the requirement for purpose-built race tracks too; instead, each venue can use temporary structures that can be easily dismantled after the event. Everything is being measured, from the aviation fuel burned to the number of concrete blocks lining the track. Once the carbon footprint of the sport has been minimised, what remains will be offset at the end of the season.

7. Culture change is a top priority. One way that Formula E aims to achieve that is by tying up with Greenpower, the British charity that interests youngsters in engineering by enabling them to build and race their own electric cars. Greenpower has also been particularly successful in evening up the gender balance in what is a traditionally male-dominated sector. Electric vehicle kit cars will be sent to schools local to Formula E races, beginning with the Buenos Aires round next year. Students will then hold their own heats and races on the Formula E track, in between the grown-up action. It’s an inspired move, and one that will ensure younger generations are taking note of electric vehicle technology in every country that Formula E visits.

8.Social media interaction is a critical part of the marketing strategy. Teams are free to post virtually anything they like in a bid to attract more fans. And that’s important, as three drivers per race can win a power boost in both of their two cars during the race. Voting takes place at a dedicated website and closes on the morning of each race. In Formula E, social media success translates into a direct performance advantage on track. There are two major advantages to this feature: better engagement with fans (which appeals to sponsors now and which can be monetised later on) and a far wider reach far earlier than a new sport could otherwise expect. Like it or not, it’s a clever move. 

9.Financial longevity has been thought through carefully, too. All teams have an operational cost cap; they’re allowed only a handful of people at each race; they must use the same powertrain in each car all season (unless irreparably damaged); and they have a limited number of tyres per race day. The compressed schedule is designed to squeeze practice, qualifying and the race into a single day, to minimise the economic impact on host cities and on teams. And in signing up, teams and supply partners had to commit to several years, not just the first. Formula E is serious about sticking around.

10. The UK is the technical base for the sport; first London race is in June. Electric vehicles are expected to have a monumental impact on the fabric of British cities in the next decade. While Formula E may be busy visiting exotic, far-flung locations, its relevance to the UK cannot be underestimated. For a start, the sport’s global technical base is located in the East Midlands, and the closing race (in June, next year) will be held around Battersea Park, in London. Many British companies are already involved, including Virgin, McLaren, Williams, Hewland and Alcon. Formula E offers a technology testbed and a marketing platform to accelerate the adoption of EVs. There are clear opportunities here, too, for savvy engineering consultants, contractors, utilities providers and electronics companies who are keen to associate their brand with an initiative that highlights the future of transport, power and urban development, and who want to underline their credentials in promoting social, economic and environmental sustainability.

For much more on Formula E, including live trackside updates from each race, technical analysis and exclusive features, visit 

Photo Shivraj Gohil for Current E.