All charged up: The basic guide to Formula E

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This coming weekend, American race fans will largely be focusing on the start of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

But also occurring then is the debut of the all-electric, open-wheel FIA Formula E in Beijing, China.

The Beijing ePrix on Sept. 13 will kick off a 10-race schedule that stretches into the early summer of 2015. Along the way, the series will make stops in Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

With the debut almost at hand, now’s a good time to brush up on what to expect from a racing category that’s striving to set itself apart in numerous ways.

THE CAR

Spark-Renault SRT_01E

Capable of hitting a maximum speed of 150 mph, the Spark-Renault SRT_01E is the product of a collaboration between multiple entities with deep roots in motorsports.

The cars are built by Spark Racing Technology, with IndyCar chassis supplier Dallara also serving in that role for the SRT_01E. Inside the Dallara chassis are a electric powertrain and electronics from McLaren Electronics Systems, and batteries from Williams Advanced Engineering.

Renault will oversee all the technical integration, and Michelin is supplying 18-inch tires for the cars.

THE GRID

10 teams are part of the inaugural 2014 grid for F-E, with two of them coming from the United States: Andretti Formula E and Dragon Racing.

Each team will feature two drivers, and overall, there’s a good mix of Formula One and open-wheel veterans plus bright up-and-comers. As for Andretti, they’ll enter the season with Franck Montagny and a still-unannounced second driver, while Dragon will feature Jerome d’Ambrosio and Oriol Servia (Beijing only).

So who else is where? Here’s the remainder of the F-E grid:

Amlin Aguri – Katherine Legge and Antonio Felix da Costa
Audi Sport Abt – Daniel Abt and Lucas di Grassi
China Racing – Nelson Piquet Jr., Ho-Pin Tung, Antonio Garcia (reserve)
e.dams-Renault – Sebastien Buemi and Nicolas Prost
Mahindra Racing – Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok
TrulliGP – Jarno Trulli and Michela Cerruti
Venturi – Nick Heidfeld and Stephane Sarrazin
Virgin Racing – Jaime Alguersuari and Sam Bird

THE SHOW

In addition to their goal of helping the environment (which you could’ve probably guessed they’d have with the whole electric thing), F-E wants to be a good neighbor in the cities it visits.

Thus, each F-E event – with practice, qualifying, and the main event on the track and assorted entertainment options off the track – will be single-day shows.

Each event will begin with two practice sessions in the morning, followed by qualifying (four groups of five cars each) at lunch time locally.

Full power (200 kilowatts, 270 bhp) will be available in both practice and qualifying; drivers can use both of their cars in practice, but only one car in qualifying.

Winners of the FanBoost, an additional five-second power boost for drivers who win a pre-race online vote, will then be announced in the immediate lead-up to the race.

The race is scheduled to start at 4 p.m. local time and have a length of approximately 60 minutes. Power on the cars will be restricted to “race mode” – 150 kw, 202.5 bhp – while FanBoost drivers can increase their power to 180 kw, 243 bhp for the aforementioned five seconds on each of their two cars.

THE PIT STOPS

All drivers must make at least one pit stop in order to switch cars in their stalls. Minimum time periods will be enforced, and tire changes are not permitted unless a puncture has occurred.

THE CHAMPIONSHIP

Driver and team championships will be up for grabs in F-E, but how they’re determined will differ. A driver’s end-of-season points total will be made up of his or her best results minus one, while the team’s total will have all results taken into account.

Standard FIA points will be doled out: 25 points for the win, 18 points for 2nd, 15 points for third, 12 points for fourth, 10 points for fifth, eight points for sixth, six points for 7th, four points for 8th, two points for 9th, and one point for 10th.

Qualifying on the pole will get you three bonus points, and the fastest lap of the race will get you two bonus points.

THE 2014-2015 SCHEDULE

Beijing – Sept. 13
Putrajaya, Malaysia – Nov. 22
Punta del Este, Uruguay, Dec. 13
Buenos Aires – Jan. 10, 2015
TBA – Feb. 14, 2015
Miami – Mar. 14, 2015
Long Beach, Calif. – Apr. 4, 2015
Monaco – May 9, 2015
Berlin – May 30, 2015
London – June 27, 2015

CHARGING THE CARS

Charging will not be allowed during any practice, qualifying, or race session or at any time prior to the completion of post-qualifying or post-race inspection. Charging in the pits is only permitted with equipment that complies with FIA safety regulations. Charging of all 20 cars from flat to full takes about 50 minutes.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”