Gentlemen, Start Your Electromagnets

Formula 1 (for some) could perhaps be considered a little dry. But imagine for a moment a new series: set in the heart of London and other leading cities across the globe, with audience participation, up-to-the-millisecond links to social networking, interactive educational demonstrations, live music, head-to-head racing and (you saw this coming didn't you) not a drop of fuel in sight.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Formula E is coming.

Expect to see Formula E cars racing by 2014

Formula Electric, an all-new series for pure electric racing cars, is set for a full launch in 2014 with several demonstration events running in 2013. The main aim of the series is to promote electric vehicles as the future of the automotive industry, with the old adage ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’. As envisaged by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), it’s not going to be a motor race in the traditional sense, but ‘a new area of motorsport’ with everything reconsidered. It will be formatted very much to appeal to the younger urban generation, to the extent that it could deter a tranche of traditional motorsport enthusiasts from spectating.

Formula E was publicly initiated by the FIA in July 2011 and formally announced 13 months later that the three-year promoter contract had been awarded to Formula E Holdings, a consortium of investors consisting of Alejanfro Agag, Enrique Bañuelos, Great Britain’s Lord Drayson and Formulec. Agag, the CEO, is an extremely successful Spanish businessman and former politician who was a chairman of Queen’s Park Rangers and has had heavy involvement in GP2 and GP3. Bañuelos, a Spanish businessman and entrepreneur is one of twelve Spanish nationals to be listed in Forbes World’s Billionaires ranking, and is funding the consortium. Lord Drayson is a businessman, amateur racing driver and politician. He is the former minister for science, and holds the record for the fastest electric car at Goodwood which was developed by his company, Drayson Racing Technology which he is now devoting all his time to.

Adding even more clout, it was recently announced that McLaren will be providing engines, transmissions and electronics for the new cars.

The series may well boost the stature of electric cars - 'race on Sunday, sell on Monday'

Cars will be open-wheel single-seaters with a minimum gross weight of 780kg and similar performance to a current Formula 3 car, with a top speed of around 140mph. The number of electric motors is unrestricted, meaning hub motors will be permitted, simplifying the implementation of torque vectoring which would allow for improved handling characteristics. The only drawback of hub motors would be increased unsprung weight which is less of an issue on the track but could affect handling on less than glassy-smooth city streets.

The FIA’s proposal of artificially enhanced sound for the cars has so far been badly received. Be very clear however: we're not talking amplifiers and Skyfall-style speakers strapped to the rear wing pumping out the sound of a V8 at full chat - this is far more subtle. In the words of the FIA, the cars will be 'using mechanical vibrations and aerodynamic sound'. No bad thing really. The FIA have rightly identified that the sound signature (along with the car's design) is one of the crucial elements of the car, and watching Formulec's demonstration run through the streets of Moscow it's abundantly clear that something is missing.

A Formula E car demonstrating on the streets in Moscow

Then again maybe I'm simply giving away which generation I’m from. And of course current motorsports are an exception in terms of noise; in most sporting events the majority of noise emanates from the crowd. One of the greatest advantages of reduced noise is the increase to the number of available venues, particularly in cities.

The races will take place during the course of one day. There will be 10 teams, each with two cars and at present the FIA are forecasting eight events per season.  The race format has not yet been finalised: the FIA suggest each race lasts approximately 15 minutes, however more recent reports have supported taking advantage of the cars’ potential 25 minute range. In this case the race could last for perhaps an hour with two car-swaps mid-race involving the drivers running between cars as in races of old. The cars will be charged while sitting idle ready for the next section of the race, and the line-up on the starting grid is likely to be determined by head-to-head races.

It seems a little strange that a car swap has been proposed in preference to a simple battery swap. This could be due to the positioning of the batteries in the car to assist in balance and weight distribution; however one would imagine it should be relatively straightforward to have a swappable pack thus allowing the same car to run for the duration of the race. In the future wireless inductive charging could be implemented, although this very much depends on whether the races will be held on city streets or bespoke tracks.

The characteristics of a car driven by an electric motor are significantly different, particularly in a competitive environment. Unlike a conventional engine an electric motor delivers even torque throughout the rev range. Combined with the lower speed of the cars, the circuits will require fewer straights while being shorter with more tight bends.

Only Rio de Janeiro and Rome are confirmed as venues, but London is also in the frame

Only two venues, Rio de Janeiro and more recently Rome, have so far been confirmed, but talks are in place for races in India (possibly in Mumbai) and Miami. London’s Olympic Park has also been mentioned as a potential site for the inaugural race, and other target venues are New York, Paris, Beijing, Sydney, Moscow, Monte-Carlo and China.

Fitting with the targeted appeal to the youth market, the FIA propose that the social media landscape is exploited to its full. Lord Drayson has suggested that input through social media channels could go as far as determining aspects of the cars’ performance during the race. This would fit with the FIA’s suggestion of ‘intelligent entertainment.’

The fact the FIA has sanctioned this series is significant, and underlines their belief in electric technologies. Admittedly Bernie Ecclestone isn’t keen, ‘I think those sort of things are lawn-mowers. I am not very supportive of this,’ and has branded it ‘stupid’ but he simply represents the large body of people who will take slightly longer to shift their perceptions and recognise pure electric as a viable source of energy in cars and motorsport.  Formula 1 has always been a springboard for consumer technology, and there’s no reason why this trend shouldn’t cross to Formula E. The way the FIA are pitching it, it will be a motorsport spectacle in tune with the younger generation who will be the first to fully embrace octane free motoring.

And for Bernie and the rest there’s still F1.

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