All-electric racing series Formula E will start its fifth season at the end of this year with a completely redesigned racecar, and this morning, the series unveiled some eye-popping CGI renderings of the radical new look. The full physical car won’t be shown off until the Geneva Motor Show in early March, and technical specs are being held until then, too. But we’ve heard for almost two years that this new car was supposed to look pretty wild — the original proposal asked for something along the lines of the Ferrari F1 Concept, or McLaren’s MP4-X — and the images released today more than live up to that billing.
A few things stick out immediately about the car, which was built by French manufacturer Spark. One is just how simply unique it looks as a racecar. It perhaps most closely resembles prototype endurance cars, but the lithe, wild body work here looks far more futuristic. It’s borderline cartoonish, with similarities to things like the BAC Mono, or even any number of versions of the Batmobile — the latter similarity being something that the series is already pushing in its social media.
Another thing that sticks out, literally, is that the new car uses what’s known as the “halo,” a loop above the cockpit that is meant to protect the drivers from head injuries during accidents. The halo has been tested for a few years ahead of introduction in F1, and is mandated by the FIA, the governing body that oversees most Formula racing series. The idea has drawn a lot of ire from motorsports fans because of how it can muck up the aesthetics, but what’s shocking about the integration of it on the new Formula E car is just how hard it is to notice from most angles. It also appears that, in Formula E’s case, the series might use LED lighting on the halo, though it hasn’t yet explained how.
But the new car is not just about giving Formula E a face lift. It’s also about making the cars faster, giving them more power, and making them last longer. Exactly how different the new car is remains unclear, but it’s generally understood that it will last twice as long, and be noticeably faster; the new battery, built by McLaren, will allow for a full power output of 250kW, 50 more than the current car. That gives it roughly the equivalent of 335 horsepower.
“I think it’s really exciting in terms of just how quickly the technology has come forward,” Alex Lynn, driver for the second place DS Virgin Racing team and former GP3 champion, tells The Verge. “To be able to produce a car that, compared to when Formula E started, is almost twice the power but still be able to go twice as long? Within four years? It’s a giant leap for the technology.”
It does seem pretty wild when you think about it. Four years ago, when Formula E was still trying to get off the ground, the idea of an electric racing series seemed almost impossible with the contemporary limitations of EV technology. Now, with just a few dozen races under its belt, Formula E has blossomed into a series that pits some of the biggest manufacturers in the world against each other, including Audi, Jaguar, and BMW. Others, like Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, are on the way. And it does this on the streets of some of the world’s most prestigious cities. Formula E has raced in New York, Paris, London, Montreal, and more, and adds new venues every year — including Rome this season.
Armed with this new car, the series can shed its biggest limitations. The current cars of Formula E only last about 20-30 minutes in a race setting, thanks to the relatively small 28kWh battery. Even with regenerative braking, which allows the drivers to transfer some of the kinetic energy created by slowing down from 150+ miles per hour back in the battery, the cars still only last about half of each 50-minute race. So, going back to season one, every driver has had to perform a mid-race pit stop where they hop into a freshly-charged car.
Formula E’s organizers decided on full car swaps instead of battery swaps for a few reasons. Mostly, the idea of quickly swapping high-voltage components (including a big brick of dangerous potential energy) in a high-pressure moment when mistakes are bound to be made is a risky idea. But they also opted for full car swaps because the kind of architecture necessary to allow for quickly changing batteries would have added even more weight to what is an already pretty heavy car by single seater motorsports standards. Integrated batteries just made more sense.
One thing that’s smart about Formula E is that the series’ organizers took this inherent “range anxiety,” a common worry about EV technology, and turned it into one of the main features of each race. Watch enough Formula E races and you’ll realize that winning in this series is not just about being the fastest around each track, but success often results from careful management of the battery.
The drivers have to carefully balance, lap after lap, the amount of energy they use, often while trying to get around a competitor in front or keeping a train of trailing drivers at bay. Step on the throttle too hard for too long, or spend too much time defending the faster driver behind you, and all of a sudden you might find yourself without enough energy to make it to the end of the race. Energy management is also a major focus for the race teams, which attack the problem with advanced software and careful, tedious planning.
This won’t radically change with the new second generation car, according to Dilbagh Gill, team principal of the current season’s championship leader Mahindra Racing. The amount of simulation that the teams have been doing for the past few years, and the knowledge that goes into determining how much energy a driver should use per lap (as well as how to make up if the driver goes over that limit) should transfer to this new car.
Still, Gill expects the second generation car to shake things up. “I think it’s going to be a bit challenging next year, since this car is quite different from anything we’ve used,” he tells The Verge.
One thing’s for sure, according to Lynn, removing the need to scramble from car to car is a positive step forward in making new or casual fans take the series more seriously.
“I think honestly the only real negative thing that anyone can say about the championship right now is that we swap cars,” he says. “Once that’s gone? There will be no negative.”
Of course, Lynn skipped over a few of the other concerns that are typically shared by diehard racing fans. The 80 (or so) decibel whine that comes from the motors that power Formula E cars isn’t anywhere near as loud or visceral as the recognizable roar you get from the internal combustion beasts of F1, IndyCar, or NASCAR. The series also doesn’t have the household names that fills the ranks of those competitors.
But Formula E has spent more than three years putting out a compelling product with close racing that thrills, all while overcoming what originally looked like insurmountable odds. Now, the series is betting that the car’s radical new look, as well as the bump in performance, will only amplify the message that electric cars can be fast, cool, and just as fun as any other racecar.