Man at His Best

Formula E heats up

Electric cars are still viewed with suspicion, but Formula E wants to change all that. Just one question: what the hell is Formula E?

BY WAYNE CHEONG | Jan 1, 2016 | Automotive

Photographs from InterContinental Hotels Group

Inventions are often inspired by the natural world. We saw fowls take flight, so we came up with aeroplanes. We saw bones break beneath the jaws of beasts, so we hobbled together pneumatic pumps and weights. We saw an evergreen forest, branches spreading far and wide, so we conjured up shelter to shield us from the elements. But the wheel, arguably modern history’s biggest game changer, does not have an equivalent in nature.

The wheel, as we know it today, did not originally function as a method for transportation. Archaeological digs have uncovered ancient texts detailing the invention of the potter’s wheel by the Sumerians shortly after 3,500 BC. With enough speed in its spin, potters could perform a new pottery-making technique known as “throw-ing” (a lump of clay placed centrally on the wheel is squeezed, lifted and shaped as the wheel is turned) on a cylinder that was connected to a stable, stationary platform. Then, someone figured out that you could roll the cylinder on its edge 300 years later. Now it could be used for transportation: sand, food, human beings, etc.

Like the wheel, the world continues to turn un-bidden; each revolution is an era of discovery of either wonder or despair.

I only found out about Formula E a month before arriving in Beijing for the big race. Conceived by Jean Todt, former racecar driver and President of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA)—the same group that oversees a little-known racing event called Formula One—Formula E was the answer to sustainability in racing.

The first Formula E race was held in Beijing in 2014. Yes, that Beijing—the same one that was issued its first red alert as its pollution levels reached toxic heights, where a local performance artist vacuums microscopic particles from the air and creates bricks out of it. This is the place where even its own mayor once proclaimed that “Beijing is not a liveable city” thanks to its pollution.

While FIA’s official statement said that it chose Beijing and the other nine city-centres, including Putrajaya and Monte Carlo, because “cities are the natural environment for electric cars and that racing in urban environments will best promote the use, and popularity, of these vehicles”, holding its inaugural emission-free race in Beijing is FIA’s way of throwing down the gauntlet.

But on this rare October morning, the sky is clear and cloudless. In fact, after the haze in Singapore, this is a welcome moment. As we take in the expanse of blue that fills the Beijing skies, we make our way from the InterContinental Beijing Beichen Hotel to the Olympic Green next to the Beijing National Stadium—a hulking, porous “bird’s nest” with its steel beams wrapped about itself like contortionist lovers—that sits languorously as a reminder of the 2008 Olympics. While the interior is as hollow as a mausoleum, its grounds are a bustle of activity: tourists take pictures; a bevy of elderly women practise tai chi; and booths promote the latest in green transportation (one of which is the China-made Tsinova smart electric bicycle that helps propel you further as you pedal).

What looks like the beginning of a line forms near the entrance to Formula E. We circumvent the queue as guests of the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) Rewards Club, which is one of Mahindra Racing’s many sponsors in Formula E. This partnership afforded IHG Rewards Club’s valued members an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at Formula E, Mahindra Racing and the team’s drivers. In fact, the previous evening, we got to hobnob with Mahindra Racing drivers, Bruno Senna and Nick Heidfeld, who gamely posed for pictures with some of the eager IHG Rewards Club members. If there were any mis-givings about the following day’s race, they didn’t show it.

Senna has to deal with the legacy of his uncle, Ayrton. While an accomplished driver, he has to consistently outrace the long shadow of the F1 legend and achieve victory on his own terms. For Heidfeld, a collision during the race in Beijing last season seems to play heavily on his mind. In his final lap, just before the final corner, he edged to the rear wing of Nicolas Prost’s e.dams-Renault. Pulling out from the slipstream, Heidfeld looked poise to overtake Prost, both cars were neck-to-neck, vying for first place. Then, to defend his position, Prost steered and clipped Heidfeld’s car. Heidfeld’s front-right suspension broke, his car skidded, and upon hitting the kerb, was launched into the air, turning and twisting before landing upside down. Everyone assumed the worse but miraculously, Heidfeld crawled out from underneath the wreckage, unharmed but rueful that pole position was snatched from him.

You can’t help but wonder about the churning waters beneath the calm surface of smiles.

When Formula E started in 2014, in the interest of fair play, all 10 teams were required to use the same single-seater model (Spark-Renault SRT_01E) designed and constructed by Spark Racing Technology. With shared 150kw batteries from Williams Advanced Engineering and a Dallara chassis—everything basically aside from the livery—it all boils down to the expertise of the drivers to clinch gold. With a top speed of around 150mph and acceleration from zero to 60 in three seconds, the Formula E cars are quick, but understandably not as fast as their Formula One counterparts. There is also the marked difference in sound. It’s sort of like a high-pitched buzzing—not unlike a swarm of irate hornets trapped under the hood.

The second season is where things get interesting. Formula E was always meant to be an “open championship”, where car manufacturers and constructors are allowed to innovate within FIA’s guidelines. This season, the e-motor, the inverter, the gearbox and the cooling system can be tinkered with. The battery and the chassis must remain untouched. It is hoped that advancements on the racetrack will benefit the electric vehicle market in general.

Despite all the good intentions that Elon Musk has with Tesla Motors, electric cars still have to shake off the perception that they are slow, ex-pensive lemons. I mean, sure they have come a long way, but public opinion on electric cars leans heavily towards non-purchase. According to a 30-month test bed by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the Energy Market Authority conducted between 2011 and 2013, results show that participants were concerned about the price of Electric Vehicles (EV). Your average EV can cost three times as much as a car that runs on petrol.

It was also found that the impact of charging EVs on Singapore’s electricity grid was insignificant. Joint studies by Technische Universität München in Germany and Nanyang Technological University showed that if every family has an EV, there would be a 4.8 percent daily load in-crease on the power system.

But that’s always the case with new tech. It’s classic economies of scale: EV prices will fall as long as there’s a significant amount of EVs being sold, but pit that against a bulwark of scepticism and the turn of progress can be painfully slow. Case in point: Formula E. People were quick to judge that compared to its distant twice-removed cousin, Formula One, the green-friendly sport will eventually lose traction, but that’s like comparing oranges to apples.

“If you’re an old gearhead and can’t stand the idea of electric formula cars, that’s okay; Formula E wasn’t created with you in mind.”

Sam Bird, who drives for Virgin Racing, says that it wouldn’t be fair to both Formula E and Formula One championships, if you were to compare the two. Roger Griffiths, the FIA’s Director of Motorsport Development, said in an interview with Racer: “If you’re an old gearhead and can’t stand the idea of electric formula cars, that’s okay; Formula E wasn’t created with you in mind.”

It’s cyclical, really. Before internal combustion engines, there were electric motors. The late 19th century was the heyday for electric cars, but then leaps were made in internal combustion tech that quickly overshadowed electric cars.

Now that revolution has reached full circle: with the depletion of fossil fuels and rising environmental concerns, the world’s focus is trained on an alternative energy source, namely electric. Dilbagh Gill, Team Principal of Mahindra Racing, believes that the tipping point will happen in the next 12 years.

With the backing of star power (Leonardo Di-Caprio is a co-founder of the Venturi Formula E team; notable ex-Formula One drivers like Lucas di Grassi, Bruno Senna and Sébastien Buemi are participating in Formula E), the appeal to young-er fans (the most notable gimmick is FanBoost, where fans can vote online for their top three drivers that will allow them to get a five-second power surge of 30kw) and the idea of having a platform for the automobile industry to develop new green tech are agreeable.

Mahindra Reva is a subsidiary of India’s largest automobile manufacturer, Mahindra & Mahindra, and its main goal is to make and ad-vance electric vehicles. When regulations eased to allow the developments of powertrains, they jumped on it. “Given that this is a new motor-sport, naturally, there will be naysayers,” Gill avers, “There is no sound from the engines, it’s not a real racing sport, but with what we’ve done over the last year, I’ve noticed that there’s a new demographic coming in.”

It’s a more family-oriented one. If Formula One speaks to a mostly male demographic, For-mula E is for everyone; because if this were to take off, there needs to be a new generation that gives a damn.

Nestled within the hospitality area called EMOTION (geddit?), a crowd swells under the comfort of air-conditioning as eyeballs are glued to a big screen TV, when the race begins. I’ve al-ways figured that in order to popularise a sport like e-racing, you need to make it sexy. Other than Heidfeld’s collision in last season’s race, can this season recreate that excitement?

While Formula E cars can hit speeds of 225kmh, the current battery can’t store enough power for the entirety of the one-hour race. A bigger battery will hold more juice, but it’ll add weight to the car; that’s why the drivers have to slide into the pit stop to switch cars in the middle of a race. Detractors might see this swap as a disruption to the tournament, but it just spurs the quest to invent a better battery.

This process, however, throws a spanner in the works. Driving in Mahindra’s new M2Electro car, Heidfeld and Senna enter the pit stop, but have issues with fastening into their second vehicles. This causes Senna to drop from P7 to P13 and Heidfeld from P3 to P4. As Heidfeld zooms out from the pit lane so does Prost, with the former trailing behind the latter. At lap 14, Heidfeld overtakes Prost, but the race slows for Full Course Yellow (a caution system introduced in the current season) as Team Agguri’s António Félix da Costa, in correcting his motor map set-ting on his steering wheel, collides with Venturi’s Jacques Villeneuve.

As the vehicles are removed from the track, the caution flag switches to green and Prost takes the opportunity to cut in front of Heidfeld. Zooming down the line, the two men look poised for a re-peat of Heidfeld’s historical crash, but Prost gains enough lead, leaving no hope for Heidfeld to catch up. Then, in lap 20, Prost’s right-rear wing support breaks. While it doesn’t hinder his speed, Prost is flagged off to the pit nonetheless, as the condition of his car is considered a safety issue.

Heidfeld now takes P3, but he’s still not out of the fire. He needs to maintain his position as the Dragon Racing drivers, Loïc Duval and Jérôme d’Ambrosio, creep up on Heidfeld.

Heidfeld now takes P3, but he’s still not out of the fire. He needs to maintain his position as the Dragon Racing drivers, Loïc Duval and Jérôme d’Ambrosio, creep up on Heidfeld. “He’s got a double dragon attack in China,” screams the commenter. My heart almost gave out when during the end of lap 24, d’Ambrosio, in an effort to clinch third place, almost clips his team-mate. It’s the final lap and Heidfeld is still hell-bent on not letting Dragon Racing pass him, but anything could happen. Duval tries once more to get around Heidfeld at the last corner, but fails. Heidfeld crosses the finish line, netting Mahindra Racing its first-ever Formula E podium with third place. In the control room, Gill tightens his fist in victory and exhales in relief.

Heidfeld takes third, while Lucas di Grassi places second and Buemi takes first.

During the post-race interview, Heidfeld is satisfied with the results. “The guys behind me in the end did one lap more on the first stint, so they had more power and I had to defend. It was really exciting, especially on the last lap... at least [I] managed not to crash on the last lap this time.

”As the fastest team behind Renault, the results reaffirm Gill’s confidence in their approach to the development of their powertrain. Their laboratory that is the Formula E has shown that they are on the right track. The work continues.

That’s the slow crawl of evolution. Adopt the long view, even when it comes to fast-moving cars. What will happen if Formula E is still on the scene and has perfected its electronic tech so that its cars can rival the speed of their F1 counter-parts and drivers no longer need to switch cars halfway through? Will the two merge? Or will F1 continue to progress to such an extent that its electronic counterpart will find it difficult to keep up and force it to forever live in its shadow?

Years from now, when a wiser generation has to brush away the dust of their past, they will find the wheel. And it’ll be attached to the axel that’s attached to a car. They will carefully excise its contents, marvelling at the engine and the gears; the hint of gasoline in the tank and find humour in how people used to get by on the blood of fossils; how antiquated, they might remark, what a novelty, especially when we’re able to zip through the air in our hovercars. Who knows, right? But one thing’s for certain, no one wants to be left behind, choking on the dust kicked up by innovation.

First published in Esquire Singapore's January 2016 issue.