Friday, 11 July 2014

First Impressions - Formula E Cars take to track - PICTURE SPECIAL

Welcoming a new single seater championship to the world of motorsport isn't an entirely novel phenomenon; series have been coming and going for years. But now we have something that stands out from the likes of A1 GP, Superleague Formula and the like: Formula E.

As the name suggests, the series is for all electric cars. With the ever increasing pressure of environmental groups and governments the world over, it was only a matter of time before motorsport took steps to become 'greener'.

In addition to that, Formula E has put measures in place to reduce costs from the start, a welcome move as they continue to escalate in virtually every other series on the planet.

All teams are based at the same estate just inside the gates of the iconic Donington Park circuit in Leicestershire, England; the same venue where every official test session is set to take place.

Race events will take up only one day, with practice qualifying and racing all taking place on the same day on closed city street circuits across the world. Races will last one hour, although the car's battery life in race conditions will last just 30 minutes. To negate this issue, drivers will change cars during a pit stop during the race.

Formula E teams will have just one set of tyres, plus one spare for the front and one spare for the rear per event, unlike Formula One where teams are provided with 20 sets of various tyre compounds for the whole weekend. The tyre, very similar to a road tyre, was developed exclusively for Formula E by French manufacturer Michelin.

It certainly is unlike anything ever seen before, and that unique aspect has helped Formula E attract a star studded driver line up for it's inaugural season.

From F1 race winners to IndyCar stars, podium finishers at Le Mans to electric ice racing champions, Formula E has a bit of everything on the grid. Names like Trulli, Heidfeld, Montagny, Legge, Senna, Bird, Prost and more will surely have the fans attending races in their droves.

Ten teams have been selected to race in the first Formula E Season and each has been taking advantage of the five official pre-season test days at Donington Park to prepare for the season and work out various gremlins that you'd expect to come with a new car.

The car, the Spark-Renault SRT_01E, built by French firm Spark Racing Technology, in partnership with Dallara and Renault is designed to be cost effective, whilst being capable of great racing. Despite the electric power, don't be under any illusions that the car is slow. A 270 bhp electric motor sending power to the rear wheels ensures that the car goes from 0-60 in around three seconds.

Speaking at the first of those five official test days, former F1 racer Lucas Di Grassi explained that even though the car is lacking an ear splitting combustion engine that you'd expect to see in a single seater, the car is still a serious bit of kit.

"For people that have no idea, these cars are much quicker on a race track than a Ferrari or a Lamborghini" he said, "and that's pure performance coming out of the 300 horsepower electric motor, the downforce and the grip level so it's quite a good racing car."

From a fans point of view, the sound is something akin to a Star Wars pod racer rather than a racing car, and it's not just unusual for those spectating, the futuristic sound poses it's own challeges for those behind the wheel.  

"The noise is the biggest thing, it's massively different." F1 and NASCAR racer turned rallycross superstar Scott Speed told me. "Not being able to hear the RPM really and the way the power band is it makes shifting quite difficult because there's no real point to shift on".

Factory Bentley GT racer Jerome D'Ambrosio made similar comments after his first day of running for China Racing.

"It's a different reference in the car because you don't have the noise," he added, "you don't have all these things, but you get used to it pretty quickly".

Away from the noise, the car is different in other aspects too.

Speed, who described his return to the cockpit of a single seater after seven years away as 'like riding a bike', spoke of the various elements the driver has to control to get the best out of the car.

"There's so many different ways to run the brake system with the regen and how much engine power do you want to use to slow down, and, there's all kinds of stuff to do so it'll take a while before everyone gets a real handle on it."

D'Ambrosio, who's last single seater race was the 2012 Italian Grand Prix for Lotus, had nothing but praise for the Spark-Renault SRT_01E, speaking of the car's good handling, whilst discussing the differences from a regular single seater.

"I think chassis-wise it's really good and engine-wise it's pretty good too." He remarked. "I really like it." 

"I think in terms of being a single seater and everything, the handling is quite straight forward, it's pretty good, but then engine-wise it doesn't compare at all." He added. "I mean, in the end you drive very similar in the driving style but all the information you get and all the references again are very different." 

Lucas Di Grassi, who was involved in the development of the car, had never driven the full powered version of the car until the first test day, and he too didn't have a bad word to say.

"All the other things you've seen, the videos, was with a small battery so very limited power." he said. "So now we have full power, it's more than twice the power I drove, I'm very happy to drive in a proper racing circuit and with the car at full performance. It was fun, a lot of fun."

As a driver with vast F1 know-how as well as Le Mans prototype experience, when asked how Formula E compared to what he'd driven recently, Di Grassi went on to say: "It's very different, it's something unique but there's still a lot of performance."

The first ever FIA Formula E season is set to begin in Beijing on September 13 before heading to Malaysia, Uruguay, Argentina*, Miami, Long Beach, Monaco, Berlin and finally Battersea Park in London in a globe-trotting calendar which expands over the regular motorsport winter break.

To read Scot Speed, Lucas Di Grassi and Jerome D'Ambrosio's quotes in full, click HERE

To see exclusive footage from the first day of Formula E testing, click HERE

*An additional round is scheduled for in between the Argentina and Miami rounds on February 14 although the venue is yet to be announced

All images © Dominik Wilde 2014

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