They might lack the crowd-pleasing scream of Formula One rockets or thunder of Nascar stockers, but the “e-prix” races on the Formula E circuit suggest that electric cars can provide plenty of wheel-to-wheel action.
Thanks to the absence of that gasoline-fueled roar, the racecars and their electric motors are welcome on city streets, where they have whirred and whined in Marrakesh and Monaco, Paris and Berlin, and beyond. This weekend, for the season finale, they will zip through the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, and a champion will be crowned.
At this season’s seventh event for the ABB F.I.A. Formula E Championship, contested on the streets of Rome in April, a Jaguar driven by Mitch Evans of New Zealand was running second to the machine of Techeetah, an independent team. Near the end of the race, Mr. Evans maneuvered to within inches of the leader before pulling alongside, touching briefly, then slipping quietly by for a win.
The cars, loosely resembling the open-wheel cars of Formula One and IndyCar racing, are engineered for speed, but their components have much in common with electric passenger cars. In fact, some Formula E technology was lifted directly from production electric vehicles, and some will undoubtedly find its way into tomorrow’s electric sedans.
Formula E got its start in 2014 under the stewardship of Alejandro Agag, a Spanish businessman. Its first season sputtered along, but it has made great strides. At the beginning, 10 teams raced in 40 identical cars built by Spark Racing Technology. They were built to a specification mandated by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the organization that developed Formula E and manages it.
Only one team, E.dams Renault, had extensive involvement from an automaker.
Each team was allotted two drivers and each driver two cars. To accommodate a long race, it was either switch the battery or swap cars, and swapping out cars was faster.
The chassis, motor and battery for all the cars were specified by series management. Power was limited to a meager 200 kilowatts, about 268 horsepower, and the top speed was a ho-hum 140 miles per hour. A Formula One car, for comparison, produces about 850 horsepower from a 1.6-liter engine and energy recovery system and is capable of about 210 m.p.h. Nascar entrants generate about 800 horsepower from a much larger engine and can reach about 200 m.p.h.
To stimulate fan interest, Formula E organizers created Fanboost, which enabled enthusiasts to vote for their favorite driver. The top vote getters gained a power boost that could be used at any time during the race. Fanboost remains a part of Formula E, and drivers post Twitter messages and maintain Facebook pages to lobby for votes.
Because the cars were identical in the inaugural season, success was a matter of driver skill, with engineering and preparation playing minor roles.
The F.I.A. loosened its grip for Season 2, and teams were allowed to develop drivetrain components, including the electric motor, the inverter that converts the battery’s DC charge to AC, the cooling system and the gearbox. The chassis, the battery and the motor’s power output were still controlled by the F.I.A., and car swaps during the race remained necessary. The rules remained largely unchanged for the next two seasons.
And now Season 5 is heading toward its finish this weekend in Brooklyn. It began in December with a refreshed rule book governing car design and the races.
What’s more, the Formula E circuit finally caught the attention of a number of electric-vehicle manufacturers. Jaguar, BMW, Audi and Nissan fielded racecars, with Nissan replacing Renault. Mercedes-Benz and Porsche will begin competing in Season 6, kicking off in late 2019.
So far, no American makers are involved. “We would love to see a U.S. automaker participate in Formula E.,” an F.I.A. spokesman said. “We’ve tried to lure Ford in.”
Ford has no plans to compete in Formula E racing but is watching how the series develops, a company spokesman, Sam Schembari, said. No other automaker based in the United States has indicated interest.
In this fifth season, the second-generation Formula E racecar arrived. Fitted with a halo-style roll bar and no rear wing, the car is unique to the series. Power was increased from 200 kilowatts to 250, or roughly 335 horsepower, and battery capacity got a big bump, so a midrace swap of cars is no longer necessary.
The cars can now reach 174 m.p.h. on straightaways and accelerate from zero to 60 in 2.8 seconds. As before, race officials enforce power and battery capacity limits by electronically monitoring the cars as they race, a kind of real-time steroid test for the competitors.
This season also introduced attack mode. By driving through an activation zone, drivers gain a 33-horsepower increase. The number of times a driver can arm attack mode and how long it will last are announced by the F.I.A. an hour before the race, so teams must figure out their strategy quickly. Fans can tell when a driver has activated attack mode because the car’s halo glows blue. If Fanboost is activated, it glows magenta. All in the cause of fan involvement.
The series is attracting a modest level of fan interest, but attendance varies by country. The e-prix in Mexico City drew 35,000 fans, while the event in Marrakesh, Morocco, played out before only a handful of spectators.
Will technology developed for Formula E be passed down to passenger cars? BMW, on its Formula E website, said its iFE.18 Formula E car shared software for its drive system with future road-going BMW electric vehicles. It said this “underlines the intense knowledge transfer between production development and motor racing.”
Toto Wolff, head of the Mercedes motorsports operation, said aiding passenger car development was an important part of the brand’s auto racing activities. Specialists in England are leading the development of the Mercedes Formula E car, but they exchange information with engineers in Germany.
“Motorsport is the fastest and most intensive learning laboratory in the world,” Mr. Wolff said. “Formula One has generated a lot of learning for passenger car development, and Formula E will do so in the future as well.”
Mr. Wolff cited energy management and brake-by-wire as technology that is of critical importance to Formula One, Formula E and passenger cars. Brake-by-wire is shared by racecars and some advanced road machines. Rather than relying on hydraulic pressure and mechanical linkage to apply the brakes, these digitally driven systems use a computer to interpret pedal pressure and operate the brakes. Formula One adapted this technology in 2014, and the second-generation Formula E cars now use it.
The fully electric Audi e-tron sport utility vehicle, which will be introduced late this year, was engineered with brake-by-wire, as was the Audi racecar, said Allan McNish, a former racecar driver and team principal for Audi’s Formula E effort.
“We won the Formula E race in Mexico City earlier this year because we were able to recoup more energy through regenerative braking than our competition,” Mr. McNish said. “There are limits set by F.I.A. in respect to the technology, but we’ve worked hard to refine the software.”
“From the time I joined Audi,” he added,” I learned that whatever we did had to apply to road cars. Hybrid technology, direct injection, brake-by-wire, they’re applicable both on the highway and the racetrack.”
Now that big carmakers are fielding teams, Formula E is likely to be pressed to allow additional power and performance upgrades. Yet there is also pressure to control costs and allow independent teams to realistically compete. No one wants to see Formula E graduate to the nine-figure budgets that Formula One teams require. Thus, small steps are expected.
An F.I.A. spokesman said technology employed in the series would advance in concert with that of electric passenger cars. “We want to continue to develop performance and range,” he said.