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Quiet Running as Formula E Enters Fifth Season
A Gen 2 car shows off its stuff on the streets of Berlin. Photo © KAgamemnon

Quiet Running as Formula E Enters Fifth Season

By Simon Johns - Nov 29, 2018

Does Formula E have what it takes to lure in an audience and keep it engaged with the new electric motorsport format? After its fifth season, it looks like a yes.

Live motorsport’s allure is the sound of roaring engines, screeching breaks and whizzing pneumatic wrenches in the pits, all combined with the smell of burning gasoline and tires. As the vehicles tear by, the noise from the unmuffled tail pipes is deafening. 

But without a V10 internal combustion engine capable of producing an earsplitting 130 decibels under the carbon fiber bodywork, all you would hear would be squeaking tires. That’s pretty much the soundscape at Formula E, an electric vehicle racing format. Cars produce a sound like a remote control toy at roughly the same volume as a vacuum cleaner. But without the punishing noise, is the excitement lost? Not in the least, argue fans.

“For me, if you reduce the sound you do not affect the excitement. I believe that motorsport should be about the car-to-car battle on track, and this is what Formula E has a lot of. Formula E is lucky to have close racing all throughout the grid and have unpredictable races, something which is not guaranteed in motorsport,” Tom Bryan, a Formula E enthusiast who runs FormulaEStats, a Twitter feed dedicated to race statistics, told Lubes’n’Greases.

The mix of old school racing action and environmental messaging is attracting big names to the sport. 

Entering its fifth season in December 2018, Formula E teams are populated by celebrities and major original equipment manufacturers. Richard Branson of Virgin Group and actor Leonardo diCaprio are two high-profile owners. Major manufacturers are also involved, such as BMW, Jaguar, Audi and Nissan, as well as Chinese EV marques Nio and Techeetah. 

The sport may also lure drivers away from conventional racing. F1 driver Fernando Alonso has expressed an interest in moving over, bemoaning F1 as “predictable.” 

With the BBC and YouTube covering live races in the 2018-19 season, Formula E is also attracting a new audience.

“I don’t see a lot of Formula 1 fans going to Formula E. I see a new audience who are not even interested in racing,” Formula E enthusiast Michael Jurukov said in an interview. 

A major selling point of the new electric motorsport is that the races take place in city centers. Venues include Paris and New York, places not usually associated with motorsport. Jurukov believes this is a PR boost for a fast-growing yet largely unheard of series. The Marrakesh race in 2016 occurred during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in the city at the same time.

“A lot of Formula 1 races are in the middle of nowhere, in the desert,” Jurukov said. But Formula E is much more accessible. 

“Formula E puts you straight bang in the middle of a city center. You are using existing roads, unmodified roundabouts and all the stuff that would already be there. They just put the barriers up,” Craig Scarborough, a motorsport technical analyst, told Lubes’n’Greases. “It’s real street fighting.”

Conventional-engine racing is a laboratory for ICE innovations that have found their way into road cars – ultra-light materials, paddle gearshifts and adaptive suspension. Can e-racing do the same for the EV market?

“That’s been one of the areas where the category has been a success,” Scarborough said. “Pretty much everything is made by motorsport specialists or tier-one OEMs themselves. The level of technology … has really accelerated.”

“The series will allow us to get a head start on electric car lubricants and coolants, which will help our everyday consumers.”
— Stephen Parker, Marketing Communications Executive Total Lubricants UK

 Innovation is rapid. In the previous four seasons, drivers would have to swap cars halfway through a race for more battery power. Cars now use a 385-kilogram lithium-ion battery developed by Williams Advanced Engineering, which has twice the power and twice the range, allowing non-stop driving in races that range from 85 to 105 kilometers. Williams Managing Director Craig Wilson believes the advances the company made in thermal management of the battery will find their way into passenger vehicles.

Williams developed a battery coolant to meet the performance requirements of the new battery. “In the first few seasons, they bought mineral oil off the shelf, but Williams developed a dielectric oil that’s much lighter, much more efficient,” Scarborough explained.  

Electric race cars are also getting faster – up to 50 km per hour faster this year compared to 2017. At 270 km/h, they still have a long way to go to match the 350 km/h of Formula 1 but are the right speed for slower urban courses.

While the Panasonic Jaguar Racing team declined to answer questions about the lubrication needs of its car, it did direct a reporter to a press release that said, “Jaguar’s Formula E program will create tangible R&D benefits for the electrification of future Jaguar and Land Rover road cars.” 

Total has developed a tailor-made transmission lubricant for Richard Branson’s team, DS Virgin Racing, which is part of PSA Group. The French energy company is also working with the team to develop electric motor and inverter coolants to reduce energy use under extreme racing conditions.

“The series will allow us to get a head start on electric car lubricants and coolants, which will help our everyday consumers,” said Stephen Parker, marketing communications executive of Total Lubricants UK, in a press release. The lubricant development team at Total’s Solaize research center develops fluids for both the DS racing cars and road cars.

Race regulations stipulate that a certain amount of lubricants used are biobased. The power necessary to charge batteries is made by on-site generators running on glycerin, and even the official cars are BMW EVs. Formula E’s green credentials are solid, and its youth audience is in place. With a strong edge in the PR battle, it may soon wrest the wheel from traditional racing.