The noise of an electric race car whipping past is something I’ve never heard before: a high-pitched squeal rising steadily in pitch. As the race’s lead car blows by, the sound becomes almost melodic as the cars chasing it howl closer.
This is just one of the differences between Formula E racing and its gas-powered counterpart, Formula 1, where cars roar and belch exhaust. In the pit before the July 16 race in Brooklyn, teams of mechanics fussed over each car more delicately than a fashion designer over their garments before a runway show. Key among those final checks: a final charge of the batteries that send the cars screaming around the course that winds its way through Red Hook’s streets.
For ABB, a global automation and electrification tech company that sponsors the race, Formula E functions as a “test bed for new technologies,” Frank Mühlon, CEO of the company’s e-mobility division, told Protocol before last weekend’s race. For the companies developing the batteries and chargers on which the race cars rely, Formula E is a closed environment where they can test their wares at 175 mph.
“That is something that not everyone is aware of,” said Mühlon. “They think [EVs] are like little golf carts.”
The series provides an invaluable opportunity for prototyping the next generation of EV technology at a time when demand is forecasted to rise for ever-more-advanced EVs.
“They think [EVs] are like little golf carts,” said Frank Mühlon, CEO of ABB’s e-mobility division.Photo: ABB
The basic car and battery technology is the same for every vehicle in the race, but teams differentiate themselves by tweaking how they set up the engine, motors and controls. But in the future, Mühlon said, the teams will have more and more space to set their vehicles apart from one another, including via the battery technology itself.
McLaren Applied, the tech wing of the luxury carmaker, has supplied batteries to the race since its fifth season, though Williams Advanced Engineering will take the battery supply reins next season.
The Italian energy tech company Enel X Way provided chargers for this year’s race, which offered “the challenge of providing a transportable, lightweight infrastructure capable of recharging single-seaters quickly and reliably,” said Michele Cecchini, the company’s head of e-motorsport. He added that the partnership with Formula E has allowed the company to “test technologies that have later been transferred to road infrastructure.”
Next season, ABB will be a charging partner as well as a sponsor of the race. The new ABB charger will have a 160-kilowatt capacity and will be capable of charging two cars in parallel, Mühlon told Protocol.
Formula 1 has had decades to perfect its race cars, and most tweaks today are incremental. But at just eight years old and with EVs in their infancy, Formula E has seen dramatic technological leaps happening every year, Mühlon said. That’s true for both the cars and the chargers. Cecchini said these improvements can become “a potential new feature or characteristic for our EV customers all around the world.”
In the first generation of Formula E, each driver actually had two cars; they would leap out of one and into the other mid-race because the cars’ batteries didn’t have the capacity to finish the race. The second-generation cars currently in use can finish a full race on a single charge “due to improvements in the energy density of the cells used in the battery allowing for much greater range of the battery packs,” said Neil Palmer, who works in business development for McLaren’s motorsports division.
The recently unveiled third-generation vehicles take things a step further with improved battery regeneration capabilities. The new car will be much more efficient, with regenerative braking providing more than 40% of the energy used during the race, Formula E told Car and Driver. The new season is set to start in early 2023 in Saudi Arabia.
Formula E is a less serious showcase for the potential of electric vehicles. Here, 11th-ranked Nick Cassidy celebrates his win.Photo: ABB
The rapid technological improvements are in part a function of the constraints imposed by racing EVs. The race “has typically been energy-limited, which means the amount of energy in the battery at the start of a race is not enough to complete the entire race distance, and so to complete the full distance, the drivers need to regenerate energy from the electric motors when the car is slowing down,” Palmer said.
This energy recuperation process helps determine how fast the cars can make their way around the track, meaning that teams are incentivized to improve their efficiency as much as possible. Those gains can be extrapolated beyond the race track.
“This drive to create software models for higher efficiency can be directly drawn across to production road cars to improve powertrain efficiency and improve range,” Palmer said.
With some tweaks, of course. The average person is looking for an EV with long range and smooth drive cycle, whereas a racing battery has a “very aggressive” drive cycle that moves “from full acceleration to a regeneration cycle before going back to full acceleration,” said Palmer. This means race car batteries get hotter and require liquid cooling technology, even though passive air cooling is typically sufficient for a car destined only for everyday driving. But gains in efficiency more generally are a boon for the EV market as a whole, particularly given the critical mineral crunch.
That’s the behind-the-scenes view of how Formula E could influence the future of EV tech. But it also plays a more direct role as the fun younger brother of Formula 1. It’s a less serious showcase for the potential of electric vehicles writ large: namely the fact that they are not just rinky-dink contraptions and can actually sustain an hour-long race at top speeds of over 200 mph (for the third-generation vehicles to come). The races even have “boosts” that fans can give their favorite drivers, increasing their power at intervals throughout a race in a bid to influence the outcome, which is decidedly reminiscent of Mario Kart. This past weekend’s race also featured cars aquaplaning and slamming into the wall of the course after a deluge let loose, with the race ending in a dramatic win for 11th-ranked driver Nick Cassidy.