The silence of the cars on track during a Formula E race weekend—okay, to be fair, there’s a bit of a whir—is not lost on even the drivers who pilot those all-electric open-wheel race cars.
And as many fans as there are who get a kick out of the sport of open-wheel EVs racing on the streets—this weekend, it’s the streets of Brooklyn, New York—there are even more fans who wonder if EV racing is truly the future of motorsport and if what we’re seeing (and not hearing) in Formula E is that future.
Gary Paffett gets it.
Paffett drove in Formula E in 2018 and today carries the all-encompassing title of sporting and technical advisor, reserve and development driver for the 2-year-old Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team. Paffett is also a two-time German touring car (DTM) champion who is still getting used to the silent treatment and finding ways to save precious battery power on race weekends.
“Driving an electric racing car is so different,” Paffett said in a video roundtable with media ahead of this week’s ABB FIA Formula E New York E-Prix doubleheader in Brooklyn. “You lose the sense of sound effects. When you’re a racing driver, you listen to the engine so much about what the car is doing. When you’ve got wheelspin, when you’re braking, the engine note tells you so much about what the car is doing.
“The electric motor does put out some noise, but it’s nothing like a normal aspirated engine. So, you effectively lose a sense. You have to try … to work out what this car is doing without the ability to hear what the motor is doing. It’s really something to try to get to grips with.”
Then there’s the saving battery power part of the equation for the Formula E machines that go 0-to-100 km (0-62 mph) in 2.8 seconds and race 45 minutes, plus one lap, on a single charge—if drivers are able to baby those batteries just enough during the race. Use too much charge early, and a driver can run out of battery power before crossing the finish line.
“Driving efficiently is something that drivers have never learned to do when they’re growing up,” Paffett said. “That’s just a massive part of Formula E, just to get the car as fast and around the track as efficiently as possible. It’s a massive challenge.”
Give Formula E credit for advancing and showing off battery technology on the global motorsports stage since the series’ debut in 2014. The first four years and first-generation car in the series featured car swaps midway through the race due to battery range limitations. Cars topped out at about 140 mph.
Now, cars can race for the full 45 minutes, plus one lap, on a single charge, and midrace car swaps are history. Cars can touch 175 mph. More power and more technology are promised when Formula E moves to its Gen 3 era for the 2022-23 season.
“Formula E has been on this journey over the past six and a half seasons where it’s evolved from something which probably was more akin to sort of grassroots motorsport at the beginning,” said Ian James, team principal of the Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team. “I don’t think it’s quite as bad at the Wild West, but certainly it was a startup in every sense of the word, and it needed to sort of muscle its way in and get on with it on the world stage. I think it’s done that admirably well.”
James, a former head of program management at Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains, has been a part of Mercedes racing in both Formula 1 and now Formula E. There are similarities and a definite connection between the two formulas.
“It’s sort of a professionalization of the sport that’s been going forward,” James said. “It’s incredibly competitive both from a driver’s perspective but also from an engineering perspective, as well. We really are pushing the boundaries at the moment. It’s been fascinating to see also people who have maybe had years, if not decades, of experience within Formula 1 picking up this new challenge and getting excited by it because it is new and fresh. I think it’s on a great trajectory because of that at the moment, and I think that’s going to continue.
“We’ve got the FIA World Championship status for the season. The Gen 3 regulations are starting to take shape as well, and that’s all moving in the right direction, which is incredibly positive.”
Porsche, Nissan, Mahindra, French manufacturer DS Automobiles, and Chinese team 333 Racing are in. Mercedes has not yet committed to the Gen 3 era of Formula E.
James said before Mercedes commits, it’s important for Formula E to remain true to its core roots of furthering technology development and tech transfer to the road-car side of the business. It’s important, James says, to keep Formula E from becoming what he calls “an arms race” much like Formula 1 has become.
“When you’re looking at Formula 1 or DTM or IndyCar, anything like that, they’re pretty much the same,” James said. “They’re all professional series, big teams, big hospitality units, and they all operate in a very similar way. It was a fair shock when I came to my first Formula E race and we were operating out of a tiny tent on the side of the road, and you’re thinking, ‘What are we doing?’ This was like it was 30 years ago when I was in karting. But the thing is, the professionalism and the technology involved is so high.
“Gen 3 is taking shape now, and I think the direction that it’s going in is really good. There’s some good elements coming in which differentiates it from Gen 2 and keeps the whole thing fresh, but at the same time hopefully not driving it in the direction that it’s going to be financially unsustainable. I think it’s key that it’s seen as a test bed for new technologies and has that relevance across to the road car side of things.”
James is also optimistic about Formula E’s continued place on the motorsports map, even as other series are moving toward hybrid or even full EV race programs in what might be the not-too-distant future.
“Formula E has been set up as kind of … the word guinea pig is probably quite apt, but it’s forging a position in the motorsport landscape,” James told Autoweek. “I think it’s doing a fantastic job in that regard. It has certain agreements in place with the FIA which protect us, if you like, to be the pinnacle of electric motorsport within their agreement.
“We’ve seen on the Formula 1 side, discussions are ongoing at the moment in regards to the power unit regulations for 2025. That’s not going to be fully electric, I’m pretty sure of that. You’re still going to have a combustion engine with an electric machine. Therefore, you still have that differentiation. In the short- to midterm, I don’t see any issues there. I think, fast-forward 10 years, and I think the landscape will look very different.”
That landscape will in large part be dictated over the next decade, no doubt, by what promises to be a different look to automobile showrooms.
“At that time, here in the U.K., you won’t—if things go ahead as planned—be able to buy a combustion engine in a passenger car,” James said. “And that’s similar across a lot of Europe and other countries around the world, as well. That’s going to mean a seismic shift from a consumer’s perspective. That’s where the relevance of electric motorsport is just going to grow and grow and grow.
“And so I do anticipate that other series are going to look at that very carefully and consider the direction they’re going to go in. I think over the next few years, you’re going to see quite a significant change in the approach in order to keep up with the road-car side of things and keep that relevance in place, as well. But exactly what the outcome of that is going to be, whether we’re going to see electric NASCARs in three or four years time, I put a question mark against that. But never say never. I think it’s going to be a fantastic time to be involved in motorsport, that’s for sure.”
It also promises to be a fantastic time for consumers entering the car market, which is something even some of those directly involved with Formula E are wrestling with.
Mercedes’ Paffett, who spends his days working on, developing, and testing the latest and greatest EV technologies, is one of those in the EV industry who leaves the EV at the office at the end of the day.
“I haven’t got an electric car yet,” Paffett says. “My problem is that I live in a very rural part of Suffolk in England, and there’s not many charging points anywhere near me, and I’m doing hours to anywhere. So, no, I’ve not upgraded to that car yet.
“But, honestly, it’s something we’ll all be driving soon.”
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