In my career as an automotive journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to have some amazing experiences as part of our job. I’ve raced electric cars on the ice-lakes of Northern Sweden, 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. I’ve toured the Tesla factory. I’ve toured Israel in a battery-swapping Better Place Renault Fluence. More recently, I was among some of the first journalists in the world to tour a Nissan-owned battery production facility.
But what I haven’t done to date is take to the track in a single-seat race car. And I don’t mind admitting to being incredibly jealous of those who have.
With that in mind, you’re probably guessing how I’m feeling after reading that Autocar’s Jeremey Taylor has just got back from spending some time on the Homestead-Miami Speedway in a real, fully-functioning single-seat FIA-Approved Formula E race car.
Taylor, the first British journalist to be allowed to step behind the wheel of a Formula E car, flew to Florida a few weeks back as a guest of Formula E while the international race series was in Miami preparing for the recent Miami ePrix. Having driven a Formula 1 car back in 2011, an experience in which he admits he “struggled to cope with the bottomless pit of power on tap,” he was keen to see how the 21st century racer would compare.
With the mentoring of Nelson Piquet Junior on hand, Taylor headed out onto the track.
Like an F1 car, Taylor compared the experience of driving the Formula E car as being very physical. “It’s tough keeping my head still because of the wind buffeting my helmet. The cockpit has all the comforts of a medieval chamber and I’m developing Popeye’s forearms in trying to hit the apex of every curve,” he writes.
That, he assures us, is the same as it would be in a Formula 1 car.
With a 0-60 mph time of three seconds, the Formula E car is nowhere near as fast from standstill as a Formula 1 car. Nor can it handle the same unbelievable top speeds, topping out at an electronically-restricted 140 mph. Yet despite having only 200 kilowatts of power, the tiny 57-pound McLaren-built electric motor — originally designed for the McLaren P1 plug-in hybrid supercar — puts out 103 foot-pounds of torque in a vehicle that weighs less than 2,000 pounds (driver included.)
On the detachable steering wheel, Taylor describes the four paddles, along with the integrated LCD screens and dials that are common to any modern race-ready single-seater. Told not to touch the dials, Taylor was fairly familiar with the top pair of paddle shifters, since they activated gear changes through the car’s four-speed, fixed-gear transmission.
But the bottom pair are perhaps the most interesting. On the right, the lower paddle allows the driver to switch on regenerative braking, while the left paddle activates the controversial FanBoost mode. Completely unique to Formula E, FanBoost is an interesting marriage between the world of social media and automotive sport, but on the tight curves of a Formula E race track it can make all the difference.
Here’s how it works.
Ahead of the race, fans can vote for their favourite drivers via an online voting portal. Then, during the race, the driver with the most votes can activate a momentary power boost of 30 kilowatts at any point in the race, giving them extra power to execute an overtaking manoeuvre on the tight city circuits on which the series is raced.
Only available for five seconds, the fan boost can make the difference between overtaking or not.
While Taylor wasn’t allowed to race on an actual Formula E city track for legal reasons, it’s the tight, narrow circuits of the major cities where Formula E holds its races which have helped tweak and tune the Formula E race car’s design. Built by Renault for the first season of Formula E, the SRT-01E race car is light, nimble, and engineered for short bursts of power between corners rather than the long sweeping straights of Formula 1. As a consequence, Piquet warned Taylor before taking off around the Homestead-Miami Speedway that the car’s powerful carbon brakes were prone to locking up.
Even braking late however, Taylor found the race car more than capable of keeping its grip thanks to a set of specially-designed 18-inch all-weather Michelin race tyres. Unlike Formula 1, where teams have multiple different tyres made of different compounds for use at different temperatures and conditions, Formula E uses just one set of tyres.
Inside the car, Taylor reports there’s a fair bit of noise at speed. “It sounds like a distance fighter jet under full throttle when you floor the accelerator,” he said, noting that while most of the noises enhance the thrill of driving a Formula E car, “a grating whine from the transmission at lower speeds more resembles a British Leyland gearbox,” a comparison which those familiar with British automotive history will agree is less than favourable to the French-built race car.
Although Formula E is still in its infancy the races themselves — which consist of ten teams, twenty drivers and forty-lap races with a half-way swap-over into a second, fully-charged car — are already creating quite a stir in the autosport world.
“By the time I unclip my five-point harness, my fireproof underwear and racing suit are drenched,” writes Taylor. “I’m smiling and would happily take on another five laps, given half a chance.”
And with cars only set to get more powerful, the battery packs longer lasting, and technology of electric cars more advanced, Formula E is a race series we think you all need to pay attention to.
As for the chance to drive a Formula E car? I’m here and waiting. A girl can dream, right?
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