Racing’s Latest Chapter – Formula E Beijing Debrief

After a few months of testing and waiting, the first race of Formula E finally got underway in Beijing at the weekend. I think it is safe to say that the race turned out better than most had anticipated or expected, with some tight and close battles throughout the field. By no means am I denying that there weren’t some issues with the spectacle as a whole, but the reaction was mainly positive.

If you were comparing Formula E to today’s Formula One, then you were always going to be disappointed. Which is why Alejandro Agag and the forces behind Formula E had always set out the series to be different from the behemoth that is F1. I’m sure that if F1 hadn’t existed previous to now and it was set up from scratch it too would have some teething issues, to be fair it’s far from perfect now! Many aspects of Formula E’s approach have been unique and experimental, starting with the obvious all-electric racing cars to fan-voted boosts, both in an attempt to be relevant in the 21st century and to appeal to a wide audience. I’d like to point out before the rest of this post that I am not a hater of Formula E in any way, I am just a fan like many others that has seen that perhaps some opportunities may have been missed and that there are some areas that could be looked at in the future to improve the show.

Let’s take the Beijing race from the top. It probably wasn’t the best of ideas to hold the first ever race of any sport or series in a country where social media and internet use is widely restricted, many of the teams involved at the weekend were unable to send updates on their progress throughout, and no doubt this would have affected the level of hype surrounding the event. However at least from now on, the Formula E PR machine and teams can go on full steam ahead from the next race at Malaysia in November and onwards. In the UK at least, the lack of qualifying coverage didn’t help with the build up to the actual race, although Jennie Gow and the ITV4 crew did a very adequate job in rounding up the news from qualifying in their one hour race build up show.

The warm up lap was at a snail-crawling pace to set the least, close to a total of five minutes, although this did meet seem to meet the delta time that was required by pole sitter Nicolas Prost. This formation lap in particular was extremely drawn out, with all drivers understandably trying to save as much electrical power as possible for the race itself. I have to say I feared the worst when almost three cars were unable to pull away for their formation laps, after a lengthy delay for a couple of them they all did eventually get underway. With no clutch, the only tasks required by the drivers on the warm up lap is raising the temperature of the tyres and brakes, maybe for the future tyre warmers could be used on the grid and then race without a formation lap, which would eliminate the problem of using up electrical power. With warm up laps being the norm in all motorsport it is completely understandable that it was naturally included.

The start had hardly any such issues (save Trulli who again couldn’t get off the line), which by itself got me off my seat in anticipation of the first corner. Most got through the first few corners without incident, but any thought of the drivers taking it easy in the first race were cast away after Montagny’s aggressive overtake on Charles Pic at turn two of the opening lap, almost putting Pic in the barriers. Turn two proved to be popular as Bruno Senna’s race ended after contact with Sato, putting to end a weekend that looked so promising for him throughout practice and leading into qualifying. Montagny’s ferocious moves proved to be one of the highlights as he took the race by the scruff of the neck.

Bruno Senna in the Esses at Donington Testing

Bruno Senna in the Esses at Donington Testing

Towards the end of lap two the safety car was deployed to recover Senna’s stricken car, most drivers had by that time used up 12-14% of their electrical energy in their first car. Don’t forget this included the formation lap, the whole of lap one and half of two at racing speed, with the other half of the second lap under the safety car. Which leads on to the main stumbling block that this series has to overcome – changing cars mid race. The series has been forced to do this to overcome the problem that the cars cannot hold enough battery power to last a whole race, but I thought this detracted from the event. Some fans on social media were confused as to why drivers had to sit and wait in their cars to be released after swapping cars – this is on safety grounds to ensure that drivers buckle themselves in correctly. If such a limit was not put in place, it would make more of a race out of changing cars, with the possibility of some drivers possibly not being belted up adequately to get out the pits quicker, whether it be through their own fault or just through human error. The Audi Sport Abt team timed their stops to a tee, gaining anywhere between 3-5 seconds over their competitors because of the practice they’ve been putting in. This kind of difference from changing cars and getting the drivers back out almost made the racing in the prior dozen laps almost irrelevant, as apart from Nicolas Prost at the front the field was completely rearranged. For a sport that wants to prove itself and electric cars in general as being relevant for the current day, I don’t believe it is a good advert for them to have to swap cars halfway through before completing the race, for some people this will no doubt have them raise the issue of whether or not a conventional road electric car would be able to complete journeys or not.

The BMW i8- Formula E's Safety Car

Quite a bit of fuss was made prior to the series about the use of fan boost, it become the subject of quite a lot of criticism with some saying that it is a gimmick, and this will only end up with the same drivers winning every race because they had more power available to them. The three drivers that got the most votes for the Beijing race were Bruno Senna, Katherine Legge, and Lucas di Grassi. With the exception of Senna, I had not predicted neither of the other two drivers to have been in the top three for that vote, I thought that drivers such as Nelson Piquet Jr (because of his high number of Twitter followers – second to Senna only) or Jaime Algersauri & Karun Chandhok (both well respected and popular drivers) would have a better chance of gaining the extra power. This extra power can only be used once during the race, and for 5 seconds, you could say it is the Formula E equivalent of having a KERS boost or an IndyCar ‘push-to-pass’ for 5 seconds. In the end it made almost no difference to the end result, Di Grassi winning because of the incident between Prost and Heidfeld, Legge was too far down the field to make real use of it, and Senna retired on the opening lap. If I had any criticism of it right now it was because we didn’t even know when or if the drivers used their boost, there was no graphic or information given to show either way.

The incident between Prost and Heidfeld doesn’t need to be talked about much, it’s already been well covered, the stewards deciding that Prost is to receive a ten-place grid penalty for the next race in Malaysia. Personally I thought the move was almost worthy of a race ban due to the seriousness of the accident, Prost clearly didn’t look in his left hand mirrors before turning in. One thing that may need to be looked at soon in a wider scale by the FIA is the use of sausage kerbs, which launched Nick Heidfeld’s car up in the air at an angle and into the barriers. This launching of cars has also happened in GP3 practice at Spa, with debutant Konstantin Tereshchenko also being flown into the air, resulting in his withdrawal from qualifying and the race.

Overall I think the first race meeting went quite positively, I’m sure the hype will only increase and the season progress towards the London finale in June 2015, I for one will definitely be attending. Yes, there are a few smaller issues to iron out, but as said at the top that will always be the case with any new series, also you can never please everybody and fans of all motorsports will have their own opinions as to what it entertaining and what isn’t. I think the true test will come in years two and three when the teams will be allowed to manufacture their own components and technology to improve the series’ competitiveness, I think then we will really get to see if Formula E is sustainable and if teams and manufacturers are really committed to it. In the meantime, I’m just gonna have fun watching it.

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