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The Charging Point

Your one-stop destination for electric and hybrid cars

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Formula E Begins its Fifth Season with New Tech, New Drivers and New Challenges

Almost as soon as Formula E was launched, questions were being raised about its potential to survive beyond the short term. Of course there were some true believers and plenty who adopted a wait-and-see attitude, but a noteworthy contingent undeniably saw Formula E as a gimmick that would last just a few years before vanishing.

As such, season five has the feeling of a genuine landmark campaign for the category. Love it or loathe it, no one can deny that Formula E is here to stay, with an influx of major automotive manufacturers and top driving talent adding genuine industry legitimacy to the marketing bluster.

The most significant step forward comes with the introduction of a brand new car, dubbed the Gen 2, which will make its competitive debut this weekend in Saudi Arabia.

The new machine represents a major aesthetic upgrade on its predecessor, the venerable Spark SRT_01E, which in truth resembled a junior single-seater that had been hastily re-shaped so as to house some enormous batteries.

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The Gen 2 has seen Formula E step away from traditional looks and create something that is truly unique and instantly identifiable. It is certainly not an everyday single-seater: the rear-wing is a thing of the past and the wheels are largely covered. It has adopted a Halo, though this is much better integrated into the overall design than F1’s equivalent.

But the most crucial change is under the skin, where a new battery, built by McLaren Applied Technologies, will be able to power the car for an entire race. This represents a major breakthrough. The mid-race swap has been consigned to history, thus removing one of the main criticisms levelled at Formula E.

Of course, removing the car swap – and with it the need for cars to pass through the pit lane – also does away with the strategy and randomness that comes from pit stops. 

This is why Formula E has introduced Attack Mode. By driving off the racing line and through an “activation zone”, competitors will receive an extra 25 kW of power. They will have access to eight minutes of boost in total, though it will be allocated differently race by race and teams will not receive this information until one hour before the start.

It is yet to be properly tested in a competitive scenario, but Attack Mode is an interesting solution to the lack of pit stops. It somehow feels less artificial than F1’s DRS, perhaps because each driver will have access to the same amount of boost and must use it strategically.    

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If there is a bone to pick with Formula E it comes from the ever-changing calendar. Season five is no exception, with only half of last season’s events remaining completely unaltered.

The opener will, quite controversially, take place in Saudi Arabia, a country that has thrived on the oil and gas trade and where, among other human rights violations, women were not permitted to drive until June of this year. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul also led to questions about the country’s suitability.

The series has made noises about supporting the Saudis’ Vision 2030 – a plan to economically and culturally modernise the country – and that might very well be true. At the same time, there are major financial incentives to opening the season in the country and there is plainly an element of sportswashing taking place, whether Formula E likes it or not.

The other major change is a return to Monaco, which runs biannually, and new venues for the Chinese, Chilean and Swiss rounds. Street racing is, necessarily, somewhat transient. Closing down roads to stage a race is always a controversial topic within local communities and so it’s no surprise that some events don’t last especially long. Indeed, a new South Korean race is already confirmed for season six, while a return to Britain remains under discussion.

There is a degree of stability to the driver line-up, while the changes that have occurred only boost the quality of the field. No one can deny that Formula E is bursting with top-level talent and that hasn’t certainly changed for season five.

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Felipe Massa is the big-name addition, arriving with the Venturi squad, though not everyone is convinced the 37-year-old will fully adapt to the complexities of Formula E in time to make a real impact. He is joined by fellow F1 refugee Stoffel Vandoorne, who will look to revive his career at the Mercedes-affiliated HWA team. The Belgian will pair up with British veteran Gary Paffett, the reigning DTM champion no less, to form a very impressive all-rookie line-up.

The returning (and mega talented) Robin Frijns lands with the Virgin Racing outfit, which switches to Audi powertrains. The low-key brilliance of Alexander Sims represents an excellent addition at BMW-Andretti and the squad has looked mighty in testing.

Yet another former F1 racer joins Mahindra in Pascal Wehrlein, though he’ll miss the opener due to a contract issue. As such the rapid Felix Rosenqvist will contests a final race for the Indian squad before leaving for IndyCar, which represents the one significant driver loss for Formula E. Youngsters Oliver Rowland (Nissan e.dams) and Maxi Gunther (Dragon) join the grid, while Tom Dillmann goes full-time with NIO.

The favourites, however, can be narrowed down to three past champions: Sebastian Buemi at the renamed Nissan e.dams, Lucas di Grassi at the Abt-run Audi team, and reigning champion Jean-Eric Vergne with DS Techeetah. Sam Bird (Virgin-Audi) hasn’t won a title, but you can include the Brit in this group as well. While the BMW-Andretti team has appeared strong during pre-season, it is hard to look past this group for the season five title. We could even see the first two-time Formula E champion crowned.

More important than this, however, is that the series remains entertaining while the technology improves – a balance that is not always easy to achieve. Indeed, most series with multiple manufacturers tend to use some form of performance balancing. As it stands, Formula E is vulnerable to being dominated by a single team.

It would be very telling to see how Formula E handled such a scenario, which is just one of the challenges it could face in the coming years. Having initially needed only to survive in the choppy waters of international motorsport, the target now is much different. The series must continue to grow, continue to improve, and establish itself as more than simply a good marketing platform for manufacturers and companies looking to show off about their green credentials.

Balancing all of these ambitions while keeping so many major automotive companies happy represents an enormous challenge. But Formula E is earning a real reputation for being able to get things done to a high standard and in good time.