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The All-Electric Formula E Race Series Is Poised to Be the Industry’s Next Hot Test Bed

By: · November 2, 2017

The All-Electric Formula E Race Series Is Poised to Be the Industry's Next Hot Test Bed

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From the November 2017 issue

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Formula E, the electric formula-car series, seemed like a doomed political obligation when it made its debut in 2014. But its fourth season is set to kick off in December in Hong Kong, and in its first three seasons, Formula E attracted major automakers Audi, Jaguar, and Renault. In July alone, three more announced plans to join, and Audi formalized its intent to up its involvement, going from a partnership with one of the original teams to fielding a factory entry this season. Doomed? Hardly.

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BMW will contest the 2018–2019 season, with Mercedes-Benz and Porsche following a year later. Mercedes will be supplementing its effort in Formula 1, but Porsche is leaving the hybrid-racing program that gave it three consecutive Le Mans wins to prioritize Formula E.

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“There is a big groundswell of movement into [EV] investment,” says three-time Le Mans winner Allan McNish, who heads Audi’s Formula E operation. “All of the brains that have been so dominant with other technologies are now focused on this.” He expects the adulation and shame that are heaped upon the paddock each race weekend to force development forward much quicker than would a standard road-car program.

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A spec chassis and battery currently limit innovation to the motor and its controls. According to McNish, Audi saw nearly an 8 percent increase in efficiency between seasons two and three without making any major hardware changes; it merely applied the lessons it learned after mining a season’s worth of data. The BMW works team hasn’t yet turned a lap in competition but already expects its powertrain to weigh 50 percent less than what drives the i3 while offering 50 percent more performance and efficiency. The company says that the tech driving such improvements could reach mass production in five to ten years.

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A lessening of regulations should spur further development. Beginning in 2018, McLaren will replace Williams as Formula E’s battery supplier. Its units nearly double the capacity of the original, eliminating the need for car swaps mid-race. And after McLaren’s two-year contract expires, it’s expected that entrants will be allowed to develop and supply batteries of their own.

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With increasing pressure on automakers to grow their EV programs, could Formula E become the industry’s cutting edge of R&D? “It’s not going to replace Formula 1 or the World Endurance Championship, but it’s got its own niche, just like electric [road] cars,” McNish says. “Not everybody is going to be driving an electric car in 2025, but many will.” And those buyers will have a bit of the prestige and glamour of Formula racing beneath their feet.

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Banned Together

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One reason for the heavy German presence in Formula E is that the country’s legislative body proposed banning internal-combustion engines in new vehicles by 2030. despite ­Germany’s transport minister calling the proposal “utter nonsense” and “totally unrealistic,” the writing seems to be on the wall in Berlin: The future is electric—or at least less dependent on fossil fuel.

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Shocking Good Looks

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Shocking Good Looks

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Formula E’s race cars are set to get their first major upgrade for the 2018–2019 season. Spark Racing Technologies, supplier of the current chassis, released a handful of concept renderings earlier this year. The new race car won’t look exactly like this, but it could get a lot uglier and still look fantastic.

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