Formula E: putting EVs streets ahead

Team Drayson and Qualcomm discuss how new racing series Formula E is expected to charge the EV market

Martin Kahl talks to Lord Drayson, founder and Chief Executive of Team Drayson, and Qualcomm’s Dr Anthony Thomson about how new racing series Formula E is expected to charge the EV market

According to Team Drayson’s founder, Chief Executive and Team Principal Lord Paul Drayson, “Formula E is a recognition by the FIA that global pressures and concerns around climate change, in particular air pollution caused by vehicles in cities, are increasing pressure on the automotive industry. Motor racing lacks a championship which provides a platform for manufacturers to showcase what they are doing in this area, to compete and to accelerate the development of relevant technology. With the growing importance of EVs, Formula E creates a new championship to enable them to compete.”

The aim of Formula E is to make the championship as relevant as possible, in terms of the race locations, the type of racing and the specifications of the cars. By racing on public roads in city centres,” says Drayson, “we’re taking the race to where the people are, where the challenges around air pollution are most keenly felt and where mainstream EVs would be driven.”

One of the specific goals is to show EVs in a new light. “There’s a need for the car industry to enthuse the millennial generation. This championship will be targeted at people in the teenage to low 30s age-group, which is so important for early adoption of EVs. EVs have become perceived as being quite dull, so here is an opportunity to redefine the electric vehicle. The old saying is, ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that with EVs. Formula E is going to provide that opportunity.”

Motorsport has launched many significant powertrain innovations that have later found their way into mainstream cars. In May 2013, an Aston Martin Rapide S became the first hydrogen-powered car to make an official grid start in an international motorsport event, when it made its debut at the Nürburgring 24 Hours race. In recent years, hybrid technology has been used by Le Mans race winners, and Formula 1 has introduced KERS and is pushing engine downsizing.

“Hybrids are increasingly a central part of motorsport competition but there is nothing for pure EVs. It is strategically important to use Formula E as a mechanism to speed the rate of innovation around electric drivetrains and all that’s associated with electric cars.”

Open wheel, single-seater

Open wheel single-seat racing has been chosen due to its similarity to Formula 1 car design: “Because this is an FIA championship and is designed to be the top of the pyramid of what we hope will be a developing electric vehicle racing universe, it needs to be the ultimate level of racing technology,” Drayson explains enthusiastically. “And that means open wheel, single-seater.”

In the first year, all vehicles will be common. Designed by Italian company Dallara, which will also produce the chassis, the cars will be built by Spark Racing Technology (SRT). To ensure the availability of cars for the initial season, Formula E Holdings (FEH) has ordered 42 cars from SRT for the 2014 championship: 40 will go to the teams, one will be a show car and one car is for crash testing. Renault is SRT’s official technical partner, and engineers from Renault Sport F1 and Renault Sport Technologies will work with SRT to optimise the electric and electronic layout and performance of the powertrain. “It involves a huge undertaking to set up a new world championship with completely new technology in new cities on new tracks,” explains Drayson. “To ensure that the championship starts on time next summer, and to make sure that there is a level playing field for the teams to start with, the promoter took the decision to source a single chassis and drivetrain for the first year.”

McLaren Electronics will provide the cars’ electric powertrain, including the electric motor, the motor control units and battery management. With the 120kW electric motor and related electronics, “We have the most efficient electric motor in the automotive industry,” says Dr Peter van Manen, Managing Director of McLaren Electronics. “By racing the vehicles in the middle of cities, there will be a lot of very sharp acceleration and braking, rather than high speed endurance, which suits the characteristics of an electric motor. An electric motor provides you with almost instant torque, so you get great acceleration and regenerative braking.”

From year two onwards, the regulations will allow technology competition, and Drayson Racing has stated that it plans to become a constructor in its own right. From 2015, it will enter a car based on a new drivetrain developed from the advanced DRT 4X2-640 electric system featured in the Lola-Drayson B12/69EV car that set a new electric record at the 2012 Goodwood Festival of Speed. “You can expect to see a number of drivetrain suppliers, like in Formula 1,” says Drayson. “The focus will be on the drivetrain rather than the chassis and aerodynamics; it will be a competition between drivetrains.”

Links to mainstream motor sport

Open-wheel, single-seat vehicles are not the only link to mainstream motor sport. Well-known drivers and racing teams are expressing an interest in Formula E, and former F1 driver Lucas di Grassi is the official Formula E test and development driver. “A group of drivers, including several Formula 1 and Le Mans drivers, see this type of racing as a fantastic opportunity not just to develop their careers but also to do something to the direction the world’s going in,” says Drayson. “Those who have driven an electric car are really excited about the driver challenge involved in the differences to internal combustion engine cars. In Formula E, you’re going to see the highest level of professional racing drivers from all over the world.”

Teams showing interest in Formula E include those with a background in electric technology; teams that have a background in traditional, mostly single-seater racing; and new teams formed by sponsors and businesses that traditionally support other sporting events, who see this sustainable championship as providing a very unique and strong marketing platform. As for established vehicle manufacturers, Drayson says around four major OEMs are “seriously looking at participating in the championship”.

One of Team Drayson’s partners is Qualcomm, which will provide wireless charging technology. This will be used in the first instance to charge static vehicles in the Drayson pits during the race. “Wireless charging has the ability to free the electric car from the cable,” says Drayson, “so introducing wireless charging in electric racing, the highest level of electric vehicle technology, is a great way to accelerate its adoption, get experience and speed up development.”

The two companies are also exploring dynamic charging. “Initially, we’re looking at stationary charging or static charging. We have a system already fitted to Drayson’s LMP-style EV racer to really prove that technology out,” explains Dr. Anthony Thomson, Vice President of Business Development and Marketing at Qualcomm. “Over time, the big vision is to move to higher power in stationary mode and then move into dynamic charging, where cars can pick up charge, initially when they’re coming into pit lanes, but ultimately on the track itself. That is a real game changer. That’s where we can push the race out from limited time to normal race times of 90 minutes. It would be a fantastic achievement to complete a 90 minute race by charging dynamically.”

Opportunity knocks

Qualcomm sees Formula E as “an opportunity to develop high performance systems in a known aggressive and high-pressure environment,” says Thomson. “We see it as a test bed for advancing the technology. And working with someone like Drayson Racing – where we can form a close relationship and get feedback from the race team itself and assist them with the development of new approaches – is really key for us.”

Seven second pit stops are the reserve of Formula 1 and, as battery charging currently takes significantly longer than seven seconds, Formula E permits teams to change vehicles. “Initially there will be two vehicles per driver,” explains Thomson. “The driver will head out and when his car is out of power, he will come in and swap cars. There will be a Le Mans-style run between cars as one starts charging whilst the driver jumps out and does the next part of the race in the other car.”

Qualcomm is also developing wireless charging for mainstream use. Its solutions for Formula E will, of course, differ from mainstream solutions, mainly in power levels. “The system that we developed with Drayson is a 20kW system,” says Thomson. “Most of the systems that have been developed for private vehicles, taxis and car-share are either 3kW or 6kW. So that’s a significant jump in power. There are other elements to the technology in terms of adding lightness, and really hardening for motorsport. But the key differentiator for now is the power level.”

Race EVs on Sunday, sell EVs on Monday?

In addition to the obvious sustainability matters surrounding electric vehicles, there are broader messages that Formula E aims to deliver. These range from making tyres last for two or three races to developing legacy charging networks. Qualcomm has a particular legacy intention, Thomson explains: “As the race moves on to the next city, the charging infrastructure would remain behind and be available to residents. A move to dynamic charging would result in strips of road around a familiar area in a city where people can pick up power as they drive. We’re looking to not go in and bust up roads and then strip out and go away, but to build. We want to help the early deployment of electric vehicles not only by encouraging and exciting the local millennial, but by also providing something real for people to use afterwards.”

“At its heart, [Formula E] shows the motorsport industry recognising that it could do more to support the automotive industry in meeting the challenge from climate change and airborne pollution,” summarises Drayson. “In doing so, it’s creating something really transformational, which will be hugely important not just for the industry but for motor sport and for the cities that bring it on board. This championship will make a difference to electric vehicle adoption, and it will make a difference to the rate of technology development and acceptability. Next year, the first year of the championship, will be a new dawn. It’s going to be the first time we’ve had such a global championship and it’s going to make a real difference.”

“From our perspective, this is an opportunity to bring life to electric vehicles and wireless charging,” concludes Thomson. “Put it in front of people who are possibly sceptical or don’t quite understand the potential, and I think we’ll see people being quite amazed at what electric vehicles can do. My aim is to show people what’s possible, and encourage them to buy electric vehicles.”

Martin Kahl is the Editor of