Today the deadline to express interest in supplying cars to the FIA Formula E Championship expired. Mid December the FIA posted a letter with that call on their website. The letter contains an invitation to supply cars and the regulations that these vehicles will have to comply to. It’s an impressive document (link) of 84 pages, consisting of the invitation letter, the key parameters of the championship, the technical requirements, the electric safety requirements and the Safety Requirements for the Safety structure & Crash absorbers. There are no sporting regulations yet and there is no mention of the results of the selection process of the promoter. So what does this document tell us about the emerging Formula E championship?
One thing that is striking is the small window of opportunity to express interest in supplying cars. The questions that need to be answered are very, very extensive, and unless you were waiting for this call to come and willing to work for one month straight with a whole team without taking off for christmas, it’s impossible to be part of this. So it looks like it is targeted at a group of manufacturers that the FIA is already having conversations with, it’s not really a public call.
The other thing that stands out is that the number of manufacturers that will be part of the Formula E championship hasn’t been decided yet. The plan is to have the field comprise of 24 cars, but depending on the number of car suppliers participating this will determined. It looks like it’s either going to be one, two or three manufacturers, so they will either supply 24, 12 or 8 cars. It will be interesting to see how that pans out, because a one make class like we have seen with A1GP is already something completely different than a three make class, such as the DTM. We now know that for the first three years, Formula E is definitely not going to be like Formula One where each team builds their own car.
For the look and feel of the championship it is striking that wheel covers and a cockpit cover are allowed. This means that it will not be a championship of the archetypal open single seater that we have grown so used to. They are more likely to look like the Le Mans special prototypes. Could it be that the Lola Drayson vehicle wasn’t just designed for time attacks?
Technologically a lot of the regulations describe the electrical system with what it can and cannot do. For instance the maximum voltage that can come out of the Recharable Energy Storage System (RESS) is set at a whopping 1kV. This allows for light cables and high torque motors but is not without risk. The Formula Zero Championship maxed at 120V, the Tesla Roadster at 410V and the Formula Student Electric at 600V. However, the regulations concerning electric safety are very extensive so it is, as expected, a high priority.
Other striking things are that active suspension is not allowed, but active aerodynamics is. With the covered wheels and cockpit and the active aerodynamics it is clear that the FIA is trying to cater to the need to be energy efficient. Energy content in batteries is relatively low, so channeling all that energy into speed sounds like a good idea.
Then there is the recharging challenge. This is of course the vulnerability of electric vehicles. Each race will consist of about 4 heats per car of 15 minutes each and charging of the cars will be authorized between those heats. Then the FIA states that “Ideally the charging time should not exceed half an hour”. I am a big believer in fast charging so it will be great to have Formula E as a promotional platform to showcasing this technology. However, some caution is necessary here, because the whole field will have to recharge between heats. So suppose a vehicle has 60 kWh energy stored. A rough calculation tells us that 24 cars x 120kW is needed to recharge in half an hour. That means that we’ll need a power plug in the pit lane that can handle almost 3 mW. That is about the amount of power that it takes to light up 9 soccer stadiums. It’s doable, but it will take special precautions that should not result in firing up say, 12 massive diesel generators. Also, the fast charging technology is still in it’s early stage of development and it’s rather complicated to get it right. Building a field of fast, safe electric race cars will be quite a challenge already. I predict that for the first three seasons, having them recharge in half an hour will prove to be one step too ambitious.
The last section on crash safety implies very extensive and thus very expensive crash testing. Added just one of the many figures in the regulations describing the crash tests a Formula E vehicle will have to pass. Apart from the difficulties to get a vehicle homologated, it also points to the question, who is going to pay for all of this? Electric racing was never going to be cheap and with this level of safety requirements the barrier for entry is going to be enormous. But perhaps the question of the commercial sense of all of this asks for a separate post.
There was one part of the call that made me raise my eyebrow somewhat. The FIA is asking for the “sound signature of the car (spectrum, noice level…) and suggestion to enhance this signature (using mechanical vibrations and aerodynamic sound)”. And it added to that; ”The sound signature and design of the cars will be regarded as crucial elements of the candidate’s proposal. Those elements will be assessed by the Fia with particular attention.” I can really relate to the importance of the design, but “enhancing the sound signature using mechanical vibrations” reminds me of elementary school when I stuck a piece of cardboard between the spokes of my bicycle. “Brrrrrr, brrrrr, I’m a motorcycle”. To me the one distinctive feature of electric racing is the sound. I’m always really impressed by the absence of noise in the presence of power, so I hope this part works out well.
All in all the FIA has taken an important step again in the direction of creating a truly high level electric championship. Let’s see which electric race car manufacturers step up to the plate.