How will the new Formula E car pave the way for electric vehicles?

The fifth season of the ABB FIA Formula E starts in December and will see a new generation of cars line up on the tracks. We caught up with one of Envision Virgin Racing's engineers, Stephen Lane, to find out more about their Audi e-tron FE05...

So what’s the second generation car all about?

It’s quite a big step forward from the gen one car. I think it’s more defined in its own thing, certainly no-one will mistake it for another type of racing now so I think that’s quite nice.

From the technology side, there’s quite a big advancement, both in the battery technology and the amount of power we can produce but also in the way that the car operates in terms of the functions that we can now adjust, or that the drivers can adjust and the engineers can work with. There’s certainly more tools available to ultimately try to be quicker than anyone else.

The car has more power now, what does that actually mean?

I think the simplistic way of viewing it is that the car will now go for longer and it will go faster. To put that into context, we used to have 200kw of power for qualifying and we now have 250kw and that’s the equivalent of about 340hp. It’s gone from having quite a fast car to something that’s very quick. Most single-seated race cars with that kind of horse power are quite an animal to drive.

Read: Accelerating the uptake of electric cars

In terms of the battery capacity, it’s almost doubled in capacity for a relatively minor increase in weight. The capacity has increased a lot for only about 50 kilos so that’s showing how much the battery’s advanced in only four years. And ultimately it’s why we only need one car. So historically you’d get 22 to 24 minutes racing in one car and now we have to do 45 minutes plus one lap – and we’ll be doing it faster.

I think that’s the sort of simple explanation of the change that’s happened and what’s come with that is a completely new ballgame really.

How will that change things for the driver?

Firstly it will be more difficult to drive, it will be faster and some of the circuits we go to that have got some long straights, they’ll be reaching some high speeds, we’re expecting potentially 280km, which is 175mph. And that’s on a very narrow street circuit, which is dusty and bumpy – I think they’re definitely earning their money more this year than previous. It’s going to make the car more difficult to drive, which makes the engineers’ lives more of a pain because you’re always trying to make the driver happy, you’re trying to give him confidence to drive quickly, that’s the bones of what I have to do. To try and give Sam and Robin a car that they are confident in and can push to limit more than anything else. With more power comes more challenges.

Are there any other changes we should know about?

The other big change is the way that the race is held. It’s always been held on laps, like most motor racing, very conventional. But now it’s gone to time, which initially doesn’t sound like it’s going to be that different but it’s constantly throwing up curveballs because you’re trying to predict how long the race is going to be, in terms of distance, and so certainly I don’t envy our strategy engineers at the moment – they’re fairly full on trying to write all the algorithms that we need in order to predict what’s going on. And a slight change in someone’s lap time and all of a sudden you thought you had three laps left but now you have four but you haven’t got the energy to do that. So potentially, there could be some epic failures of drivers not finishing so from that side it’s a massive headache.

The drivers need to feel confident when they’re in the race that they’re happy that the guys on the pit wall know what’s going on. But a new challenge is always nice, it feels a bit daunting at first but I think everyone’s pretty excited about it.

Formula E was set up with the hope of improving the adoption of electric vehicles on the road. How do you think the second generation car is helping to achieve that?

I think firstly the battery technology is the big thing and certainly everyone talks about range. With the capacity that we have now, we’re effectively doing double the distance we did in previous seasons. To put that another way, the amount of energy that’s stored now would run an average household for five or six days. People are seeing that as a massive positive because if they can get proper range, they’ll buy electric vehicles and this is pushing that forward quicker than any other platform. Everyone’s keen on electric vehicles but they’re not keen on having to charge them every hour whereas this technology will do much greater distance and will do a full charge in under an hour.

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