Formula E Racing Gentlemen, Start Your Batteries

Auto racing returned over the weekend to the German capital, where racecars first roared down the famous Avus track nearly a century ago. But the screech and smell of powerful internal-combustion engines was missing – the cars were electric.
The racecars started where passengers used to board flights.

This article was originally published on May 26, 2015, and republished without changes in February 2018.

Berlin has opened a fresh chapter in its rich history of auto racing with an electrical version of the power-driven Formula One circuit.

The city became the ninth stop in the 10-city Formula E global racing event launched this year by the Paris-based FIA, the world's governing body for motor sports.

The site was the historic Tempelhof Airport, now a park, where American and British pilots flew more than 278,000 flights to airlift food and other supplies to beleaguered West Berliners after Soviet troops closed all land connections into the city from 1948 to 1949.

Among the challenges facing the 20 drivers piloting the lightweight cars, which look like their gas-guzzling F1 cousins from the outside, were the 17 tight corners on the 2.5 kilometer, or 1.55 mile, track in front of the imposing terminal.

Built between 1936 and 1941, the 300,000-square meter complex reflects the monumental thinking behind Nazi architecture but also represents a landmark in civil engineering.

The Formula E race is great for Berlin, with all the racecar history here and interest in big events like these. Daniel Abt, Formula E Driver

As did the former Avus race track in its heyday, with its infamous banked north turn. In 1921, Avus held its first race on a stretch of road that later became Europe’s first highway – the autobahn. The track, which hosted a F1 race in 1954, was used for car and motorcycle racing up to 1998. It now forms part of the autobahn ring in the southwestern part of the city.

“The Formula E race is great for Berlin, with all the racecar history here and interest in big events like these,” 22-year-old driver Daniel Abt told Handelsblatt Global Edition.

Formula E races are not held on permanent tracks but on street circuits in the heart of cities or, in the case of Berlin, in a central location. The first race was in Beijing, where the track circled the Olympic Stadium, and the final will take place in London at Battersea Park.

The drivers include a number of former F1 racers, such as Jarno Trulli, Sebastien Buemi and Jerome d’Ambriosio, who won the race in Berlin after Lucas di Grassi was disqualified for changes made to his vehicle.

Two Germans are also competing in the circuit, which will be increased to 12 cities next year: Mr. Abt, whose father, Hans-Jürgen, was a former racer and now heads the race car team Audi Sport ABT; and Nick Heidfeld.

 

Part of the Avus racetrack is now an autobahn and the control tower is still standing.

 

In addition to Audio Sport ABT, the 10-team lineup includes Britain’s Virgin Racing, backed by the entrepreneur Richard Branson, and Monaco-based Venturi, which is supported by the Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Practice rounds, qualifiers and the race all take place on one day, giving the drivers little time to become familiar with tracks. This is intended to add suspense – which is sorely needed.

There are no F1 three-second pit stops for changing tires, but just one fixed 90-second interruption to change cars. The stop is a short-term measure while battery and charging technology continues to evolve. Pilots have two cars each, which they swap midway in the 33-lap competition.

Also missing is the chest-rattling wail of thundering 1,000 horsepower internal-combustion engines, which FI drivers rev up after corners to reach speeds of 375 kilometers per hour. Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari topped the F1 charts last year at 102 decibels.

A Formula E car emits a mechanical whine not unlike a toy radio-controlled car, only louder at about 80 decibels, even with some tire squealing in the corners added in. The overall effect, especially when the cars are at the other end of the track, is eerily quiet for a major auto-racing event.

Fans in the bleachers and even standing alongside the track at Tempelhof could comfortably carry on a normal conversation without having to shout at each other.

Video: Formula E Championship in Berlin, listen to the sound of the electric motor.

Not being able to hear the car from the cockpit, however, has been a challenge for the some of the drivers. Gearbox and acceleration noises are music to the ears of experienced F1 pilots, which many of them are.

Their learning curve has also required adapting to a new style of driving. They need to master a breaking technique to recoup energy and time their sprints to conserve energy, as the batteries aren't guaranteed to get them to the finish line.

But the race is fast, and that’s why people come. They can also help the one or other driver be a bit faster, too.

Unique to the electric car event is the FanBoost, where fans can increase a driver’s speed by voting for their favorite driver on the official Formula E website or app. The three drivers with the most votes receive an additional boost in speed of 30 kilometers per hour for a five-second period after the first lap.

The racecars can produce up to 200 kilowatts of power, the equivalent of 270 horsepower, and reach speeds of more than 225 kilometers per hour, or 140 miles per hour. They are also able to accelerate from zero to 100 kilometers per hour in less than three seconds.

Drivers hit these speeds in the qualifiers but are limited to 150 kilowatts, or 202.5 horsepower, for the race to avoid batteries from overheating. This is a temporary measure until more powerful batteries become available.

The plan is for the Formula E championship to evolve along with the technology powering it.

In the first season, all teams are using identically designed racecars, making it a true drivers’ competition. The cars were built by Spark Racing technologies, with the battery coming from Williams Advanced Engineering. The lithium-ion battery contains the same power as 10,000 AA disposable batteries.

Video: What regular Formula 1 cars sound like.

The second season will see competition introduced at the technology level. Teams will be allowed to build their own powertrain, which consists of the electric motor, transmission and control system.

“This competition is good and will drive the race into an engineering event, just as Formula One has done over the past several decades," said Peter Gutzmer, a member of the board at German automotive supplier Schäffler, which will deliver powertrain technology to the Audio Sport ABT team in the next season.

“We believe we can learn a lot about electrical technology in the racing environment – about power efficiency and torque behavior,” Mr. Gutzmer told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “We want to see how far we can extend this knowledge to normal production.”

Batteries will see competition, too. The original plan encompassed the third season but Formula E chief executive Alejandro Agag told reporters at the race he would prefer to see the teams collaborate in developing an improved battery for the third and fourth seasons to keep costs down.

There was, however, no lack of competition for something Formula E organizers in Berlin appear to have overlooked: food and drinks for fans. Long lines formed at the relatively small number of booths where some people had to wait up to 40 minutes to buy a sausage or a beer. Organizers of big public events should never underestimate Germans's appetite for "bier" and "wurst."

For some fans, the race day could have benefitted from more entertainment as well. “There was way too much dead time between the early-morning practice runs and the race in the afternoon,” Werner Thees told Handelblatt Global Edition. “There should have been more of a program.”

Events scheduled to fill the time between the practice laps, qualifier trims and the race drew only modest interest, especially the kids’ race. Following the slow soapbox-like electrical karts circle around the entire track was like watching molasses drip from a bottle.

And Mr. Thees, in his late 60s, missed something else. “Electric race cars may be the future – they’re clean, efficient and quiet,” he said. “But I have to admit that for me, a real race is still smelling fuel and hearing the piercing sound of engines blasting by.”

 

John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. His racing career ended abruptly as a youngster after the local sheriff in his small hometown in Minnesota pulled him over for racing his go-kart through back alleys. To contact the author: [email protected]