Track to the future: India experiences its first electric formula racing : The Tribune India

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Track to the future: India experiences its first electric formula racing

Track to the future: India experiences its first electric formula racing

Drivers participate in the Formula E World Championship in Hyderabad. PTI



Sudeep Koshy

NECKLACE ROAD in Hyderabad adorns the heart of the city but on Saturday, the 11th of February, the busy road provided restricted access to commuters. For once, its importance was being overshadowed by the event it was paving way for, quite literally. The Formula E race was India’s first. For “Happening Hyderabad”, future was flying in like fire-breathing dragons of speed, just as the hi-tech city once rose like its ambition, many years ago.

Participants during a trial run for the FIA Formula E World Championship race. PTI

Into its ninth season, the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship has entered the Indian market at the right time. India has ambitious plans of electrification of vehicles set for 2030, which is just seven seasons away in Formula E terms. It is important that the idea of electric cars got people more charged up and less worried. The increasing number of electric models quietly entering the market cannot possibly do it on their own. Going by the looks of the crowd thronging the access road hours before the race began, the Formula E race day was being treated almost on par with the release of a movie featuring a South Indian superstar.

Twists on and off track

The Hyderabad city circuit is considered one of the fastest tracks in the series. Wiping the smirk off those who considered Formula E as a tamer version of the power-laden, action-packed F1 Grand Prix, there was no dearth of high-voltage action and photo-electric finishes in the ePrix. At one end was the dramatic win of Jean-Eric Vergne of the DS Penke team, who warded off Nick Cassidy’s advances and Envision Racing’s pedestal dreams on a useable energy status of just 1 per cent in the last lap as against Cassidy’s abundant energy bank of 4 per cent. At the other end was the heartbreaking dual jeopardy of Jaguar TCS, whose driver Mitch Evans favourably started at pole position only to be crashed into by teammate Sam Bird, forcing both the drivers to retire.

Mechanics work on a formula racing car inside a garage before the start of the FIA Formula E World Championship.

In what can be seen as an inspiring consolation or an ironic lost opportunity, the Jaguar-powered Envision Racing kept their pace and energy for a podium finish by Nick Cassidy. What stopped his teammate Sebastien Buemi from joining him on the podium was a 17-second penalty for a power infringement despite finishing third, close on the heels of Cassidy. However, Pascal Wehrlein of Tag Heuer Porsche Formula E team was fortunate enough to follow his teammate Felix Da Costa on the leaderboard to finish fourth, as Da Costa climbed the podium in a landmark race that was his hundredth. While disappointment shrouded the Tata-sponsored team, Mahindra Racing earned the points to celebrate on home ground as Oliver Rowland rolled in sixth, despite a damaged front wing.

A different kind of high

Unlike Formula 1, where you sometimes see lone racers leading in front with a couple of hunters chasing them, in the last lap of the Formula E race at Hyderabad, several cars kept a connected trail while still trying to throw the others off their backs. This closely contested nature of the event is largely due to the availability of maximum torque over a greater part of the race, enabling battery-powered vehicles to attain higher speeds more quickly.

In reality, the Formula E races hardly touch their mindboggling top speeds of 320 kmph. For, the ePrix is held on twisty tracks demanding quick and frequent braking — perfect for an electric car to build back the energy spent. In fact, a good 40 per cent of the ePrix is run using energy generated during the race itself.

The real victor-e

Playing to a sellout crowd of more than 25,000 fans, including icons like Sachin Tendulkar and Ram Charan, the 2023 Greenko Hyderabad e-Prix reveals the highs and lows that can be expected in an ePrix as it comes of age, but it also shows the significance of the world’s first global sport to be certified with a net zero carbon footprint.

On the one hand, it is an adrenaline-spiking competition which is clean fun, just as the fuel that it drives on. On the other, it gives a ‘live demo’ of how electric vehicles (regular or racing), while braking, get back some of the energy lost during the drive. So, braking strategically is just as important as attaining speed during an electric race. As Jean-Eric Vergne states in his winner’s remark, it is a new game. “I like new tracks — I think it’s cool. Especially this one — it’s a lot of fun. When there are a lot of little secrets to find on the track, I probably find them quickly enough.” Indeed, it is the little secrets revealed by the track that the manufacturers and their teams are after, too. Secrets that will change the history of motoring.

Apart from Jaguar, Mahindra and Porsche, McLaren and Maserati have joined the championship this year. Nissan, in the race for the fifth consecutive season, is proudly wearing the new badge on a brand-new livery. A seasoned player in electric automotive manufacturing, Nissan is also the provider of technology to the NEOM McLaren Formula E team throughout the Generation 3 season, which lasts till 2025-26. In the hands of seasoned performers like McLaren, Nissan will have even more lessons to mull over and apply to their mainstay business of automotive manufacturing. This road-to-track and track-to-road adaptation of lessons is indeed the most sublime purpose of the ePrix.

FORMULA E: THE STORY SO FAR

  • The ABB FIA Formula E World Championship is a top-tier motorsport similar to the established series of F1 Grand Prix. The core difference is in the fuel that drives the cars. At the core of Formula E is an all-electric motor while the Formula 1 cars have a turbocharged hybrid engine.
  • The Formula E race is in its ninth season and the race cars in their third generation. From the days when they were powered by a 200 kW battery with a top speed of around 280 kmph, the cars have quickly evolved to feature a 350 kW engine in Gen3, capable of a top speed of over 320 kmph.
  • Weighing around 800 kg with the driver, these cars are smaller and lighter than the previous generations and therefore quicker and more agile in handling.
  • While Formula 1 racing is marked by the furious sound of the engine, Formula E attains high speeds in near-silence.
  • Formula E is the world’s first net zero carbon motorsport and serves as an important testing ground for the development and production of cleaner energy products.
  • Besides providing the thrill of a race, the ePrix immensely benefits the EV manufacturing industry with lessons in optimising energy and maximising efficiency.
  • As with most electric cars, Formula E cars, too, increase their efficiency by recharging the battery with energy released during braking.
  • Season 9 is made up of 16 races, of which Hyderabad was the fourth.
  • The championship is contested by 11 teams: TAG Heuer Porsche, Avalanche Andretti, Jaguar TCS Racing, Mahindra Racing, NEOM McLaren Formula E team, DS Penke, Envision Racing, NIO 333 Racing, Maserati MSG Racing, ABT Formula E team and Nissan Formula E team.
  • The next race is taking place in Cape Town, South Africa.

INTERVIEW: TOMMASO VOLPE, GM OF NISSAN FORMULA E

The Formula E car race is not only about racing and winning. It is about learning from the track and getting the learning on to the road. What parameters do you get to evaluate during these races and how does it translate to the road?

The ABB FIA Formula E World Championship is one of the most relevant motorsport platforms for car brands. It is not a surprise that there are more car brands involved in Formula E than any other motorsport in the world.

It is a race which is based on performance (or speed, acceleration), and also on the power of the regeneration of energy. Which means, these cars are by far the fastest full-electric powertrain racing cars out there and also the most efficient. We regenerate around 40 per cent of the total energy that we need to finish a race with the car while racing.

Tommaso Volpe

Our electric vehicles at Nissan are getting better and better. Apart from design, interiors and other elements, which are important for customers, when it comes to the powertrain, the improvement on our products comes from the energy efficiency of the car and the energy management which makes (for) the overall vehicle efficiency. So, we learn a lot from Formula E on how to make cars even more performing and yet more efficient.

Are there elements of the track or racing that directly influence these factors?

Under this area of efficiency, in reality, there are two specific areas where our engineers in Nissan collaborate with our engineers in Formula E: how to design the powertrain components — the inverter, the gearbox and the motor — in the most efficient way, that is in a way the loss of energy from the battery to the traction (to the tyres) is the minimum. We don’t disclose the number but just to give you an idea, the loss of energy from the battery to the tyres is lower than 5 per cent, which means only 5 per cent of the energy coming out from the battery transforms into noise and heat. More than 95 per cent is transformed into traction, which is an impressive number. This is an area where we collaborate a lot on: how to learn from what we have already done in the core business and, from Formula-E, how to improve even more what we have done in the core business.

And then, the energy management software, which in a way is the brain of the Formula E car, which dictates where is the optimal consumption and regeneration of energy over the whole race, corner by corner, metre by metre. So, it is very sophisticated. The sophistication of the software is really valuable to make the same software very precise and sophisticated or normal electric vehicles. For the software, it doesn’t really matter what it is programmed for — winning a race, or allowing our Nissan Ariya to go from A to B!

ELECTRIFYING SILENCE

French race car driver Norman Nato, sure, likes the noise of a race car with pedigree. For the racers who leave the roar of the Grand Prix behind, this perhaps would be a sting of silence though actually there is a stinging buzz of electricity to the Formula E car. Still, Nissan’s new driver and last season’s ePrix race winner for ROKiT, Venturi Racing, has a different take. He picks out a whole lot of engaging noises in a Formula E car that play out, “like when you touch a curb or your tyres are locking”. These sounds, which would otherwise be swallowed by the relentless roar of the racing engine, come as discoveries for a Formula E driver. Nato still slips in and out of electric and gasoline machines in what he acknowledges as a phase of transition. “What the future will bring, (only) the future will tell us.”


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