It’s Time for the Future to get Serious – What’s Wrong with Formula E


As Season 4 of Formula E begins tonight in Hong Kong, Stelvio Automotive looks at what has occurred in the series and why as it is actually hurting the exact automotive industry it’s supposed to save.

By Sean Smith

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I am not a fan of the battery technology in electric cars.

They take up vast amounts of energy in their creation, vastly offsetting any effect they will have in “saving the planet” over their internal combustion counterparts. The batteries themselves need replacing every few years at such a cost that another new car is the more feasible option, compounding the problem. The batteries can’t be properly recycled after their useful life. There isn’t the infrastructure behind it both in charge points for the cars and in the demand for energy from the grid which all the cars together will take. They take hours to charge up AND they are popularised by hipster vegans with disgusting beards. UGHH!

These are very much the reasons also that I am not a fan of Formula E, at least in its current form.

Right now the “All Electric Series” is completely hypocritical. Their chief argument is that through it it pushes development of the electric technology that will power our transport into the future, but that’s completely false.

The series is 4 years in and they still use a single battery supplier, all the manufacturers can do is slightly edit the drivetrain and motor, which they can only do once per year. What’s more the series doesn’t allow other alternative systems of energy storage other than the stock battery, so no hydrogen fuel cells, no solar tech, no supercapacitors and no flywheels charging and discharging lighter, smaller, batteries which would push the limits and allow for experimentation.

And that’s a pity, especially as the series now hosts more car making manufactures in one form or another than any other single seater Formula. BMW, Renault/Nissan, Jaguar, DS/ Citroën, Audi, Porsche as of 2019, Mahindra, Venturi and NextEV make 9 car makers involved with the sport, more than double Formula 1’s 4 and decimating IndyCar’s 2, plus it is garnering interest from Mercedes and Ferrari/Fiat for potential entries. On the face of it that’s great for the movement, but in my opinion this will only become a long term success if the Formula changes drastically and quickly to allow key developmental areas.

Formula E will probably never be like Formula 1 where the chassis and aero become major differentiators of the cars from team to team and in many ways that’s a good thing because Formula E is about the proving of electric technology. The chassis certainly isn’t electric and aero is relatively unnecessary as the cars go so slowly they’d need huge wings to produce any meaningful downforce, plus it would be a mask for a team who’s powertrain was not up to par with others as they could still win on better aerodynamics much like Renault and Red Bull did in Formula 1 in the early part of this decade.

Formula E does however need to allow for their technology to become the showcased product for the auto manufacturers that will be spending millions of pounds each month for them to see the series as an investment rather than an expense. The Series has allowed the motors and gearboxes to be customised which is a good start to show teams differences.  Andretti Autosport were embarrassed when their powertrain wasn’t up to par and that is what the series needs, bragging rights for the winners and targets for the losers, plus a chance to show their ability in fixing an issue.

Which is Formula E’s biggest hurdle with the manufacturers partaking long term. In Season 2 Andretti had to go back to the stock year 1 system supplied by the series when theirs failed to make the cut because they weren’t allowed to fix and develop it during the season, Next EV had a similar problem in Season 2 and 3 where they were playing catch up to Renault, Audi and DS, again unable to develop and catch through the year.

Had the tables been reversed here and had it been Audi or Renault that got it completely wrong to the extent of Andretti and NextEV there could have been boycotts from the teams, if Ferrari ever enter you could guarantee there will be if it ever went that embarrassingly wrong for them as no company CEO of a multinational, multibillion pound enterprise will let a series hold them at the back of the grid for a whole year while their marketplace competitors, and in Ferrari’s case brands seen as lesser to them flaunt off out in front allowing public, televised embarrassment. This is a PR disaster waiting to happen for any team and the Formula E championship.

The problem with batteries is, in my opinion, a more pressing issue. Currently, Williams are the only supplier, the big issue here is that the big car makers Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota etc. all have very strong and long standing relationships with other battery and electrical suppliers such as Bosch, Magnetti Mirelli, Denso, Mitsubishi and any number of others which they will be keen to bring in as soon as possible if Formula E is supposed to be the hub of electric vehicle development.

But, Formula E has instead chosen to not open up the battery suppliers next year, instead they decided to give a deal to McLaren to supply a battery to everyone.

How is this going to help the development of the electric car across the board if there is only one supplier? Theres not only one supplier in the real world is there? It’s no wonder Toyota and Honda refused to join the series and chose instead to push forward with their own technology at Le Mans and F1 where they have almost infinitely more freedom and development. It’s likely also why Tesla, the world’s most well know electric car brand has also shunned the series.

Formula E is not a hub for electric car development; it’s an expensive flashy hipster cash grab.

Peel back the layers of “ooo this is an electric car, this is the future, isn’t is cool, isn’t it hip, isn’t it high tech” take the talk away and look deeper and it’s a basic car, with a basic powertrain, souring power from a basic battery, going around crap racetracks with stupid gimmicks like fan-boost and getting disqualified if you’re measured to have used more battery than what it says on the packet.

But hey, it’s electric right so it’s going to save the world and all the Polar bears, at least that’s what the celebrities say just before they go home on their private jets and the cars get flown or shipped half way around the world to the next event.

Season 4 of Formula E has the best driver line up yet with Champions Lucas di Grassi, Sebastien Buemi and Nelson Piquet Jnr all racing for big name car brands, along with talent in Felix Rosenqvist, Luca Filippi and Sam Bird all trying to become challengers. As far as the competition goes its likely to be a great year but it’s letting itself down. It’s not serious in its mission to develop the electric cars which will entice people out of petrol and diesels and into something which is more powerful, cleaner and simpler with less moving parts which is easier to fix and should in many ways be the next step of the automotive industry.

Instead the car companies decide to pay 25Million Euros just to enter the Formula E championship with the people on the boards falling for the short sighted hype of plug in battery technology, I HATE IT, It’s not the future!

It’s stunting growth in hydrogen fuel cells, the real future of the electric car. Because of batteries there isn’t a push to get the infrastructure for hydrogen storage, production and delivery, instead the car industry and world Governments waste resources on these stop gaps which batteries are with no long term plan because they need a cheap, fast solution. The vast majority of the energy provided to Formula E and all plug in battery electric cars is produced by coal burning power plants making the whole environmental argument completely obsolete.

Toyota, Nissan and Honda; Japan’s three biggest automotive rivals who have been trying to outdo each other for 100 years and do not share anything between one another joined forces this year to push for hydrogen infrastructure building and development. If that’s not a clear message to the world that plug in battery technology like what we see in Formula E is not the way forward, I don't know what is. It’s time the future got serious because the future of transportation is a very important issue to everyone.