How Formula E's path to Gen3 and beyond reflects its ambition
With the halfway point of the 2021-22 Formula E season fast approaching, it won’t be long until the championship’s eighth season concludes in Seoul, after which the current Gen2 car will be granted its place in a museum following four years of service.
In its place, the Gen3 car unveiled at the Monaco Yacht Club will take to the grid for the 2022-23 season, Formula E’s ninth year. It’s smaller, lighter, faster, more powerful, and more sustainable; the bodywork was inspired by a fighter jet, and the car could theoretically hit 200mph on the right stretch of road. In Formula E’s short history, a lot of progress has been made.
It feels deceptively long ago that the first generation of Formula E cars took to the grid around the Beijing Olympic stadium to kick off the championship’s first ever race in September 2014. Back then, everything was completely new; nobody in the paddock, or watching on TV, knew what was about to unfold. The teams couldn’t be sure if they would get to the end of the race, after testing at Donington Park ahead of the 2014-15 season opener had thrown up reliability concerns.
The original cars feel primitive today, especially compared to the metrics thrown up by the Gen3. Electric mobility has made great strides in the past few years as more manufacturers have dedicated space in their product lines for EVs, and Formula E continues its desire to be a driving force behind that.
The Gen1 machines started off with a common motor and five-speed gearbox assembly, developed by McLaren and Hewland respectively. The motor could produce 200kW in qualifying trim, but race modes were capped at 150kW and thus circuits were rather small to largely mask the relatively glacial pace, also featuring multiple chicanes to introduce areas for energy regeneration.
Williams Advanced Engineering was responsible for the 26kWh lithium-ion battery, a weighty but small-capacity energy store that necessitated in-race car-swaps in the early years.
Although it added a strategic element to the race, where it gave drivers pitstops to contend with and amending their driving with the first car – where going long would reward you with more energy to burn in the second car – it was a little bit of a joke among motorsport purists. The sight of drivers hopping out of their cars and legging across the garage to leap into the next one seemed a touch ridiculous in retrospect, but it was a necessary evil given the battery range.
Regardless, the Gen1 car kept the series in business. It looked like a mish-mash of every junior-formula car out there, but it regardless gathered attention and helped draw in a flurry of big-name drivers and manufacturers who could lend Formula E credibility, especially when powertrain development was declared open for the series’ second season.
After four years of helping to build Formula E’s fanbase and image, the Gen1 car passed the baton to the Gen2 machinery, which aesthetically proved to be a very different concept. The introduction of front wheel covers, Batmobile-like bodywork and tailfins replacing a conventional rear wing arrangement looked dramatically different from anything seen in single-seater racing before. Formula E, it seemed, intended to be disruptive and develop a radical design concept to visually mark its territory.
For those not yet convinced by Formula E, the departure of car swaps was a key factor in getting rid of some of the championship’s apparent clunkiness. With McLaren Applied Technologies responsible for the distribution of the new 54kWh battery, there was now enough capacity inside to complete the whole race. Furthermore, motors had become increasingly more efficient, could regenerate more energy, and had been developed to operate at 250kW in qualifying trim – up 50kW from the old motors.
By this stage, the motor and gearbox formula had largely converged; in the early years of Gen1, teams were experimenting with multiple motors and multiple gears to try and find more efficiency – but by the start of Gen2, almost all the teams had opted for a single motor with a solitary drive gear to minimise any losses.
The Gen3 car’s statistics are impressive. For the first time, a Formula E car features electric motors at both axles. At the back, the car is powered by a 350kW motor, which Formula E estimates can yield speeds of up to 200mph – although the small size of the circuits will make that a rare event
Although car swaps had been removed, it took with it a vital strategic battleground. Without an adequate replacement, the worry was that races could end up being quite one-dimensional. In its place, attack mode was born to inject some degree of strategy into the races. By placing the attack mode activation loop off-line, it handed a distinct penalty to those taking a higher power mode – and, with its use mandatory, it meant that the teams and drivers had to consider when best to take it.
Halfway through the Gen2 car’s life, the power modes on offer changed to increase the pace of the cars; the race mode power allowance rose from 200kW to 220kW, while attack mode – initially at 225kW before receiving a 10kW boost – was moved up to 250kW for parity with the qualifying and Fanboost.
For 2022-23, Formula E will undertake its changing of the guard – and the Gen3 car’s statistics are impressive. For the first time, a Formula E car features electric motors at both axles. At the back, the car is powered by a 350kW motor, which Formula E estimates can yield speeds of up to 200mph – although the small size of the circuits will make that a rare event.
At the front, Formula E has introduced a standard 250kW motor that only features for regenerative purposes. That’s 600kW of regen potential that drivers can employ and, even with the additional motor, the Gen3 car is 60kg lighter than its predecessor.
Part of that has been down to reducing battery size, as the regeneration is so much more powerful that carrying around extra cells becomes superfluous. It’s estimated that 40% of the energy used in the races will come from regenerated energy, up from around 25-30% for the Gen2 car.
The car’s weight is also helped by the complete removal of the rear brakes, meaning drivers will solely rely on the stopping power from the motor regeneration at the back. That should eliminate the need for the drivers to have to pull a paddle before a corner to do that, since it should be covered in the software maps automatically.
Formula E has also put a bigger focus on sustainability, using recycled and recyclable materials in the build of the Gen3 car. The new battery pack supplied by Williams Advanced Engineering uses materials possessing some degree of post-life reusability, with Formula E planning to recycle and repurpose the cells after the batteries can no longer be used. The bodywork now features linen fibres in its lay-up along with recycled carbonfibre, while Hankook’s new tyres include natural rubber and recycled fibres within the construction.
Trying to mesh sustainability aspirations with performance targets is difficult, but that’s something that Formula E and the FIA have tried to work on in tandem. Chief engineer Alessandra Ciliberti explained how both boxes were able to be ticked with the new car.
“We’ve been trying to do our best in meeting [Formula E’s] requests, while still keeping in mind the technical target,” she said. “So what you don’t want is to make this car too heavy, you don’t want the car to lose any of the technical and performance criteria that you have set in the technical brief. But by working closely throughout the process, you can find ways of achieving our technical targets while also enabling them to express the best in terms of sustainability.
“The main challenges were around making this car lighter while adding parts. Because we have the front powertrain kit, which currently is not in the Gen2 car, we added parts, we’ve increased the power. But despite that, we could reduce the weight of each and every component.
“The monocoque is much safer than today but smaller; the battery is outputting and retaining a lot more power, but being smaller and lighter. And thanks to that the wheelbase is shorter, and the car is more agile overall, and that’s really the best we could expect.”
"We added parts, we’ve increased the power. But despite that, we could reduce the weight of each and every component" Alessandra Ciliberti
There’ll also be a host of potential new venues next season for the new car to race on: Cape Town is ready to host South Africa’s first race at its Green Point district, while the Vancouver event was postponed to 2023. The cities of Sao Paulo and Hyderabad have both stated their intent to host an E-Prix next year too, ensuring that Formula E looks set to have a healthy calendar for the start of its new era.
Formula E has come a long way with its cars; if the Gen1 machine was largely a means to get the series off the ground, then the current Gen2 car moved the series on by hiking up the power and creating an entirely new face for the championship with its own unique visage. Gen3, over to you…