Do you like damn good racing? Surprising venues? New technology? Then boy, do I have the racing series for you! The ABB FIA Formula E Championship is back for its highly-anticipated fifth season of racing this weekend, and this time everything is changing.
Formula E happens to be the first-ever all-electric open wheel racing series. It was conceived as an idea way back in 2011, three years before any cars actually hit the track.
We’re on the cusp of the fifth season, which starts soon and stretches well into 2019, and now Formula E has finally reached a point where it’s graduated from some of its growing pains and is establishing itself as a real series. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t before—just like any kiddo, they had to learn through trial-by-error, and just like any new thing, people were pretty skeptical.
But this season is gonna be legit. We’re talking a whole new, better car. We’re talking well-known marques getting involved. We’re talking drivers you already know and love competing for a championship that has been awarded to an entirely different driver every single year of the championship’s existence.
If you haven’t been tuning in before, this is the perfect time to get involved with some of the most exciting new racing in all of motorsports. The cars are different (and have a lot more range), some of the teams are different, many of the drivers are new faces and the title contenders are anyone’s guess.
Yeah. It’s gonna be good.
Race and Championship Format
FE does a lot of things differently—including the way they format their race weekends. See, “race weekend” is kind of a generous term here. It’s more like “race day.”
Most of FE’s races are held on Saturday afternoons, with two practice sessions, a qualifying session, and an autograph session all taking place in the hours leading up to the race. If you’re wondering why the hell they do that, the answer is efficiency and location.
Right now FE races on street courses in busy city centers. A single-day event disrupts the flow of traffic far less than the typical three-day extravaganza. Big cities can get a race right through their streets, and it only disrupts traffic for a day or two at most. This year, the only double-header race is the finale in New York City, which sees a race taking place on both Saturday and Sunday. And yes, they do the full practice-practice-qualifying shebang, too.
Practice sessions are pretty straightforward here. Sessions last less 45 and then 30 minutes. It’s qualifying that gets interesting. Qualifying lasts about an hour. All the drivers in the grid are divided into four groups. That means that each group has six minutes to set their best lap with 200kW of power.
The fastest driver of each group then goes on to a final session, known as the Super Pole shootout. Those drivers all compete for pole position and, subsequently, for the top grid positions.
If there’s one thing that FE tried to improve, it’s the efforts to get fans involved. That means there’s something called Fanboost. Depending on who you ask, it’s either the greatest thing ever or an affront to all that is good and decent in the world (personally, I’m somewhere near the latter).
Fans can vote for their favorite driver with special hashtags on various forms of social media before (and now even during the first six minutes of) the event. The three drivers with the most votes will receive an extra 100kJ of energy to be used at their disposal during the race.
Fanboost is supposed to facilitate fan engagement by giving the most popular drivers an extra leg up, but it’s had its fair share of controversy. There have been plenty of accusations of cheating that get tossed around the paddock, and the same handful of drivers usually secure Fanboost during each race. Besides, while well-intentioned, it’s not really how racing works, right? But it’s here for 2018 and 2019, so deal.
The races themselves last around 50 minutes, which is pretty short compared to other racing series. If you’ve paid attention to the series, you’ll know that the pit stops were controversial. See, battery technology hadn’t progressed to the point where drivers could make it through the race with a single car. So, halfway through the race, they’d have to pit, jump out of one car, jump into the other, and speed away with the help of the pit crew to change the seat belts. There was a minimum pit stop time for safety reasons, and tire changes are absolutely prohibited unless something terrible happened to your car.
Points are awarded with the standard FIA system, with a bonus three points to the driver who secures pole position and a singular point for the driver who secures the fastest lap during the race.
In the past, those extra points and car changes have made for some very exciting races. If a championship contender’s first car was absolutely destroyed in some first-lap contact, he could head back to the pits and jump in his spare car, hoping to score a fastest lap point.
This year, FE is introducing something called Attack Mode. This will give drivers some extra power via a button on their steering wheels—but it comes with some rules so that cars aren’t bouncing around on the track like Mario Kart. It’s a complicated but limited system. To activate it, drivers need to move to a certain area of the track that’s off the preferred racing line. Doing so will activate Attack Mode and give the car a temporary power boost from 200 to 225 kilowatts, the equivalent of 268 to 302 horsepower.
It can be used by anyone on the track at just about any time during the race after the second lap. The time limits will be determined before each of the races.
They’ve done a great job of integrating the Attack Mode system into the race for everyone to see, specifically via a digital rendering over the track that will appear on broadcasts.
Let’s Talk Cars
Here’s a big change: This year, FE drivers won’t have to swap cars mid-race. Before, battery range limitations meant drivers had to get into a second car, with a full battery, to continue the event. The newer cars fix this, and that’s a huge step toward legitimizing the series.
The new cars—nicknamed the Gen2 cars—which now feature batteries with double the capacity of its former 28kWh battery. It will be able to maintain 200kW of power as its constant race speed, which is a huge improvement from the first variation of the car (200kW was, previously, reserved for qualifying).
Now, drivers can turn up the heat in qualifying for a max of 250kW, pushing the top speed to 174 mph. That gets rid of those awkward pit stops.
The Gen2 cars have some pretty neat features, too. For example, they’re using the same safety halo that was mandated for Formula One’s 2018 season, but they’ve upgraded it to include a ring of lights that will turn different colors for the drivers using Fanboost or Attack Mode.
These bad boys look like Batmobiles and contain a lot of specific specs that are available on FE’s website, for those of you who are interested. The big thing to watch for this season is how teams and drivers will react to having a singular, faster car to get through the race.
There’s No “I” in Team…
…But there are plenty of brand new teams on the grid this year, each of them with a legitimate chance to be a top competitor.
Big names like BMW, Nissan, and Jaguar have all entered this year, with Porsche and Mercedes aiming to join up in the near future. The current strategy by teams like Nissan and BMW is to just buy out a previously existing and already successful team. It’s unclear what Porsche and Mercedes plan to do, but it’s going to be pretty exciting to find out.
There are only 10 teams on the grid, each composed of two drivers. As more sponsors have come onto the scene, the team names have gotten a little long and unwieldy—the full list is once again on their website, and it’s definitely worth familiarizing yourself with some of the stats provided.
Longtime fans will recognize names like ABT, Dragon, Mahindra, and Virgin still on the grid, all of whom are pretty worthy competitors with a lot of experience under their belt. (Dragon’s partnership with beleaguered EV startup Faraday Future ended last year.)
For those of you out there who follow other forms of racing but not Formula E, there are going to be plenty of folks on the grid that you might recognize.
For you F1 fans out there, you’ve probably heard: Stoffel Vandoorne is joining the HWA Racelab team and Felipe Massa will be entering the field with the Venturi Formula E team.
Other former F1 drivers from years past who have found their niche in FE include Jean-Éric Vergne, Sebastién Buemi, and Jerome D’Ambrosio. For those of you stateside, Felix Rosenqvist is going to be racing in both FE and IndyCar this year. And if endurance racing really floats your boat, drivers like Lucas di Grassi and André Lotterer have found success in the series as well.
The great thing to see is that there are plenty of drivers on the grid who were also there for the first race, alongside plenty of new names. FE is displaying a pretty healthy retention rate and turnaround for drivers—something that’s been deeply improved upon since the first series, when teams like Andretti almost had an entirely new set of drivers for each race. The series’ goal is to make this a place where drivers want to be.
So, I mentioned before that FE races in city centers, but that leaves out the pretty incredible scope of what the series has managed to do in such a short time. With 13 races on the calendar this year, 12 of them take places in different cities across five different continents.
The first round is going to take place in Saudi Arabia—a point of contention for plenty of fans who see inherent problems in the country’s approach to, y’know, basic human rights or its importance as a petrostate. That whole thing.
Alongside that, FE is racing in Switzerland for the second year in a row—the only racing series since the tragic Le Mans accident of 1955 to have been allowed to compete in the country. Folks, that’s pretty incredible. While last year’s race took place in Zurich, season five is moving to Bern.
Alongside those, FE will also compete in Marrakesh, Santiago, Mexico City, Hong Kong, Sanya, Rome, Paris, Monaco, Berlin, and New York City. That’s a pretty impressive lineup for a series that’s only in its fifth year.
How to Watch (in America)
I’m not gonna lie, folks—it can be a little tough to watch FE in the United States. If you’re lucky enough to live in, say, the UK, you’d be able to stream every session and every race on YouTube. Unfortunately for us here across the pond, that’s just not a possibility yet.
That being said, races this year should be aired live on one of the Fox Sports channels. The first race taking place this Saturday, December 15, will be aired live on Fox Sports 1 at 6:30 a.m. EST. (And if you’re committed for the rest of the season, make sure to check out our Weekend Motorsport Roundup. We’ll always keep you up to date on the latest happenings in the FE world.)
Yes, yes, I know that’s a little early, but that’s something of an anomaly for Formula E. Their single-day format means that races are usually aired at a decent time here in the United States. You’ll still have to dedicate a Saturday morning to race cars, but, barring any late nights on the town, they’re easier races to wake up for.
And if you’re one of those people who (like me) insist upon watching every possible practice and qualifying session, well, Americans are still pretty well outta luck. There are some questionably legal streams out there if you’re truly motivated—and Reddit usually knows where you need to go.
So, Who’s Gonna Win This Thing?
Ah, the beauty of Formula E—nobody knows!
If you’re familiar with F1, then you know how things go. You can pretty much guess before the season who’s gonna win it. But Formula E is different. See, FE has had a different driver’s championship winner every single year, and they’ve also all been from different teams. The racing is kind of unpredictable that way, which makes it a hell of a lot of fun to watch. And there have been enough significant changes to the style of racing and the technology of the cars that it’s kept every team on their toes.
What’s more, with all the new teams and drivers coming in this year (and the fact that teams can’t count on car swaps as strategy components anymore), it’s hard to even warrant a guess. This championship is quite literally anyone’s game this season, and it’s going to take at least a handful of races before anyone can start talking championships with confidence.