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Lucas di Grassi gives the Formula E car its debut run in Las Vegas (Credit: Renault UK)

Lucas di Grassi gives the Formula E car its debut run in Las Vegas (Credit: Renault UK)

Since the introduction of the first "100 percent" electric racing series through the brainchild of Formula E Holdings CEO Alejandro Agag, which was originally an EU initiative, the reality is finally upon us with the new Spark-Renault SRT_01E set to hit city tracks from this coming September for the inaugural FIA Formula E Championship.

Even though a lot of people may feel that this is the first of its kind from a true perspective of a fully electrically-powered series as an amalgamated championship. This is surprising, especially when Ferdinand Porsche helped to develop the powertrain for the Austrian Lohner Carriage Company in 1899, which used the principle of a petrol engine to power a dynamo, which transferred the energy provided into the front wheels.

This then meant that there was no real need for a conventional gearbox and driveshafts, as it increased efficiency slightly north of 80 percent, according to a thesis conducted by Thomas Scholz. The Lohner-Porsche was even able to reach speeds of 70 miles per hour, which is rather impressive, considering the technology at that time. And over 100 years later, the technology is still evolving...

One of the big things to remember is that there will be teething troubles with any new series, especially with this kind of technology, which is in its infancy. Firstly, it pays to acknowledge that electric vehicle technology is already on our city streets around the globe, so that is a catalyst of sorts when Nissan, Renault and Tesla are the most prominent manufacturers that are building road cars for the masses.

New road car technology already on the streets

Like it or not, alternative technologies are a reality that would have come around sooner or later, due to the fact that fossil fuels are being depleted at an alarming rate and will eventually be redundant before we know it, meaning that propulsion systems in cars would have been re-visited in many ways anyhow. The environmental impact of the pollution that current road cars emit is growing year on year, with no signs of abating, so a solution had to be addressed.

With hybrid and range extender technology present in some of the current road cars including the Toyota Prius and Vauxhall Ampera, it was a way for electric power to come into the fray. When Renault CEO Carlos Chosn unveiled the full line-up of E.Vs at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 2009, it made sense of making the technology available to everyone.

Who's Getting On Board

With Formula E having some major technical partners on board, Renault made the move to get on board with the series, helping with the complete harmony of all the systems being integrated to work together. This is thanks to its pioneering efforts as an EV supplier, but also the successes it has achieved via the Renault Sport outfit that has proved its worth over the years, especially with Infiniti Red Bull Racing in Formula One.

McLaren Electronics, who are part of the McLaren Group, will be supplying the unique power train and electrics, with the Williams Advanced Engineering battery packs providing 270bhp that the cars will have via the rear wheels. Hewland will also provide the paddle-shift gearboxes that the 20 drivers will use throughout the season, with fixed gearing to ensure cost reduction. The chassis is made by Italian manufacturers Dallara, who also make monocoques for several feeder series into Formula 1, which includes GP2 and GP3 amongst others.

What does this means in the development of road car E.Vs?

Renault's Zoe, one of the new electric "kids on the block" (Credit: Renault UK)

Renault's Zoe, one of the new electric "kids on the block" (Credit: Renault UK)

At the moment, the majority of the Renault range except the Twizy, has a range of around 100 to 120 miles, depending on the driving style that is employed by the driver. But with the fact that battery technology is yet to really spring into life, Formula E will develop at an alarming rate, but will spearhead the way forward into further developments when it comes to the track and on the road.

The system that Williams will be using is derived from their Kinetic Energy Recovery System that is currently in use in Grove's Formula One cars, which shows that motorsport does transfer its technology from not just a performance aspect, but also potentially extending the ranges that will be achieved in the next 5 years or so.

How wil this transfer to the road? Williams may have an exclusive contract to provide the battery systems for the cars, but I would understand that there could be a potential emphasis on further tabs on efficiency that could help to further reduce costs if Formula E decided to revise the formats during races from a pit stop to two separate races. This could also benefit road cars, as Renault is striving forward to raise autonomy on their current range, which will further extend to other models on their passenger car range in the not too distant future.

Then there is the question of weight when it comes to the cars themselves, as Williams' expertise could further help to reduce the weight and overall centre of gravity in the race cars in Formula E. This in turn will also help the weight savings in the E.Vs, which already have lightweight construction, as is normal with any racing car. Thereby, a further assistance to the overall range could help in terms of strategies, but the same applications can be put into use on the road cars.

Take for instance the fact that the lithium-ion batteries that are in use on the current Renault E.V. range are not that compact by any means, but the work that Williams will do during the series will only help to assure further weight savings, again helping with smooth power deliveries when the throttle pedals are pressed in E.Vs, as well as increases in range efficiencies once again.

But one main point to consider about Formula E is the fact that single-seaters are being promoted as a way to bring in the crowds and make it entertaining from the way they plan ahead with it.

However, one idea that would potentially been a good idea in its own right is to use cars that are currently in production, so as to really help to make it really relevant to the Zoe and Fluence from Renault, the Model S from Tesla and the Nissan Leaf that are used around the world.

So, in closing, Formula E, as with Formula One and the WEC, is proving that technology from the track will transfer, as well as the fact that new ways of providing power are being searched for all the time by the automotive industry. It's just that the racetrack makes that bold leap into the unknown first....

 

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