What it’s like to drive a Formula E electric race car down the streets of Brooklyn

On July 15 and 16, New York City will be treated to the sound of silence. Formula E — a race series for electric cars — is coming to Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood for a doubleheader race.

Formula E is very different from other race series—and not just because of the electric cars. It’s run by the FIA, the same group that sanctions Formula One. But unlike its more famous cousin, Formula E uses temporary street circuits in city centers exclusively, and compresses three days’ worth of activities into one or two days.

It caught me by surprise when I first drove the car, for a number of reasons…

The series has only been running for three seasons, but it’s already attracted one of the most hallowed names in the car world. Jaguar joined at the beginning this season, marking its return to racing after over a decade away.

Ahead of Formula E’s Brooklyn race, Jaguar Panasonic Racing driver Mitch Evans and global PR manager Adrian Atkinson stopped by Digital Trends’ New York office to tell us what it’s like racing electric cars.

Digital Trends: With both electric cars, and temporary street circuits, Formula E is a very different type of racing. How does that affect the strategy, in terms of planning for a race?

Mitch Evans: There are a lot of aspects of the championship that are quite unique. Obviously the street racing is one. The one-day format—or Brooklyn’s two-day format—is another, and, obviously, just the locations we get to go to are quite remarkable.

We’ll take Brooklyn for example, to be the first-ever race in New York City is very, very special. I think everyone’s really excited to come here, but, you know, we started the championship in Hong Kong, we go to these amazing city centers.

Panasonic Jaguar Formula E
Jaguar

Jaguar

The approach is always the same but, as a new team, it’s been quite challenging in terms of gathering information. Virtually every race we go to is a brand-new circuit for us. From that side it’s been quite tough. I’ve had no previous sort of experience with these circuits or these cars, so it’s been a big learning curve. But I think everyone is enjoying the experience in Formula E so far.

Adrian Atkinson: It’s our first season, very excited to be part of the championship. Our competitors have had a two-year kind of head start on us, so this is very much our learning year. Our expectations have always been in check. With every race that’s progressed, we’ve gathered more data, we’ve gathered more operational information, and, I think, generally got better.

Mitch, you mentioned the electric cars being a very different type of experience. How do they compare to the more traditional race cars that you’ve driven?

We’re trying to balance a lot of different things, and trying to drive as fast as possible, trying to be efficient.

ME: The main thing is probably the energy saving involved with driving the car. Another big one is sound, which you adapt to very, very quickly, to be honest.

Driving the car, technically, is really challenging, actually. It caught me by surprise when I first drove the car, for a number of reasons. The car’s a little bit heavy at the moment. The energy saving is like a real fine art to get right. We’re trying to balance a lot of different things, and trying to drive as fast as possible, trying to be efficient.

Obviously, all of the tracks we race on are street circuits, so there’s the element of, sort of, risk and reward. It’s quite brutal because if you get it wrong it’s, you know, race ending, or session ending, or qualifying ending.

Because you can’t “refuel” the car within the session?

ME: Yeah, exactly, with that, obviously. The risk of damaging the car is high as well. You can easily get yourself in trouble with energy saving, not hitting your targets. We’ve got targets per lap we have to try and hit, and strategies that we do behind the wheel, and lifting off the throttle to try to be the most efficient. And with all of that we’ve got to race other cars, and try to pass, and keep cars behind.

Then obviously the car change is a quite unique side of it as well. So having two cars in one race, per driver, is obviously very unique. So, again, it’s one of those things you get used to after a few races. Initially, it is quite different.

Probably the hardest thing for us is the energy saving side of it. That’s where you get the points in the races. And everyone from a driver-level point of view is at a very high level. So everyone’s trying to invent new ways of being efficient, but obviously trying to be as fast as possible.

Formula E drivers have to save energy, but can actually recover some through regenerative braking, kind of like what they have on road-legal electric cars?

ME: Yes.

How have you found working with regenerative braking? Has it caused you to change your driving technique? Do you rely on it as much as mechanical brakes? Less? More?

ME: I would say more, because it does assist the car, in terms of decelerating the car, depending on the level you’re running at. The higher level of regen you run, the more sensitive the braking becomes. So the brake balance is very important, and it’s always changing depending on the state of charge of the battery.

So at, say, 100 percent battery, for the first sort of 15 percent, you don’t have any regeneration, until about 85 percent of the battery, and then it really comes in.

How fast do you do the car changes?

With Formula E, every circuit is completely different, in terms of surface.

ME: Once we enter our garage, undo our belts, and get in the other car, all clipped in, a really good stop is under 20 seconds. Each circuit is sort of varied depending on how long the pit lane is. So this sort of changes the amount of time that we have, or the buffer we have, in the pits.

If it’s a clean stop you would do it in about 20 seconds, and then hopefully have about five to seven seconds spare until we can go, and not be under the time limit.

The car is one component, but Formula E also runs on different types of circuits than other race series. No one pictures Red Hook as an ideal racing surface, for example. How have you adapted to those environments?

ME: Yeah it makes the championship really challenging, because every circuit we go to is completely new in terms of surface. If you want to take Formula One for example, they use the same track surface at every grand prix now. So a lot of tracks have lost their character because of this. Where with Formula E, every circuit is completely different.

New York City is not exactly a mecca of motor sport. How do you think Formula E will be received coming into Brooklyn next month?

Well, I don’t really know to be honest. But I hope it’s a really positive thing for the city, and I hope everyone can get behind it. You know, for us, to be in New York City is pretty amazing, so we hope we can get the support from the public.

AA: For us, it’s very important to be in city centers. We are bringing electric street racing to a new generation of motorsport fan. There’s not been an FIA-sanctioned motorsport event before in New York. So to come here with the first motorsport event, but also an electric event is very, very special, and something to be proud of, I think. Hats off to both the organizers and, you know, the local authorities and the mayor’s office, and also FIA Formula E for having the courage to do that, because I think it’s been a huge achievement.

If it’s anything like Paris, Hong Kong, Berlin, those races, it will be a tremendous success. I think there’s always going to be a bit if cynicism from, I guess, certain places that we go to that have seen it all. We have Hollywood stars walking the streets of Manhattan on a daily basis, so I guess some Formula E race cars is going to be nothing particularly new for those people.

But we feel that it’s really important to project a positive relationship about electric vehicles, about the technology that we as a championship are developing, and also that Jaguar Land Rover are developing [sic], through this series.

Speaking of Jaguar Land Rover, how closely does the team work with the factory? Is there any involvement with road-car development, or is it purely a promotional thing?

AA: This is our global brand platform for the Jaguar brand, and return to motor sport after 12 years away. But this really came into the bull’s eye for us as a championship, as an opportunity.

We now have an electric future as a company. At the Los Angeles motor show last year, we launched the I-Pace concept, which is going to be the first Jaguar electric vehicle, and that’s going to be on the road in 2018.

Jaguar I-Type 1 Formula E car
Jaguar

Jaguar

So for us electrification is very much part of the future, and Formula E is definitely an incubator for that technology. We have embedded engineers within the race team, who work for Jaguar Land Rover.

There’s very much a technology transfer both from the race team to the road car division, but also vice versa, you know. If the road car division can help the race team in any way, then we will try and access that skill set.

So the factory can provide some technical muscle for the race team, similar to the way it works in other series?

AA: Well, there may already be some existing knowhow. I mean software is a big part of the development in these cars. Because once you’ve homologated your race car for the season, you’re not allowed to change any of the hardware.

So, we’re currently working on our Season 4 car, and we can implement change for that. But once we homologate that car, and we start racing it in Hong Kong, that will remain our car for the whole of Season 4. We’re also not allowed to do any in-season testing, for cost reasons.

interview panasonic jaguar racing driver mitch evans  13253
Panasonic Jaguar Racing Global PR Manager Adrian Atkinson

So next year we’ll be able to develop the Season 5 car—which is a whole new chassis and a whole new philosophy for that car—with [a] single battery, and no car changes for those cars.

What’s the most surprising thing either of you have come across so far this season?

ME: I think we didn’t realize how it varied between the circuits, and also how demanding the one-day format is. Obviously here [in Brooklyn] we’ve got two days, but it’s sort of a mirrored format, and that is really hard to get right. You don’t really have one day or one race day, where everything goes smoothly. I don’t think any team does.

AA: I think from the other perspective is just how busy drivers are behind the wheel. We worked it out that, on some circuits, depending on the track length, the drivers have up to 40 car inputs that they’re doing per lap. Plus talking on the radio, plus attacking and defending at the same time. So if you could imagine driving around changing your car stereo 40 times in two kilometers, and trying to find out where you are on the track, and navigate your way around the course. It’s a hugely demanding seesaw of trying to be as quick as possible, and trying to be as efficient as possible.

Those car inputs, is that just steering, throttle, brake?

ME: No, there’s a lot of adjustments with controls we’ve got on the steering wheel to sort of optimize our energy-saving strategies. Some of it is purely throttle, brake, steering, but a lot of it is switches on the wheel, talking to the engineer, you know, absorbing information on the wheel, and trying to react to it.

Do these cars communicate feedback differently as far as the vibrations, and the lack of noise, and things like that? Does that make it easier to communicate with the engineers, or more difficult?

Initially, it was a lot harder because, especially under braking you don’t really have the retardation, rpm, or noise to give you that sensation. You lose that aspect, but then you find different ways of trying to get that information or bring it to the surface to tell your engineer.

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