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Racing on electricity: Volkswagen at the Formula E

  • Since its spectacular debut in 2014, Formula E is thrilling millions of fans worldwide
  • Motorsport experts believe the electric car racing series could soon be more successful than Formula 1
  • What makes it so fascinating? We travel to Beijing for the start of the second season
Volkswagen at the Formula E

The racing circuit is still dirty. There are a few problems; the car is not starting properly. Daniel Abt and his engineers sit bent over their laptops. The data from the first free practice session flickers on the screens: the driver is not yet entirely satisfied. "The competition were two seconds faster", says the 22-year-old. In the pit next door, the mechanics are working flat out. The racing cars spent five weeks in rail containers en route from the UK to China via Russia and in the meantime, the rims have become somewhat rusty. The wheel hubs don't fit any more and now need to be coated with grease. A competition team a couple of tents away has quite different concerns: the motors are still being held up by customs. It is Friday evening, 21 hours until the race. It's going to be a long night.

It's the start of the Formula E season in Beijing, and racing driver Daniel Abt and the Allgäuer ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport racing team are entering the second year. While the countdown has begun in the pit lane, the filigree lattice structure of the "Bird's Nest" glows bright red in the background – the square-shaped racing circuit measures 3,439 metres and runs around the Olympic National Stadium built by Herzog & de Meuron.

"It's a great location, but not exactly my favourite circuit", says Abt and laughs. He recalls the inaugural season last year, which also celebrated its premiere in Beijing: super race, everything ran smoothly, and Abt finished in third place. Then came the moment of shock on the way to the podium. The measurements revealed that he had used 0.1 kilowatt hours more than permitted. A maximum of 28 were prescribed. Abt was disqualified.

Racing car on the Beijing race circuit.

This would not have happened to him in Formula 1 or any other conventional racing series, as they do not have any fuel consumption limits. Up to now, sustainability and motorsports seem to be contradictory. Not so in Formula E, the first electric racing series in the world. Here, sustainability is part of the core concept, starting with the electric drive through to the name of the race ("ePrix") and the regulations, which prescribe the energy conservation. The season calendar has been designed in such a way that the equipment of the teams moves in a clockwork direction around the globe from one competition to another – by cargo ship, not by plane, and without any stopover in the homeland. This is both energy and cost efficient: the racing team budget is one-hundredth of that which is spent in Formula 1.

Formula E: the first electric racing series in the world

"Formula E is a completely new motorsports event with its own philosophy", says Professor Peter Gutzmer, Member of the Executive Board and Head of the Research and Development department at Schaeffler AG. The automobile supplier is the technology partner of ABT in the FIA Formula E Championship, and Volkswagen is the team's strategic partner. In contrast to Formula 1, here there is transferability from the competition to actual series models. The explicit goal is to press ahead with developing the electric car of tomorrow.

Gutzmer's engineers have recently spent eight months working on a new drive. The executive is now following the final preparations in Beijing with great eagerness. For if the racing car proves itself on the track, the new technology could find itself in a Volkswagen production car in a few years.

Fans have travelled from all over China to cheer on the racing stars and take their photo.

It was an incredible and unexpected success when the first international racing series for purely electrically-driven formula cars made its debut last year. No one had banked upon this success: several hundred million viewers around the world watched the race on TV and almost 400,000 fans lined the city circuits in Buenos Aires, Miami, Berlin and London, among others. Motorsports experts already firmly reckon that Formula E could soon become more successful than Formula 1.

Saturday, 8 am and the sun rises over the Olympic Stadium. The first visitors arrive on the premises and stroll over to the "eVillage", where car manufacturers and producers of eBikes and eScooters have pitched their tents to introduce their innovative technologies. The fact that the Formula E season is starting in Beijing is symbolic. China is not only the largest car market in the world, but also a future laboratory for electric mobility. Here, electrically-driven scooters have been a part of conventional street life for more than a decade.

On this morning, the curious visitors use the time before the qualifying session to test run the latest eMobiles. Wang Chao, 28, and his wife Dun Xiangshen, 24, arrived early from the other end of the city in their silver Volkswagen Polo. "We can well imagine driving an electric car in a few years’ time", says Wang. It is the first time that he and his wife have attended a car race. The same can be said for many who are taking their place in the spectator stands today. The audience is young; many have come with their grandparents and children.

Attracting a metropolitan audience and not just loyal horsepower fans is also part of the Formula E concept. Attending doesn't necessarily involve expensive travel and accommodation costs because the qualifying session and race are held on the same day and always in the heart of the city on provisional circuits. In London, the drivers swerve through Battersea Park, in Berlin, the track leads across the now-closed Tempelhof Airport, and in Los Angeles, it follows the sandy beaches of Long Beach. And no one needs to worry about their ear drums: these new electric rockets zip around the race course producing just 80 decibels. Some hum like mini space ships, others whistle like kettles shortly before boiling point.

His father, Hans-Jürgen Abt, in a television interview.

For the driver, it is an entirely new driving experience. Back in the pit, Daniel Abt describes the special appeal of Formula E like this: "Not only is it important to accelerate, steer and brake at the right moment, but energy management and smart driving are also essential". Abt was virtually born into motorsport. His father, Hans-Jürgen Abt, is head of his racing team, and his son has been Formula racing since he was 15 years old. The electric car requires him to apply a new kind of driving intelligence: is it worth overtaking at full throttle when the battery is low? Or is it better to save juice and wait until the next lap when all the others are out of power?

The suitcase-sized battery weighs 320 kilos and is the heart of the racing arrow. As with smartphones, the biggest problem up to now is its short lifespan. A fully charged battery lasts for just 30 minutes, which is half a race. The recharge, however, takes three quarters of an hour. The solution to this: the drivers simply use two cars. For the 26 laps that need to be completed in Beijing, this means: a pit stop after 13 laps, unbuckle, get into the second car, buckle up and off you go.

The qualifying session is over. Daniel Abt will start in 11th place, his team mate, the former Formula 1 driver Lucas di Grassi, in 4th. Time to take a short break, check the car for the last time, and sign autographs. Whilst hardly any of the fans in Beijing know the names of the drivers, they are still hailed as stars.

In contrast to the majority of the Formula series, the driver determines the race in Formula E, not the technology. In order to establish fair sporting conditions and keep the barriers low, all teams raced with identical cars in the inaugural season. In the second year, the teams are free to choose their motor, gear drive, and cooling system. Some teams are now relying on two electric motors instead of just one, others on only two gears instead of five.

In the coming seasons, there will be further gradual changes. Then, the racing teams will also be allowed to develop their own batteries. "The aim is to be able to drive the full circuit with one car in the fifth season", says team leader Hans-Jürgen Abt. And who knows what the future will bring: perhaps at some point the cars will race over induction tracks, which charge the batteries while driving.

But there is still a long way to go until then. At 5.05 pm the award ceremony takes place on the podium: ABT colleague Lucas di Grassi takes second place, and Renault driver Sébastien Buemi is the winner. Daniel Abt was heading for an eighth-place finish but lost a valuable seven seconds during the pit stop. When switching to the second car, the seat belt wouldn't fasten, of all things. Nevertheless, it was enough to make ninth place. The team collected 20 points today, which is a good start. Daniel Abt is already thinking about the next race: "The balance of the car is still not right so we need to work on it". Only after an immediate debriefing do they then celebrate. Time to relax and get rid of the adrenalin. Kuala Lumpur awaits in two weeks' time.



Text: Xifan Yang
Photos: David Hogsholt