Nissan recently had a very special guest for a photo shoot at a studio facility in the less than salubrious Saint-Denis area of Paris. Not far from the Stade de France, in an innocuous backstreet, the Japanese motoring giant introduced us to their brand new Formula E Gen2 race car. This lean and mean machine was tucked away in a concrete bunker-like building that featured a car-sized lift that gave access to both the competition vehicle and its hugely innovative electric counterpart, the revamped Nissan Leaf.
Arriving at the top floor, Mike Carcamo, NISMO Global Motorsports Director, is on hand to deliver the lowdown on Nissan’s newest venture and it marks the start of another exciting period of development for the company. The manufacturer originally unveiled plans for joining the Formula E party at the Tokyo Motor Show last year, but the appearance in Paris was the first time they’d let anyone see the actual electric single-seat car in the flesh. It is so new, in fact, that you can almost smell the sticky-sweet newness of its eye-catching adhesive wrap. So these pictures are just as jungle fresh.
With growing interest from the public, Formula E is gaining momentum and cities around the world want to get a piece of the five continent race series, which is run on regular downtown streets. And, the new Gen2 car is going to add an extra touch of spice to proceedings during the course of the 2018/19 season. It packs nearly double the battery energy and storage capacity and boasts twice the range of the older model, which means higher speeds and no need to change the car mid-race as has happened in previous seasons. The ABB FIA Formula E Championship's next-generation car is being revealed today, March 6th at the Geneva Motorshow, and the Nissan model is a cool variation on the theme.
For Nissan, who already enjoy the status of having the Leaf as the best-selling electric vehicle in the world, the race series is an obvious place to be, both in terms of profile building and also for research and development reasons. “This is the first time anyone has seen it,” says Mike. “And, as you can see, it is a pretty stunning car. One of the things that we really wanted to talk about is why are we doing this? Formula E is going into season 5 so why join today? One of the important things to remember is that Nissan has been an innovator for a long time and, more importantly, we have been an EV innovator for over 70 years. So this is not necessarily new to us. The fact that we have the second generation Leaf that was just launched, which is also the best-selling EV with 300,000 units sold, and the fact that we’re into Formula E generation 2, which means increased capacity and power makes it the right timing for us.”
Formula E is evolving with each successive season too. Power-wise, the debut season used an eMotor, which was developed by McClaren Applied Technologies. That in turn was mated to a Hewland five-speed transmission with a paddle shift. By the second season the teams were allowed to put together their own motor, gearbox and differential that resulted in several variations on the theme. Meanwhile, the new car has been built by sole constructor Spark Racing Technology (based in Burgundy, France) and includes the distinctive Halo protection over the cockpit, which is also being used in Formula 1. Carbon-fibre is everywhere and used on just about part of the car, save for the Halo, which is crafted from titanium. The end result is a fiercesome looking machine that promises to make season five much more dynamic.
The timing also makes a lot of sense given the fact that Renault, with whom Nissan shares a corporate alliance, are leaving Formula E to focus more on Formula 1. With Nissan’s long history of building EV vehicles, joining the event series for next season seems like a no-brainer. “We independently decided to enter and the timing coincides because of the new car,” Mike says. “So there’s an all-new car that requires an all-new powertrain and all-new development. For Formula E cars there is a common chassis and a common battery for all the manufacturers as the base point, but the powertrain development is unique. Unlike other series, with EVs it’s not just about the hardware, we’re talking about software as well. We’re talking about energy management, strategy systems around that, the motor, the inverter, and also the transmission as well. So really everything that drives the vehicle beyond the battery is the manufacturers responsibility.”
“So,” adds Mike, breaking the car down into its components parts, “the power source is the battery, which would be the equivalent to the fuel in any transitional car. But, beyond that, you have two components, which basically make up the powertrain; the motor and an inverter. The electric motor can be all kinds of different configurations, but it’s what we call a traction motor and provides the propulsion. The inverter though, has the ability to go from AC to DC by switching, and this is also a very important part of the package because with electric vehicles you have regeneration. So a motor run in one direction is using power and a motor running in the opposite direction is generating power. One uses and another consumes, and that’s a pretty unique feature in these cars. We have regenerative braking on Formula E cars via the rear drive wheels. In order to do it at the front you’d have to have front wheel drive too.”
So, what one wonders, is the Gen2 Formula E car like to drive? “The focus with the drivers isn’t so much about changing gears as energy management,” reckons Mike. “And so, with the paddles on the steering wheel, they have the ability to decide the amount of power that they’re regenerating and when they regenerate that power. It’s adding another dynamic of complexity for the driver. It’s not just brake/throttle, it’s brake/throttle/steering and the regeneration. I would say that most experiences race car drivers who have come in for the first time have been surprised at the difficulty, not just the complexity, of the driving. The cars themselves are not ‘easy’ to drive but they are a driver’s car, which makes it exciting.”
It’s a far cry from a Formula 1 car however, which is completely opposite in terms of specification and power. In fact, the only similarity is the fact that both types of car go around a track… “And even then we focus only on street tracks,” Mike points out. “This is city centre racing with a very different focus. We’re talking about mobility issues, sustainability and EV. As you can see on our car, we are talking about Nissan intelligent mobility, which is part of our strategy on how we bring and design cars to be driven, powered and integrated into society. These three components are visible through all of our product range.”
The end product on show here is the result of over a years’ worth of research and development to put the new car together. However, how does it work with what is a relatively new sport – do they write the rules and then build the cars, do it the other way around or is it a bit of both? “I think this is what is such a strong point about Formula E,” says Mike. “It is about bringing the message of the importance of EV, and the fact that EVs can be exciting; they can be fun and they can be high performance. The rules are built around that. The rules are made so that the focus is on efficiency and battery management. These are real issues in your own EV, that’s what we’re all trying to do, we’re all trying to build better cars that go longer and provide a great experience while you’re in the car. If you’ve ever driven an EV car then you’ll know all about the performance; it’s pretty outstanding, and that makes cars fun to drive.”
The admittedly quieter alternative to Formula 1 will also have more manufacturers joining the ranks for next season, including Jaguar, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Are people warming to the whole electric car experience? “I think that’s exactly what they’re finding out; that it can be a fun experience,” says Mike. “Electric cars can be more fun to drive. I think Nissan has been a pioneer in pushing this message for a long time. You don’t get to be the sales leader overnight. It’s all about bringing this racing and Nissan Intelligent Mobility to city centres where people can see it and maybe understand a little bit more about it. It’s no small feat but goes to the heart of where these mobility issues are – in the city centres. If you can solve that and make a racing car go around Hong Kong, Paris, London or New York then I’m sure we can work out all of those other day-to-day problems too.”