Nissan’s brand new Formula E car made no secret of its origins, with the unveiling of its kimono-themed livery in Yokohama this week. The red, black and white design has been created to underline its Japanese roots and highlight Nissan’s ongoing commitment to its Intelligent Mobility strategy. In the same week as the Tokyo Motor Show, where Nissan had other futuristic revelations on offer, the zingy new Formula E car added a much-needed touch of colour for the soggy, typhoon-weary folks who lined up to see it.
A week or so earlier Formula E Nissan e.dams drivers Sebastien Buemi and young Brit Oliver Rowland had been testing the season six car in a rather sunnier Valencia, minus the popping colour scheme. The pair were wrestling with the controls of the new car following the need to change it from a previously dual motored machine down to a single motor setup following changes in the Formula E regulations. Everything appeared to be going quite well all things considered.
The team, and drivers in particular, seemed to be coping with the upheaval just as well as they had been navigating the tortuous curves of the Circuit Ricardo Tormo during a few intense days of testing. While the track is awesome for bike racing or touring cars and delivers great views if you’re a spectator, the circuit is a little different if you’re powering around it in a Formula E car. Especially when there are no cheering crowds, just crewmembers and journalists.
But while fans don’t get a look in during testing for Formula E, this innovative sport is enjoying growing popularity. Aside from the track action, some seem to think it’s the added value of fanboost that’s helping to reel in more newcomers to the sport. Fanboost is just that; it allows fans to vote online for their favourite drivers and that means the top drivers with the most votes can make valuable use of an extra burst of power for 5 seconds during the second half of the race.
What, one wonders, does that do for driver morale? Does it pile on more pressure in what seems essentially like a popularity competition rather than a true measure of driver skill? It certainly helps to add another dimension to the sport, and one that you don't see elsewhere. It’s also a golden opportunity for the organisers to tap into a younger, tech-savvy crowd that love nothing more than reaching for their smartphones to help up the ante of their racing favourites.
“Formula E has been trying to attract younger people,” said Buemi, looking generally enthusiastic about the concept. “Fanboost is where we get more power by getting votes on the internet and so they're trying to link the sport to the fans, especially that younger generation. We have a lot more families coming to the track, plus they’ve tried to make it not only a race but also a big event.”
He’s right. Head along to any one of the Formula E dates and you’ll find more than just cars racing around city streets. There’s an E-village, which is used to showcase electric vehicle innovations, while the general vibe is much more family-orientated than, say Formula One. And, with a new season on the horizon plus twice as many cars racing, Formula E looks to be ramping things up considerably. Buemi for one seems keen to get stuck in.
“It's been a tough off-season for us,” he reflected. “Last year we got the gen 2 car and then went from two cars to only one. We went for a different concept with a twin motor, which has basically been banned. So we finished the season with the twin motor, but we had to go to a single motor for the next. By the time the decision was taken it was very late in the season. We've been really struggling to make it on time and be sure we could get ready.”
Watching the testing, however, shows that the new cars have potential. Lots of it, in fact. “We have a much lighter package,” reckons Buemi. “The car feels less powerful, but the handling is better. At the end of the day it's always the same; it's a compromise. Do you go for the highest possible efficiency, but be a little bit heavier, which means you have more weight at the back of the car, which means that the handling is more difficult? Or, do you go for maybe slightly less efficiency and less power in a way, but get a better handling car? The car is a lot easier to drive compared to last year though.”
The driver and his teammate sound generally optimistic for their fortunes during the course of the next season. “We finished last year very strongly,” said Buemi. “I had four podiums in a row and two pole positions, a win and I finished second in the championship. So we finished well, but now while I wouldn’t say we're starting from zero with this new car, we need a bit more time. Other people just had an evolution whereas we've had to change everything.”
Both drivers also sounded excited about the prospects of Formula E as a sport, particularly now there are more teams taking part. “It’s been developing way faster than I expected,” said Buemi. “Look at the names we have in the championship: Mercedes, Porsche, Nissan, BMW, Audi, Jaguar, there are so many. I don't think there is any other championship today where we have more manufacturers than here.”
“It's a bit of a different mindset though,” adds the driver on being behind the wheel of a Formula E car. “The format of the weekend is very different to any other we normally experience because everything happens on the Saturday. Formula One and other racing categories tend to be over the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Plus, there are walls everywhere. Make one mistake, you touch a wall, and then you may not have the time to repair the car for the next session.”
But on the upside… “What makes it easier is that we don't have any gears,” grins Buemi. “So we don't need to shift gears; there's just power and brake. That's the only thing that makes it maybe slightly easier than a normal racing car. The rest, if anything, is more difficult, just because of the nature of the rules. We don't have slick tyres; just tyres that are really similar to what you would find on a road car.”
“The car moves more too and the weight is mainly at the back,” adds the driver. “You feel that; it's not easy to handle. It's more difficult than a normal car because the battery is very heavy. But, right now we have the same capacity than when we had the two cars. One battery now is more or less double the capacity of season one. The technology is increasing and improving massively. Five years ago we needed two cars to do what we now do with one car.”
Indeed, without doubt the research and development options afforded by Formula E also make it hugely appealing for manufacturers. Battery development, as Buemi illustrated, has progressed a lot in the relatively short time the sport has been running. “It's fantastic,” the driver agrees. “So maybe in three years from now, when we'll have the gen 3 car, that one will be will be much lighter. Maybe 100 kilos lighter. It's cool. Everything is going the right direction.”
Season 6 of Formula E kicks off in Ryadh, Suadi Arabia on the weekend of November 22/23 with successive dates that take in Santiago, Mexico City, Marrakesh, Sanya, Rome, Paris, Seoul, Jakarta, Berlin, New York and London on July 25/26 next year.