Race on Sunday, Plug-In on Monday

Formula E, the electric vehicle (EV) offshoot of Formula One racing, completed its third season in dramatic fashion with back-to-back races in Montreal in late July.

Formula E, the electric vehicle (EV) offshoot of Formula One racing, completed its third season in dramatic fashion with back-to-back races in Montreal in late July. ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport’s Lucas di Grassi passed defending champ Sebastian Buemi of Renault’s e.dams team on the final weekend to take home the driver’s trophy. But Renault held on to win its third team title in as many as years, narrowly outpointing ABT in the series’ closest team finish. 

While the on-track performances provided fan excitement and stoked future rivalries, the business side of the EV circuit got a major charge earlier in the summer with BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche all committing to join the fledgling series. BMW will field a team for the 2018/2019 season, while Mercedes and Porsche are set to join a year later. Other participants include teams backed by DS Auto (PSA), Faraday Future, Jaguar, Mahindara & Mahindra and a pair of Chinese companies: NextEV and Techeetah.

With the expanded lineup, Formula E says it will have more support from vehicle manufacturers than any other motorsport series. In fact, several companies are dropping other race programs to fund their Formula E initiatives. Porsche is ending its involvement in FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class, where it has won the last two team championships, at the end of this year, and Mercedes plans to quit the German Touring Car championship by the end of 2018.

The brainchild of Spanish entrepreneur and former race driver Alejandro Agag, Formula E is a showcase and test bed for electric car technology. Starting with the 2018/2019 season, teams will use a redesigned common battery, chassis and powertrain. Spark Racing Technology will produce the chassis and McLaren Applied Technologies will supply the battery. The latter will be 25 percent more powerful than today’s system, which will eliminate the need to swap out cars midway through a race as currently is done.

Automakers are using the experience to develop components for next-generation electrified vehicles and validate them under harsh racing conditions. JLR says its Formula E team, which it runs with F1 specialist Williams Advanced Engineering, is working directly with engineers to develop and test electric motor and battery technologies for the upcoming I-Pace crossover vehicle, which will be the carmaker’s first EV. BMW, which has supported Andretti Autosport’s team since the series started in 2014, claims its Formula E involvement already has led to several improvements for the production EVs the company markets under its “i” sub-brand, with many of the same engineers working on both programs. Product development is blurred with Formula E racing to a greater degree than typically happens in other race series, asserts BMW Motorsport chief Jens Marquardt, who points to ongoing advances in EV technology. 

In addition to technology transfer, Mercedes says participating in Formula E will help it promote the company’s new EQ sub-brand for hybrids and EVs. The same goes for Porsche, whose first all-electric model, based on its 2015 Mission E concept car, is due in 2019. Audi, meanwhile, is working closely with Schaeffler—which makes starter-generators, wheel hub motors, e-axles and 48-volt systems—to develop the partners’ Formula E drivetrain, including the electric motor, suspension and power electronics system. The race program supports Audi’s plans to launch a range of new plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles in coming years.

Even Ferrari is considering joining Formula E. Noting that most of the company’s vehicles will use some form of hybrid-electric powertrain by 2019, CEO Sergio Marchionne says the supercar brand could field a team within a few years. Although the company has no immediate plans for a full-electric model, participating in Formula E would help it refine its electrification technology.

Automakers have long used motorsports to test new technologies and promote their brands, justifying the expensive programs with the old adage: “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” While it may take years for such a value proposition to materialize for electric vehicles, the competition definitely is heating up.