Formula E is embarking on its most ambitious endeavour yet: Trying to start and complete an entire racing season in the midst of a global pandemic.
Now in its seventh full season of competition and officially certified by the FIA as a World Championship, the once scrappy racing upstart, having persevered through its share of upheavals, must now weather the inevitable disruptions brought on by COVID-19.
As such, calendar dates aren’t the only things Formula E will be changing in order to rise to the challenge. Here are five key changes to watch out for this season.
One Car, Two Seasons
The ongoing pandemic has heavily impacted the world’s economies, and the automotive and motorsport industries weren’t immune to the effects of the downturn. To cut costs for teams and manufacturers in the short term, Formula E has extended the homologation period for two seasons.
The term “homologation” is used frequently in racing. In the context of motorsport, it is the formal process of certifying and approving a particular race car and all the components on it to compete in a specific series, and making sure that they are legal and built within the technical regulations.
Formula E teams all use a standard chassis from Spark Racing Technology and battery (officially known as a rechargeable energy storage system, or RESS) made by McLaren Applied Technologies. These are control components for the series designed to keep costs low and cannot be modified by the teams.
However, teams and manufacturers are allowed to built their own powertrain components. This includes the motor generator unit (MGU), inverter and gearbox. Those are the bits that have to be presented to Formula E for homologation. Once these physical components have been approved, they are locked in and cannot be changed for the rest of the season.
Normally, manufacturers can homologate a new powertrain every season, usually a few months before the official pre-season test. But for Seasons 7 and 8, only one homologation will be allowed.
Now, teams can make this change whenever they like within the two seasons and, with the exception of DS Techeetah, Nissan e.dams and Dragon-Penske (who will be using a powertrain developed by Bosch), all teams have opted to debut their new powertrain at the very beginning of this two year cycle.
While the cost savings from eliminating an entire powertrain development cycle are significant, this effectively doubles the amount of pressure for the engineers to get the powertrain from the start. A lot of things have to align for a Formula E race to go well, and having a strong, efficient and reliable powertrain will provide the necessary baseline for teams to leverage performance from. Get it wrong however, and it will likely be two long, arduous seasons of pain and anguish at the back of the grid.
Starting in Season 7, the number of team personnel who will be allowed to work on the cars in the garage will be reduced from 20 to 17, not including the drivers and team principal.
The reason for this is two-fold. Fewer people travelling to races means fewer airplane trips needed, thereby reducing the overall carbon footprint of racing related travel for teams.
The reduction also means that, in the unlikely event that someone on the team tests positive for COVID-19, contact tracing would be made easier with fewer personnel to track on-site and the quarantine bubble would be smaller.
We saw a dress rehearsal of this play out last August. During the final 6 races of the 2019-20 season, the regulations on large gatherings imposed by the German government meant that the series and teams had to forcibly cut their personnel numbers to meet the 1000 person limit.
While the move is a pragmatic one, both in terms of reducing environmental impact and slashing costs, some teams have raised concerns that it could leave the teams’ resources thinly stretched, particularly if there are crashes.
Minimum Driver Weight
In past seasons, the lack of regulation in driver weight meant the advantage tends to go towards drivers who are naturally lighter and, some drivers would argue, unfairly penalises those who are taller or heavy boned.
This has led to some attempting unorthodox tactics in order to keep the weight down. From fitness to nutrition, drivers were essentially bio-hacking their way through grueling training regimes and extreme dieting in order to tip the scales in their favour.
If a driver does not meet the 80kg minimum, ballast will be placed inside the car to make up the difference, ensuring that drivers are able to compete under somewhat equitable footing while, at the same time, negating any incentive from teams to hire only lighter drivers to gain competitive advantage.
One of the areas where teams can make meaningful performance gains is through the software that governs how a Formula E car is run. These are basically a set of tailored instructions programmed into the vehicle control unit (VCU) that dictate how a race car should operate and cover just about every function on the car. Examples include acceleration, brake balance, regenerative braking to allowable energy usage during a race.
Given that software is one of the few areas in Formula E that permitted development, it has in the past led to a growing arms race between teams who were trying to out-develop the other, optimising their software to ensure their cars performed at their peak, while retaining efficiency and reliability.
A good example of this was Techeetah in Season 4, who were then a privateer team running a powertrain supplied by Renault. By focusing the core of their efforts into software development, Techeetah were able to outperform the Renault factory team on a fraction of the budget, eventually going on to win the Teams Championship that season by a significant margin.
For Season 7, teams will only be allowed one software update to the VCU per event (double-headers like the Diriyah rounds will count as one event), with no software changes allowed during a race weekend. More importantly, Formula E has drastically restricted the number of sensors onboard the car that teams can acquire data from.
(Saving) Cash is King
By now a pattern has emerged with respect to these sweeping changes that Formula E are implementing. They are all about saving money to ensure the teams and series will survive through these unprecedented times.
This is where the rubber meets the road (pun intended). As part of Formula E’s “whole of series” approach to reining in costs, tyre allocation has been reduced. For a single race, each team’s tyre allocation has been reduced by 25%, and 50% for double-headers. For a double-header event like Rome for example, each team will only get two full sets of spare tyres to last the two races.
Strict restrictions have also been placed on wear and tear parts like brake discs and pads, as well as limitations on spare parts like suspension and bodywork to reduce overall freight costs and associated environmental impact.