Spectator Musings from the 2017 Formula E Berlin ePrix
Nascent series is short on excitement now, but promises an electrifying future
On the second weekend of June, Templehof, Berlin's historical WWII era airport, hosted the 2017 Berlin ePrix, a double header in the Formula E championship.
For those not familiar, Formula E theoretically offers the cutting-edge technology and intense competition of Formula 1, but with electric cars. In execution, it tries, but the technology is still nascent. Electric batteries still can't touch the energy density of liquefied dinosaurs and automotive electric motors are not nearly as developed as the internal combustion engine.
As a result, the racing is a 140-mph limited, 44-lap parade of cars wooshing around the course. Compared to the 100+ decibel, 220 MPH, white knuckle racing of Formula 1, it seems like a bit of a comedown.
In addition, Formula E lacks a companion series to keep the spectators entertained during the collective 4.5 hours between practice, qualifying, and the race. This left the coordinators scrambling to pull together musical acts, e-bike stunt shows, and an E-village of activities.
That's not to say that the E-village, stunt bikes or music weren't entertaining — the featured student-league racers were fantastic and the students themselves were happy to teach me the new terminology of electric cars,the stunt bikes won me over despite my grouchy 3 o'clock slump, and it was pretty cool to see Roboracing's prototype autonomous car lap the track several times. But these sideshows made the ePrix feel more like a carnival than a race, and if I wanted a carnival, I'd have gone to the annual Apple Blossom festival in my hometown. Still, there's plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future of the e-racing world.
First, and maybe this is because the series is still building an audience, the track was clearly designed to facilitate exciting overtakes. Thanks to long straights paired with deceptively generous corner runouts, drivers had tons room to push opponents around and make aggressive mid-corner inside passes. The most notable corner, a decreasing-radius, 270-degree left-hander feeding directly into a right hairpin, forced several mistakes and subsequent position changes.
On the audience side, the near silent cars and lack of Formula 1 brand recognition made for a far calmer crowd than the sort usually seen at a Grand Prix. In addition, the use of electric motors in place of internal combustion engines attracted people who wouldn't normally be inclined to other types of racing. As a fan of anything that brings people into the car world, I see this as a definite plus.
However, more than anything else, I was excited about the technology on display. Electric motor designs are still developing, so the grid features everything from a single motor mated to a three-speed to a wacky double pancake motor with a direct-to-differential layout. The first and third place winner on Saturday, Mahrindra Racing, used a six-phase motor instead of a typical three-phase one, which provided the team with a visible advantage over the rest of the pack. The absence of a "best" configuration means that even more radical designs may emerge as other components are deregulated.
Given the sheer amount of unexplored territory in E-racing, the doors are wide open for interesting innovations, dastardly rule bending, and intricate hidden cheats. While Formula E may not make for the most exciting racing at this moment, more and more automakers are jumping on board, increasing the amount of dedicated towards development. Personally, I'm excited to see what sort of regulation bending and technological feats the teams will get up to. What will be the E-version of the two-inch-wide fuel lines in Smokey Yunick's Stock Car, the impossibly packaged 180-degree exhaust headers in the 1966 Ford GT, or the infamous floating restrictor plate in the 1995 Toyota Celica GT-4?