What It’s Like to Drive an Electric Race Car
So, you want to drive an EV race car, huh?
Bryan Sellers is an electric race-car driver. That is, he races electric cars. Which isn't to say he isn't exciting—i.e. electric—on the track, but rather that he's currently competing in a Jaguar I-Pace EV, which its maker has organized a whole support series around called the I-Pace eTrophy, with races run before Formula E main events. He was in New York City recently to talk up the series, which comes to Brooklyn this weekend. New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman caught up with him and was there to record what he had to say. The text has been edited for length and clarity.
"I started similarly to most drivers, in carting when I was young, and I worked my way through there and then through the support series to IndyCar, Champ Car at the time. I did some Champ Car testing with Newman/Haas Racing, but it was kind of as that was all coming to a close, in 2005. That year, I made the switch from open-wheel racing to sports-car racing. And I've been involved there since, currently with Lamborghini, where I've been the past four years. Now there's this new program with Jaguar.
About a Car
"The premise of the I-Pace eTrophy is that all the cars are the same, all are prepared in the same place, and it's all put on by JLR. The impressive thing, I would say, about this is how true they have remained to the actual street car. The vision was so large. I mean, the undertaking of building race cars, starting a series, employing people, is—and I'm just guessing—very costly.
"But they're bringing back a 'race on Sunday, sell on Monday'-type mentality. And what they're able to do is get knowledge that they wouldn't have had otherwise, from the race car and apply it to the street car, and to change people's perspective on what an electric vehicle is capable of. Because up until five years ago, people never thought there was any way you could race them, and now that's obviously being changed.
"There are a lot of things [about electric car race cars] you learn as you go. But even without the noise and, say, engine feel, it's still just a car. In this particular circumstance, just a race car. So, a lot of the things are almost exactly the same. I mean, how you drive the car or what you're looking for the car to do are no different. That's probably the biggest misconception of mine that changed, that racing an EV was going to be something completely different than anything I've done. And as much as I'd like to say that's true, because it makes a better story, it's actually not. It's still just a race car.
"There are differences in, say, torque vectoring and how the electric motors work versus an internal-combustion [engine], and the way the power delivery comes on. In a standard race car, you have six gears, and at a given rpm the car puts out X amount of torque, and it's not really speed-related. It's gear- and RPM-related. It's the opposite in an electric vehicle. The slower you go, the more torque the engine produces. So that is one thing that's difficult, learning to understand when you need to use the torque of the motor and kind of decelerate the car more versus when you need to carry the speed and use that to your advantage. There are learning processes that come with it, but the driving and the actual techniques are similar.
"Take three types of corners: a hairpin, a standard 90- degree corner, and then a high-speed corner. In an electric vehicle, in a hairpin, you're better off getting the speed slower earlier in the corner and trying to accelerate earlier while exiting the corner. Because what you've done is you've slowed the car down and actually created more torque coming off of the corner, by taking your foot out of it, by actually using the brake more. Which reintroduces you again to [maximum] torque.
"Whereas, say, a standard internal-combustion engine, you don't have that same torque curve that you do in the electric car. So you wait until you're a little farther around the corner to start applying the throttle and maybe apply it a little more aggressively than what you would in the electric car. And you use momentum a little more in a standard car, because of the torque and the gear selections. And then as you move through these corners, the higher the speed of the corner, the more like driving a standard car it is, because the torque comes less into play in the distribution of the power.
"As you move to a standard 90-degree corner, one of the things I think you focus on in the I-Pace versus a standard car is making sure that you carry good momentum through the corner and don't worry about the throttle as much. Because it's a heavy car, if you don't have the torque from the electric motor, you need the speed. And that's completely different mindset than when the corner's slow, in a standard race car. The mid- and the slow-speed experience doesn't change so drastically between them. So you have to start to work your mind around what the car is telling you, what you need it do, and how to apply that. Once you get to the high-speed stuff, it's actually very, very similar, because you're just trying to carry momentum and as much speed as you can through.
Weight and See
"Another thing with electric cars is the weight difference, because of the batteries. You have to add weight to get more [storage] capacity. The weight definitely influences how you drive, and especially how you brake. Because it's heavy, it takes a little bit longer to slow down. When you first drive it, that's one of the things that's in the back of your mind, is how is this weight going to influence what you do? But the reality is that, the way the car's been designed and where the center of mass is, you don't actually feel the weight so much in the balance of the car—just in braking.
"But it's all down low. When people think of, say, 4,500 pounds, they think of a Range Rover with all the weight being high and a high center of mass and the thing being, you know, roll-y, and you just don't want to corner any sort of SUV at 100 mph. But this isn't that way.
"Also, the I-Pace is an all-wheel-drive car. One of the neat things about having AWD in the EVs is we can during a race, or practice, distribute the power to different ends of the car by changing a dial on the steering wheel. We have four settings that start with a 50/50 split, and then we can move from a plus-five toward the rear, to a plus-10, to a plus-15. Depending on how the car is balanced, we can do that corner to corner even, if we want. And that's not really a luxury that I've ever had in anything else. So, you know, if the car is acting a certain way and you want it to do something different, that's a tool at your disposal.
"A good example of this would be, in a slower corner, you find that any time you go to the throttle, that the front doesn't turn. And you can feel that you're spinning the front tires or something like that. If you're on, say, the 50/50 torque map, you can then go to the plus-15 toward the rear to reduce some of the load on the front tire. But then the opposite could be true, that if you're in a hairpin and you go to the throttle and the rear is driving the front, that if you're on 15, you maybe go to the 50/50 split and allow the front to pull the car out.
"[As part of] trying to show how green and efficient everything can be, we have one set of tires for an entire weekend. When I tell you we as drivers put the tires through hell, we put them through hell. And yet they last the whole weekend. We don't really see, in terms of lap time or performance, too much drop off, depending on how warm the ambient temperature is. You would think a [heavy] car is for sure going to blow through tires more than anything else, and I haven't seen that to be the case. I credit the attention to detail put into the weight distribution. I mean, if you put the batteries on the roof, it would be a different story in terms of tire wear.
"I believe [the eTrophy] is worthwhile investment [for JLR] for multiple reasons. One, I think you have to start to changing people's minds, especially the purists. I would have considered myself up until this stage a purist, because I drive internal-combustion race cars. But all of a sudden here I am driving an electric vehicle in some of the greatest cities in the world in what I consider to be a pretty impressive piece of machinery. And my mind has been changed, and I can see it being the future.
"I think there are definitely evolutions that need to take place, but I don't think anybody in Jaguar or worldwide is naïve enough to think that that's not the case. But you have to start somewhere. And I think if you can start changing motorsports enthusiasts' minds, then you can likely change the public consumer's mind. And so, I think in terms of that, no, the money is certainly not wasted. And I think that the technology exchange, if done the right way, more than justifies the input into the series.
"In the race car, [the lack of engine noise is] one of the things that you really, kind of, suffer the most by not having, is the feedback that you get from the senses. But the opposite of that is, in the street car, you spend a ton of money to get noise protection from the outside and, you know, that's already built into this thing. Why is that a bad thing?
"Does racing have to be noisy? Certainly some people say, "If there's no sound, the racing is not exciting." And if you're a race fan, you can pick any particular series that you want to pick. Say you find NASCAR extremely exciting and the racing to be great, but you have a sleeping child on the couch next to you and you have to put it on mute. If it's a good race, you still enjoy the racing, even though you can't listen to the sound. So if you look at in a different way and understand that there is no noise, if the product on track is right, why should it matter? It does take away part of the effect, without a doubt. But if you're just watching for good racing, the racing that electric EV cars can create is some of the best that I currently see worldwide. The lack of sound for me was a big issue, until I started to watch, and then it became a nonissue.
"There needs to be something [in the way of noise made by roadgoing EVs] in terms of safety regulations. But I'm not into artificial noise. I think the day will come that people can just watch it for the racing, [and see] that it's a good product."