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Formula E's high-level electric racing offers glimpse into the future

Britain Formula E Auto Racing
Posted at 4:33 PM, Apr 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-06 16:33:52-04

Formula E, the world's top electric vehicle racing series, returns to the track this weekend with a pair of races in Rome.

The global series is slowly gaining a foothold in the U.S., which hosted a race in nearly every season since Formula E's inception.

This year, the series added its first American-born driver: Oliver Askew. The Florida native came up racing karts as an eight-year-old before switching to cars in his late teens.

"When I first got into the karting, it was more of a father-son hobby," Askew said. "It wasn't until I was 14 or 15 years old that I began to realize I'm getting old quickly, and growing up quickly, and I need to decide what's more important, the schooling or pursuing motorsports."

Askew, now 25, left high school to pursue a career in racing, a move he called a "leap of faith."

It's led to plenty of success.

He won the 2019 Indy Lights series, one of the top development series for race car drivers, which paved the way for his IndyCar debut in 2020.

His move to Formula E this year marks the first time he is racing electric vehicles professionally.

"I just feel like this car suits me and suits my driving style," Askew said. "I'm not saying one is better than the other, or I enjoy one over the other. It's just a different approach and a different fulfillment."

Changing attitudes toward electric vehicles

Formula E's arrival represents a broader shift in attitude toward electric vehicles.

"This technology needed to be pushed and needed to be advanced," said Julia Palle, the sustainability director of Formula E. "The technology around electrification was really the focus."

The competition within Formula E helped spur electric vehicle development over the past decade.

Race day vehicles, which had a top speed of 140 miles per hour from 2014 to 2018, will have a top speed of 200 miles per hour beginning in 2023.

Palle said the gap between consumer electric vehicles and Formula E vehicles is smaller than in other racing series, enabling manufacturers to apply lessons from the race track to the production line.

"Jaguar, from the couple of seasons they were involved, used some of their learnings to develop the I-PACE," Palle said. "That's a car that you and I, if we want to, can go buy tomorrow."

Formula E is also unique for its focus on sustainability, a word which is written into the racing series' mission statement.

Research shows the race cars' carbon footprint accounts for less than one percent of pollution associated with Formula E.

Palle said Formula E leadership is focused on improving sustainability for three main car components.

- Tires. Formula E cars use one tire under all conditions. They are made from recycled material and designed to be recycled when they've outlived their usefulness.

- Batteries. Palle said Formula E partnered with Belgium-based Umicore on a battery recycling program. Over ninety percent of metals, and over sixty percent of lithium, is recovered from every battery.

- Chassis. The carbon fiber from the chassis is recycled using technology once used to recycle rockets and planes. A collection box is available at each race for teams to recycle their broken parts. "It's popular," Palle noted, "especially when there are crashes during tests and races."

A long road ahead

Formula E could get some competition in the near future.

In mid-March, NASCAR's chief operating officer, Steve O'Donnell, said the American stock car racing series is "exploring some opportunities around an exhibition series in" the electric vehicle space, citing interest from manufacturers like Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota.

"It's important for us to explore that space," O'Donnell said. "I think there's a lot of interest from our current partners to be part of that."

"As I understand it, the primary mover is the noise," said Sridhar Lakshmanan, an associate professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and a leading voice in the world of vehicle innovation. "They felt that electric vehicle racing would allow them to move racing into the heart of population centers, closer to where people live."

Lakshmanan said one of the biggest challenges in any electric vehicle racing series is making up the power gap with internal combustion counterparts.

The current land-speed record for an electric vehicle is 353 miles per hour, set by Team Vesco Racing in November 2021.

The scorching speed is not quite as fast as the world record speed for an internal combustion engine: 448.7 miles per hour, set by Danny Campbell in 2019.

"The biggest problem they face today is speed," Lakshmanan said. "There are ways to torque motors that can potentially reach those speeds, provided you have batteries with reasonable size that can drive those motors. But that's where the rub is."

Lakshmanan, like Palle, believes competition can spur development in the electric vehicle space, particularly for batteries, but also in the areas of braking, speed, safety and life-cycle cost.

"As people push the boundaries of how fast they can go, how much charge they can store, and how light they are," Lakshmanan said, "performance is going to drive electric vehicles, in some ways, parallel to how performance vehicles drove internal combustion engines."

Fueling development

Racing and automotive innovation have gone hand in hand since the turn of the 20th century, when a young Henry Ford won a "Sweepstakes" race to help fund his fledgling vehicle venture.

Ford's two-cylinder engine traveled at the blistering top speed of seventy-two miles per hour.

"A nobody, some guy from Michigan, manages to pull out a victory in the race," said Matt Anderson, curator at The Henry Ford, an automotive museum in suburban Detroit. "It sets him on the way to ultimately founding the Ford Motor Company in 1903."

A few years later, the first Indianapolis 500 would be the site of another major innovation: The rearview mirror.

Ray Harroun attached rearview mirrors to his car. It's believed to be the first rearview mirror ever used. Harroun's competitors "had the driver, and then had a riding mechanic," Anderson said. "That person would be responsible for operating the car, but also as a pair of eyes in the back of the driver's head to look for other cars coming up behind them."

Harroun won the race.

His rivals were so angry that they put rules in place requiring the use of a riding mechanic.

To Anderson, it's one of many anecdotes that embody the competitive spirit of auto racing.

"You're not going to win a race unless you're willing to explore new ideas and try new things in order to innovate," Anderson said. "There's a strict rule book, but people are always testing the limits of those rules, and seeing how far they can push something."

He believes electric vehicle racing is a natural evolution of the sport.

"We're going to see things like lighter batteries, more efficient motors," Anderson said. "One way or another, electric racing is going to become a thing. It's just going to be necessary. The technology in our production cars is going to move toward electricity, and you can't have a racing series that appears to be behind the times of the cars we're driving out on the street."

Need for speed

Askew, the 25-year-old driver seeking his first Formula E victory in Rome, said the acceleration of a Formula E car would "completely blow people away."

"It does have a lot of low-end torque, and it's very suitable for the street tracks that we go to," Askew said.

For him, the future of Formula E is mostly background noise. His focus is on winning races.

Often, that means thinking less.

"I'm at my best in the car when I'm not thinking at all," Askew said. "When I'm in the zone, as a lot of sports figures call it, and letting my natural body and my instincts take over. My success comes from being in that place."