Formula One cars have changed a lot over the years. Sometimes they have turbos, sometimes they don’t. But with the growing focus on the environment, the question is bubbling up:
When will Formula One, Indy and other “open wheel” racing series go electric?
The answer may be “sooner than you think.”
In 2014, Formula E quietly came onto the scene. Formula E (sometimes typed with a hyphen) runs street races in all-electric open wheel cars, and also uses a plug-in hybrid as the safety car.
It’s actually the only series other than Formula 1 to have World Championship status with the FIA, but it is not intended to be any kind of replacement for Formula 1. The street racing format is quite different, and the races are a lot shorter at 45 minutes plus one lap. The race also has a bit of a video game feel, with bonuses for driving off the racing line and temporary power boosts granted…by the fans.
I have yet to watch a Formula E race and now I kind of want to. However, the format demonstrates the biggest problem with electric open wheel racing.
In fact, for the first four seasons of Formula E, drivers had to stop halfway through the race…to change cars.
Now the batteries last the entire 45 minutes, but it’s a long way from being able to do a full length open wheel race.
Full disclosure, I’m a Top Gear fan. (I enjoy it more with less sexism and racism, as funny as Clarkson was).
During the season being shown this year, presenter Chris Harris drove and reviewed the Porsche Taycan Turbo S.
And I saw in this car the possibility that we may indeed have electric Formula One in a few short years.
Aside from the fact that you can’t have an electric turbo car, sorry, Porsche, you just can’t, this car showed a few things:
- The difference in front to rear balance in the car presented a learning curve for the Stig, but the car still went around the track seriously fast.
- It can do multiple fast starts without the cooldown period of other electric supercars.
- The range of it is 192 miles for the Turbo S and 201 miles for the Turbo. This is a lot shorter than the Tesla Model S’s official mileage, but Car And Driver did an actual range test which demonstrated that in more real world conditions…the Model S doesn’t really do any better. This looks like enough for the typical 190 miles of a Formula One race, except that EV batteries lose power, so the effective range needs to be closer to 250 miles…at racing speed. Yup, range is still the obstacle.
But what the Taycan did demonstrate is that electric cars have the power needed to really do this. It would change racing a little bit…electric engines have no delay on pickup. It made me able to envision that yes, yes we can have an all-electric vehicle that can hit the 1000hp mark of a Formula One car.
So, will Formula One switch to electric soon?
Formula One is Already Hybrid
Looking at actual powertrain trends, Formula One won’t switch to electric. Formula One will slowly drift to electric.
Toto Wolff, in charge of the Mercedes team, believes that the next engine should be 50% electric. Current engines are 20% electric thanks to energy recovery systems.
Various people in the sport have all kinds of opinions on when things might go to all electric. Jean Todt says never. Driver Nico Rosberg thinks it’s the only way to save the sport.
For right now, increasingly efficient hybrids seem to be the direction Formula One is going. It’s a staged approach to the switch rather than a sudden “We’re going all electric now.”
And for the drivers that might well be the best way.
How Would Electric Racing Be Different?
The biggest change for fans would be the loss of what many call the “Best sound in the world.”
Fans did adjust to the change from V8 to V6 turbo hybrid. But taking out engine noise altogether? Would fans rebel?
The only sound that comes from a Formula E is a fairly soft whining (and indeed there have been incidents of pit crew nearly being run over, something Formula One would definitely have to address, perhaps with some kind of sound piped from the cars).
Will fans demand fake engine noise? Will the engine noise be adjustable so that we get the atmosphere, but not the hearing damage and need for ear plugs?
A five minute search of any forum where race fans gather says that they probably will.
How about on the track? Electric cars have no delay on acceleration. They go right away. This would result in faster starts but, possibly, more dangerous ones for a while. Of course, that might be mitigated by drivers coming up from Formula E.
The front to rear balance of the cars will also be quite different, and that too will be a learning curve, but a steady progression from all gas to all electric might mean that the changes are a bit at a time.
It’s likely that all-electric Formula One is several years away (and also possible that they may go instead to hydrogen or similar). But Nico Rosberg is probably right: It’s the essential future of the sport. We can’t keep burning hydrocarbons at this rate for entertainment, and we aren’t going to give it up.
We need sustainable auto racing…and for all of it’s video game-like quirks, Formula E is proving an intriguing proof of concept.