► New teams
► Some new rules
► Expect everything
Formula E has come a long way in its (so far) short lifespan. From launching as a spec series in 2014, it’s grown into a sport manufacturers are flocking to - and staying tightly competitive in.
If you’ve been put off by car swaps, fanboost or the sounds then it’s time to think again. Formula E’s Gen2 cycle is heading into a period where manufacturers will be scrapping for tenths of seconds between each other and the stakes for drivers get ever higher.
After Jean-Eric Vergne became Formula E’s first two-time champion, there’s a target on his back and the rest of the field is out for the hunt. Here’s everything you need to know for the first rounds in Saudi Arabia this weekend.
Formula E launched as a relatively conventional racing series, if you looked past what powered it. Although the cars looked and sounded different and the circuits were specific to it, the basic principle of racing a certain number of laps, with a pit stop, was there.
Since then, Formula E’s been getting incrementally weirder. The Gen2 battery eliminated the need for car swap by doubling the previous capacity and with hardwearing road-style tyres, Formula E was suddenly out of a pit stop.
Rather than introduce an artificial reason to make cars come into the pit, we now get Attack Mode to add a strategic element to the race.
Along with switching to a timed race format, Attack Mode forces drivers to make their own calls about energy usage. Rather than a planned strategy, they have to pick when they’ll be able to use a top-end energy spike to compensate for running over an area of the track off the racing line. Like a pit stop, it’s mandatory and Attack Mode energy comes out of your remaining allowance so saving enough to take advantage of it is crucial.
Formula E is a drivers’ series, with no car so far behind they can’t hunt for points and putting the strategy call in their hands emphasises that. Not that it stops them getting heated on the radio...
This year, Formula E had a requirement to bring energy management back to racing after ref flags and safety cars had allowed drivers too much leaway. In development terms, manufacturers need the racing to be a hotbed of efficiency improvements so flat-out racing was both counterproductive in technology terms - and not actually very good to watch.
When drivers have not only enough energy to be able to compete but a massive surplus, the skill of knowing when to push goes out the window in favour of drag racing. So this season, for every minute behind the safety car, the usable energy amount will be reduced by 1kWh.
It makes teams have to recalculate targets on the fly, with much of that in the drivers’ hands as Formula E doesn’t allow telemetry and so keeps the racing based on who’s prepared to take risks for a good result.
The Gen2 chassis is back this year, keeping those futuristic vibes and the light-up Halo. This will be its last year unaltered, as changes to the front wing in Season 7 are intended to make it less of a sledge of destruction when making contact with a rear diffuser.
So not only is this season your last chance to see true havoc when teammates get close to each other but you can get the full, weird ghostly jet engine noise the floor (the only part of the car generating downforce) makes when the cars get up to speed.
Rough surfaces and turbulent set up mean the squeaking, high-pitched squeal of Formula E’s first season is long gone in favour of a genuinely threatening howl. It’s not a V8 but it is a distinct, ungodly racket that’ll make you panic as much as it excites you.
Bundesliga on wheels
Porsche and Mercedes join this season for a close to clean sweep of German automakers in the series. Every manufacturer is keen to downplay their chances but make no mistake, the full seriousness of the challenge has been taken on by all of them.
From Toto Wolff missing the Brazilian Grand Prix to finalise preparations with the Merc Formula E team to Porsche deciding to become Twitch streamers, the newcomers are fully committing to future success. And the marques already in Formula E are very keen not to let them take too large a chunk of it.
Pit lane paranoia was at a peak during Valencia collective testing, with every garage buzzing with different rumours about who was sandbagging and who’d tricked the tyres. But, as everyone has to keep saying, no one actually knows who is faster - with margins incredibly tiny - until we hit the track for Friday’s race.
When it started, Formula E had to go to some lengths to secure good drivers. Some by accident - an out-on-his-luck Sam Bird was easily picked up from imminent obscurity after he’d run out of other rides but others were brought in by promises of high wages or favourable contracts.
The phrase ‘Formula One rejects’ dogged the line up and regardless of the quality of the racing, perception was that Formula E was nearly-rans and couldn’t-quites. That isn’t the case now.
With the F2 champion going straight to a factory Formula E drive this year an event horizon has passed. Formula E isn’t a consolation prize or a fob-off and the quality of the series is reflected in the standard of competition to get seats.
Even a tail-end-of midfield, privateer team like Dragon can pick from the best of Porsche and Audi’s factory drivers, in Brendon Hartley and Nico Mueller. And at the top of the series, younger talents like Jaguar’s Mitch Evans are driven and hungry to knock off Jean-Eric Vergne’s double-crown, with the reputations of manufacturers a massive pressure to drive them forwards.
Formula E went into the final race last season with four drivers still able to clinch the title. This year you can expect that to be tighter - every driver has to impress, with factory team seats on the line and no one’s contract is that safe.
With a close field, technologically, drivers like Stoffel Vandoorne who haven’t had machinery to impress at a high level in the past can show what they’re made of hunting down Formula E’s giants like most-times-winner Sebastian Buemi or JEV.
Calling Formula E unpredictable isn’t quite fair. It’s not as chaotic as that suggests, more that it has a lot of opportunities for things to happen.
Because the events run across a single day, there isn’t time to ‘do it properly’ - much to the chagrin of some manufacturers. The teams who succeed are those who are brilliant and daring enough to work out an advantage, rather than the staid and mathematical data-crunching that a four day event can process.
Simulation and programming is crucial to the series but done on such a tight timescale, if anything’s going to be changed during an event that teams need to leave more space for the drivers to improvise than hold them to a rigorous schedule. No one knows what will happen at turn one - or how that will affect the energy saving schedule by the final lap.
Teams don’t like things being out of their control but it does produce great racing. And while Formula E faces a fight to keep things that way, with the weight of manufacturers inevitably pushing to make things more predictable, for now that balance is holding.
Eight winners over the course of the season last time was a great figure - and likely to be beaten. It won’t be easy for the series to maintain but while the technology remains new enough for invention rather than economics to make the big differences, Formula E isn’t likely to become a procession.
And if it did then even Buemi, whose dominance in Season 3 approached that seen in other series, proved himself fallible with a free practice error that saw him lose the title and go on to not win again for nearly two entire seasons. It has to be something playing at the back of Vergne’s mind, on the lookout for title number three while two years of frustrated rivals circle.
It’s almost a mantra in the paddock that you’ll only find out when the cars hit the track. But even then, you’ll only really know when we reach the London finale and the answer not only to which teams and drivers can win but who can keep doing it comes out in cold, hard points. The races take place in a day but it’s nine months to make a champion.