The Spark-Renault SRT_01E is the car that will be used by all teams in this inaugural Formula E season. Its components where built to the highest motorsport standards by experienced manufacturers such as Dallara (chassis), McLaren (electronics and powertrain), Williams (batteries), Hewland (gearbox), Michelin (tyres) and Renault (systems integration).
While it does look like a more futuristic version of a Formula 1 car and share many concepts with this kind of car, the Spark-Renault is a very different beast from what we see in F1 today.
Constructed as a carbon monocoque, the chassis is in this regard quite similar to that of a modern Formula 1 car. It does however differ greatly at the back of the car (where the batteries and powertrain are located). While in F1 the engine is a stressed member of the chassis, this is not the case in Formula E. The car could have been built using the battery pack as a stressed member, but the organisers decided against it. This will give teams more freedom once they are allowed to develop their own batteries, as they will not have to build a battery that is also a rigid part of the chassis.
The aerodynamics are, at first glance, similar to that of any modern high-level single seater : big front and rear wings, air intakes in the sidepods, a rear diffusor… The difference lies in the fact that the focus in Formula E is more on efficiency rather than maximum grip : the wings are flatter, like what we see in Monza in F1 or on ovals in Indycar for example. The result is less drag, which means that the cars use less electric fuel, ie. batteries can be smaller and lighter.
The suspension concept looks very similar to what can be seen in most single-seater series and is not particularly interesting. Formula E is and will probably always be an efficiency oriented racing series, so expect most developments to be in the area of powertrain/energy storage and aerodynamics.
With the officiel tyre supplier – Michelin – wanting to advertise its road tyres in Formula E, it is not a surprise to see that the FE tyres look very similar to normal road car tyres. In fact, there will not be dry-weather and wet-weather tyres in Formula E, but only one for all conditions ; just like you have on your car. Reports from drivers during pre-season testing are quite positive and the tires apparently have more grip than one could imagine by simply looking at them.
This is what makes Formula E special. The Spark-Renault will be powered by an electric system (batteries+motor) capable of delivering the equivalent of 270bhp, but not for an entire race : the batteries don’t hold enough energy, and the systems would overheat after just a few laps. During the race, drivers will have to manage how much energy they use by choosing different power-modes which will limit the maximum power output at their disposal. The much discussed FanBoost will be the only way drivers can have the full 270bhp at their disposal during the race, but only for a few seconds. Other than that, the cars will always be less powerful during the race than during the qualifying where full power will be used to achieve the best time over one lap.
Power will be transmitted to the rear wheels using a 5-speed sequential paddle-shift gearbox which is similar to what is done in F1. Shifting has proven to be more difficult in these electric cars than in fuel-powered cars, simply because the drivers cannot rely on the engine sound to know when to shift. They will have to use the shift lights much more, and maybe this could cause some problems on the narrow and twisty street circuits that Formula E will race on.
How fast is it ?
The only reference at our disposal to estimate how fast the Formula E car is, are the testing laptimes from Donington Park. Sebastien Buemi topped the final test with a laptime of 1:31.792. The BRDC Formula 4 lap record on the same track is 1:31.603, and for the British Formula 3 the record is 1:22.600. This doesn’t sound very impressive for a series that wants to be seen as the ultimate electric racing series, but you have to remember that one of the key characteristics of electrics cars is their fast acceleration (thanks to the flat torque-curve of an electric motor) which will at least make them feel and look fast on twisty street circuits. Donington is the only benchmark we currently have, but it does not really allow us to get a good idea of how fast these cars really are. Jann Mardenborough recently said that “on a street circuit […] it will feel very punchy”. Let’s hope he is right and we will see some exciting racing!