Written by: Theresa Smith
Developing new technologies for electric vehicles in the pits of Formula E is having a real-world impact trickling down to the EVs driven on streets worldwide.
Moderating a panel discussion on Formulate E change, accelerated – net zero vision for cities and urban racing at Africa’s Green Economic Summit, Dominic Wilhelm, Executive Director, United Leaders, United Cities, explained this technology transfer will, over the years, influence energy storage practices, smart grids, energy efficiency and e-mobility as a whole.
Saturday, 25 February, sees the first Formula E race in sub-Sahara Africa, with Cape Town probably providing the fastest race track for the e-mobility circuit this year.
Wilhelm was very keen to discuss Maserati’s return to racing for the first time in ten years with Giovanni Sgro, head of Maserati for Formula E. Maserati got back on the track in Mexico in January 2023 with the GT Folgore, the Trident’s first-ever electric vehicle.
“Not only are we back to racing, but it’s also our first race in Cape Town. Formula E was a natural choice; getting back to racing was something we were looking forward to for many years,” said Sgro. He reminded that Maserati’s first race win was in 1926. It seemed a natural fit to get into the first e-sport for electric vehicles as the luxury Italian brand aims to only produce electric vehicles by 2030.
“We’ve had racing in our blood for over 100 years, and to be back to racing in a great championship that is doing tremendous work, it’s fantastic. Also, to be going around the world to new cities,” said Sgro.
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Setting up a circuit to race electric vehicles
Alberto Longo, Formula E co-founder, said it had been quite a journey. Working in the early noughties on creating Formula 1 sponsorship deals, Longo noticed companies expressing an interest in sponsoring motorsport if only it had a green angle.
By 2008 he and Formula E cofounder Alejandro Agag realised they needed to create a platform for the companies who wanted to get into motorsport, just not in the format it presented at the time.
“The world has changed completely since then,” marvelled Longo.
When they obtained FIA licensing in 2012, technology for racing EVs was not yet developed. Not only were there no formal teams, a single-seater, fully-electric racing car did not exist.
The first generation of cars was a far cry from the Gen3 cars, which will debut at the Cape Town E-Prix. Spark Gen3, or Gen3, is the successor to the SRT05e.
Back then, every driver had two cars at their disposal because they couldn’t finish a race with one – the range of the batteries simply wasn’t enough.
“In only four years, we have doubled the battery capacity, and now they manage to finish the race with one car,” said Longo.
Now it’s fast charging, technology for faster cars and “more sexy cars because that’s important for the championship to be attractive to fans.
“The reality is, 12 years ago, there were two key barriers to electric vehicles. First was the price and second was the range of the batteries.
“We’re not talking about range of batteries anymore; you can see 500 to 700km. Nine years ago, it was 60km. Price is still expensive, but governments are doing initiatives and incentives to transform e-mobility in countries. We are getting there way quicker than expected,” said Longo.
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Driving technological progress
James Barclay, Formula E Team Principal for Jaguar, said the huge benefit that sport can play is driving human and technological progress through electric racing.
He pointed out that the power of world-class sports is that teams compete against the very best and push themselves beyond their limits. Thus technological advancements made on the E-Prix circuit will push EV development.
Barclay point to technology such as safety belts and traction control are technologies that trickled down from Formula 1 racing into regular sedans driven daily on roads around the world.
“Jaguar has a long history in the sport. We won Le Man as the first company to use disc brakes,” remembered Barclay.
Back in 1949, the racers used drum brakes, mostly hydraulically activated. Cars would lose braking efficiency when they got too hot. In 1953, Jaguar won Le Mans with their much simpler disc brakes system, which gradually became the norm for racing and eventually all cars.
The Formula E Jaguar team is also exploring Wolfspeed’s silicon carbide semiconductors, which they started using in 2017. “Now, having proven the technology by winning races, last year Jaguar announced that all future cars would use this technology.
“We pioneered second-life battery storage. We powered the garage in pre-testing at Valencia with a second-life battery at Valencia.
“That has applications for all over the world, and it’s a technology pioneered by Pramac, so the world of generators is moving into battery energy storage,” said Barclay.
Jaguar Land Rover has partnered with Pramac to develop a portable zero-emission energy storage unit powered by second-life Jaguar I-PACE batteries. This Off Grid Battery Energy Storage System features lithium-ion batteries from the Jaguar I-PACE batteries from the prototypes and engineering test vehicles. The storage system can supply zero-emissions power where access to to the grid is limited or unavailable.
“Formula E is the first net zero sport in the world and one of the fastest growing,” reminded Wilhelm.
“The performance of the vehicles is extraordinary. Look at what Formula 1 has achieved in decades versus what Formula E has achieved in just a few years. There’s not much difference in performance,” Wilhelm said.