Are Formula E racers the most difficult cars to drive in motorsport?
For the more traditional motorsport fan, including those who regularly watch Formula E, one of their main points of contention is the perceived lack of speed.
Yes – Formula E machines aren't the fastest in the world – but as we've seen plenty of times, spine-tingling speed doesn't necessarily result in spine-tingling racing.
You have to look closer to appreciate all a Formula E driver has to manage, and (virtually) placing myself in their shoes in Envision Virgin Racing's brand new simulator was a real eye-opener. Here's what I learned...
'Race face' mode engaged
Regenerative braking adds a whole new dimension to slowing down
Eight-time Formula E race-winner Sam Bird was on hand to show me how the challenging Berlin street circuit should be driven, and set a target lap time that none of us could get even close to matching.
The opening turn at the German track is a horrible left-hander that seems to go on forever, and demonstrates perfectly how tricky it is to get used to the regenerative braking – with most of us locking the front tyres, the rear-tyres or both as we slid wide and into the barrier.
See what I mean about turn one?
Bird has had vast experience across all forms of motorsport, but explained that braking principles fundamentally remain the same: hit the pedal as hard as possible at first, then gradually ease off it into the apex of the corner.
But he notes that recovering energy to the battery while braking certainly adds a new element, especially as in a race situation most drivers are lifting and coasting for efficiency, just to throw another factor into the mix.
"We replicate everything in the sim," says Bird. "All the re-generation that goes on through the rear tyres, rear-tyre locking, front-tyre locking, understeer, oversteer.
“You didn’t have it on but I use a thermal tyre model and brake model that then increases grip or decreases grip depending on where I am or what I’m doing.
It's no wonder drivers lock the brakes, especially in wheel-to-wheel combat
"I’m having to think about that regeneration through the rear axles and overheating the battery and the fact that in the race I’m having to do lift and coast and re-gens – different techniques to get around the track as quickly as possible but as efficiently as possible."
While the engineers had very kindly provided us with a more 'forgiving' simulator experience than the real drivers are used to – with increased grip and no thermal models punishing us for being too harsh on the car – braking was still a huge challenge, particularly as you don't have the usual downshifts as a reference point for how much speed you're carrying into a corner.
Add in the fact that due to my height I struggled to get my right foot off the throttle mid-corner, and braking was a challenge to say the least.
Doing my best racing driver impression to Senior Race Engineer Stephen Lane, although I don't think he bought it
The covered front tyres and halo device make visibility even more of a challenge
Whenever I'm sat in a racing car, I'm always amazed at just how low your eye-line is. As we're frequently reminded on Formula 1 coverage, drivers can't actually see their own front wing and often have to ask their race engineers if they've damaged it on the opening lap.
Formula E takes this to a new level with the partially enclosed front wheels – introduced to reduce turbulence to allow cars to follow one another more closely – which means you can barely see how much lock you're putting on and how much you're stressing the front tyres.
Formula E's batmobile-esque car design looks menacing, but provides its own unique challenges
Crucially, it also makes it harder for drivers to see when they're locking the brakes, hence why some teams started to paint the inside of tyres to give the drivers a visual aid last season – before the FIA outlawed it.
All this is exaggerated by the halo device which was incorporated into the design of the Gen2 car last year, splitting your vision and placing visibility at a premium, especially when racing on solely street circuits.
Stark differences in power modes make you feel like you're driving a new car
To get us up to speed, the engineers initially gave us just over 100kW of power as we acquainted ourselves with the circuit.
Once they were confident that we could handle it, and had demonstrated that we weren't going to crash at every single corner, the engineer's voice came over the radio: "OK, full power now. Full power now."
Anyone who used to play the Need for Speed franchise will understand what I mean when I talk about the ferocious nitrous oxide boost which made it feel like the car was about to break the sound barrier.
While it wasn't quite on that level, upping the power output to the maximum 250kW the drivers enjoy on their qualifying laps or in attack mode made it feel like a different car entirely.
It wasn't quite this dramatic, but the instant torque felt amazing
The throttle pedal had previously been slow and forgiving, and now it was razor sharp with the instant torque ready to spit you out if you asked too much of it.
With the acceleration far quicker and the top speeds much higher, the braking zones had now changed considerably as well, throwing yet another spanner in the works.
This brought down lap times by a huge chunk – moving me closer to Bird's benchmark – but still a long way off claiming any bragging rights.
The mixture of power modes in the simulator is also key in terms of preparation, with Bird and team-mate Robin Frijns going through qualifying runs and practicing power management in elongated race simulations ahead of the first race of the season this weekend.
"Robin will be joining me and we’ll be going through all the simulations, so that we leave no stone unturned ahead of round one," Bird says.
“We’ll do the race runs: race runs with full-course yellows, race runs with the safety car, we’ll do a red flag simulation race run, we’ll do a clean green race run, we’ll do a race run where there’s less grip, a race run where there’s more grip.
Where the magic happens: Countless laps have already been completed on the new simulator
“Already we’ve done 300 laps of data that the guys have got to go through in ten days or less.
“The whole point is that when you go there it is like second nature. That’s the whole point in the sim, it helps the engineers, but it helps the drivers as well.”
Already fine motorsport margins become even finer in Formula E
Motorsport is all about close competition. But with many shared components across the Formula E grid, those margins are even tighter.
Competition is closer than ever with Porsche and Mercedes joining already impressive manufacturer involvement for season six, and even more emphasis is placed on preparation to try to find the edge out on track and exploit any advantage they can find.
Talking to Sylvain Filippi, Managing Director at Envision Virgin Racing ahead of our drive on the simulator, it became apparent just how much thought had gone into even building the simulator, let alone the actual preparation done on it thereafter.
Chatting to Managing Director Sylvain Filippi about the team's facility was enlightening
When the team expanded its Silverstone workshop, it added another level but was forced to make the simulator room almost a separate entity from the rest of the floor, so that vibrations from team members using the walkways between rooms didn't disrupt the drivers on the simulator.
That's how seriously the simulator is now regarded as a preparation tool.
Filippi believes having the tool will allow them to work on consistency, a factor which is "make or break" across a Formula E season:
“As an independent team, to have finished third last season was a fantastic achievement, but we know the competition will be even tougher this time around, especially with the introduction of new teams and drivers," says Filippi.
"We know consistency and preparation is going to be crucial, make or break in fact, so we have put huge emphasis on this from our driver line-up through to our entire team personnel, and now of course with our simulator, which we expect to be a very important tool for race strategy preparation and driver training.”
The team celebrate a successful season after the New York E-Prix
The opening round of the 2019/20 Formula E season gets underway this weekend with the Ad Diriyah E-Prix, with a double-header of races to kick off season six.
Bird believes this year will mark the closest contest yet, as he believes "everybody can compete" for overall honours.
“In my opinion it’s the hardest category in the world now. You’ve got Audi, BMW, Porsche, Mercedes, Nissan, Jaguar, DS...all fighting for top spot and they’re all massive manufacturers," he says.
“Everybody can compete in Formula E. Every single driver, every single team – on their day – can go and get on the podium or win a race.
“And that’s what I think is so difficult in Formula E, it’s really really tough.”