DIRTY RACING: WHY IS FORMULA E OBSESSED WITH FILTH?
Now I have your attention I would like to talk about sand. The pleasure of asking PRs if I can talk to their drivers about dirt this weekend aside, getting filthy is a real problem in Formula E.
Using a street circuit is a tricky business anywhere. The track on traditional, permanent race circuits uses specialised surfacing compounds, definitely not the rough old concrete and tarmac that you'd get in a standard municipal setting. Even when street circuits get used, they're often resurfaced specifically for the event - the false floor placed over Baku's cobbles, for instance.
Racing - including the high stress acceleration, braking and intense manoeuvres that entails - on roads basically designed for waiting at traffic lights or trundling heavy goods vehicles through, is no trivial business. Tyres, cars and drivers take literal beatings, skidding on low-grip surfaces, especially when you add, say, a tonne of sand.
Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag, atop a tonne of sand. (Photo courtesy FIA Formula E)
It might seem a bit unintuitive, if you've never banged a race car around a street circuit, to say that a light coating of dust makes a track turn into something akin to an ice rink. After all, when something actually is slippery with ice putting sand and grit down often makes it easier to grip to.
Actually, your human feet are a great guide to this. Just as you can understand what a tyre lockup is if you've ever accidentally scuffed your sole while trying to take a step forward, if you've ever run round a corner on dusty tiles or concrete, you'll know there's a moment where you become a frantic whirlwind of frictionless limbs slightly like an overexcited Labrador on a recently polished hardwood floor.
So: take some not-intended-for-racing surfaces, throw sand all over them and what do you have? The proverbial dirty circuit.
Panasonic Jaguar Racing's Mitch Evans explained why that makes Formula E's single-day structure a particular challenge, as the track changes during the day- "Initially the track’s going to be very dirty because it's covered in sand. Obviously right next to the beach – especially for the last few days there’s been a lot of wind, so naturally it’s going to come onto the circuit. It takes a while for it to – you can only really clean it up by doing more and more laps. "
Some traditional, circuits are certainly dusty - Bahrain and Abu Dhabi are literally in the desert, so it's not as though this problem is wholly unique to Formula E. But most racing series don't try to do a whole event in a single day, separating qualifying and race sessions and elongating track hours to increase running.
Formula E actually runs a circuit live for relatively little time, over a day. You get just 30 minutes of low-speed, power-limited running during shakedown (where there is a shakedown, which isn't always - like in Hong Kong) then 75 minutes of free practice sessions. Qualifying is four sessions of six minutes but with only five cars doing two laps each during each of those groups, then the five solo outings of Super Pole.
Qualifying being staggered, rather than all at once, makes being in Group 1 particularly difficult. Di Grassi has made no attempt to hide how annoyed he is to have found himself in the first set five out of six times this year and NIO's Luca Filippi said there's just no avoiding the disadvantage being out early brings; "Because there isn’t another support series racing, so after free practice there’s a couple of hours of breeze and wind blowing and the sand comes onto the circuit, makes it very, very slippy. So the first group kind of cleans the line and even if it’s just about 2,3,4 tenths it’s still a lot because in Formula E the top ten, from the first to the last, is less than a second."
(Although in Hong Kong Roborace running between sessions apparently put debris on the track, so maybe there's no good solution...)
By the time you get to the race, when the longest-running session of the day will take place, what can you have actually gained? I asked DS Virgin's Sam Bird: "You get a clean line. The previous tyre [used in Seasons 1 and 2] really rubbered-in the circuit. You actually had more marbles off-line with the old tyre. This one tends not to have so many marbles but it cleans the circuit in one line."
Formula E uses only one tyre, regardless of track type. Racing on multiple surfaces a year (the Berlin Tempelhof track is on concrete, the Mexico track part circuit surface, part road...) the ridged Michelin has to be reworked by teams and drivers for each round. "I feel like the Pirelli is better at this stuff. Off-line, you’ve got the dirt, you’ve got the dust – you’re not running there all the time so the track is dirty and that’s what it is."
The racing line is basically the route most drivers will follow around a lap as the most efficient way of reaching corner apexes, taking as much speed from straights, etc. You can't always see it quite so visibly as when it's literally been tracked through dirt. This season - particularly in Mexico - there have been multiple incidents where drivers deviate from the racing line (to overtake, for instance) and find they can't carry the speed off-line, sliding into barriers or being turned around by the dust.
DS Virgin's other driver, Alex Lynn, said he thought this was avoidable, even at circuits where dust pollution is a major issue - "I think the problem is, certainly in Mexico, for example, the track wasn’t cleaned thoroughly enough. It then ends up – it’s a shame anyway because obviously we want it to be difficult, but it becomes a race-limiting thing because it’s so dirty off-line, you can’t then make an overtaking opportunity.
"I think when the roads are used more often, it’s not so bad, actually. So even if there is car traffic on these roads it’s better. But certainly in Mexico on certain parts of the circuit that never get used ever, that then becomes the tripping block."
And Formula E's purpose is to race on these tracks. The series isn't going to move just because it's challenging - that's literally the point. But it's why we're all so fixated by talking about things getting, well, dirty.
Not that dirt is the only problem, of course - and traffic can actually make things far worse, on some circuits. At the last season finale, in Montreal, Mahindra's Felix Rosenqvist told me how just regular traffic changes a track - "You have a surface that normal cars go over every day and they’re polishing the asphalt, until it’s almost like a mirror."
Sand visible on the Punta del Este track - with the clearer racing line crowded by cars (image courtesy FIA Formula E)
Mind you, at least if it's on the track it's not literally in your face. Post-race, drivers always look grimy - motorsport is physical and they're athletes so you've got a choice between the curiously odoured post-podium sticky champagne look or, well, just sorta grimy.
As someone who sits in a media centre all day I'm in no position to judge. But for the purposes of ending this article the way I started it, yes they really do get properly dirty out there. I asked Andretti's Tom Blomqvist about getting properly mucky; “There’s a lot of - especially here, off line - there’s a lot of sand and it’s quite hot, so you just pop the visor a little bit as a vent, which gets it coming in. And cars in front are all over the place, making mistakes and so on, so yeah there’s a lot of stuff that flies."
All that filth, it turns out it is literally surprising they don't go blind; "You’re just lucky if you don’t get it in your eyes."