Mid-week long read: tech time

6w ago

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The Porsche racing simulator is one of the most advanced of its kind anywhere in the world. It’s a hungry, high-tech monster with an insatiable appetite for data. And it’s where factory driver Neel Jani practices the energy management so critical to success in the challenging new arena of Formula E.

Resembling a giant spider with black, hydraulic legs, the three-meter-high structure rests on a 19-tonne steel plate. The system almost completely fills the large, windowless room in Weissach in which it sits. Jani climbs up and into the cockpit of the sim, whose monocoque looks like little more than a soapbox at first glance. But in fact it has almost all the elements of the new 99X Electric, Porsche’s first works entry in the ABB Formula E World Championship. The field of vision is correct; Jani holds a genuine 99X Electric steering wheel in his hands and each button has exactly the same functions as in the actual race car. The 180-degree panorama of the Paris racetrack unfolds in front of him.

In the control room behind Jani, his engineers are seated in front of their computers, observing his progress through safety glass. “Loud and clear,” he says, confirming radio contact. For four hours today, the thirty-five-year-old will tear through the Parisian streets, preparing in minute detail for the ninth E-Prix of the season on April 18, 2020.

From the outside, the scenery seems almost unreal. On its vast base plate of polished steel, the spider moves abruptly back and forth, twisting and trembling. Likened by some to being at sea, optical perception and signals from the brain struggle to equate and some drivers even become car-sick. But the race goes on. For 45 minutes non-stop, Jani’s first race simulation of the day laps the 1.93km circuit with its fourteen corners, short sharp straights and brutal braking.

The room grows louder as the Swiss Le Mans winner rumbles over curbs at full throttle. Walls and curves fly towards the driver, who can sense even the slightest bump in the cockpit above. The profiles fed into the simulator are extremely precise, based on scans that are accurate to the millimetre. In this way, the training session provides Jani with detailed track knowledge while enabling his engineers to pre-empt some basic setup for the corresponding race in a few week’s time.

But the most important task in the sim today is to test various software programs for efficient energy management. As much electrical energy as possible must be available at every second during a race. In qualifying, Jani has a maximum of 250 kW at his disposal and then it is maximum attack for a good starting position on the often narrow city circuits. “If you start far behind,” he explains, “you’ve got a bad hand.”

But the demands on range and economic driving style are significantly more complex during a race. The standard battery, which is fully charged at the start, has a capacity of 52 kW. During the race, it’s continuously recharged by recuperation during braking. This energy recovery takes place automatically via the electric motor on the rear axle: when the driver steps on the brake, a brake-by-wire system regulates whether or to what extent the hydraulic brake engages, as well as when the electric motor on the rear axle decelerates, in order to convert kinetic energy into electrical energy. But when should the energy be used, and how much should be used so that Jani and his teammate André Lotterer can always make the most of it?

So the course of the race becomes a complicated series of calculations with a host of unknowns. The software developers must work out a variety of operating programs to prepare for every eventuality: for economical driving, for example, when a driver gets stuck behind a competitor. Or at the other extreme, for maximum boost in Attack Mode, when an extra 35 kW are permitted two to three times per race for four minutes apiece.

These programs are among the teams' best-kept secrets. The portfolio of software functions is growing daily, and drivers must be able to handle them safely because once a race has begun it’s all down to them. “Telemetry is prohibited in Formula E,” explains a visibly exhausted Jani as he emerges from the simulator. “Only we can decide which mode to call up.” He clambers down onto the steel floor below and smiles: “The engineers can hardly help us from the pit.”

Stay tuned to the tribe to keep up to date with all the latest results from the Formula E race in Chile this weekend.

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