Alexander Sims is a BMW factory racing driver as well as a test driver for the Andretti Formula E team, a man who has sampled the worlds of internal combustion and electric motors.
The fourth season of the FIA Formula E Championship is about to start. It’s been met with some criticism and cynicism from the industry since its inception, but I’m all for the electric series and will definitely be tuning in this weekend.
Ultimately, I’m an electric car fan through-and-through. I got my first electric car in February 2012 and haven’t turned back. I’m a real EV geek! I even sit on EV forums and talk about electric cars in my spare time, day-to-day. When I first heard about Formula E I was really excited by the prospect; it sounded like a race series with brilliant potential and combines my two passions of racing and electric mobility.
Since the series began, I’ve been lucky enough to test Formula E cars and see how they’ve progressed. Before the 2014/15 season, I’d been supporting Drayson Racing and the development of its LMP1 crossover car. This led to Formula E conversations and I was in line for a seat that season, but the last-minute cancellation of the Drayson Racing entry meant it wasn’t to be.
However, since then I’ve had the opportunity to get involved with the Andretti team, particularly since its technical partnership with BMW. This has given me time behind the wheel of what is a really fascinating car.
The first time I drove one I got out of it with more questions than when I got in! That doesn’t usually happen. It was so different to anything I’d ever driven before. For example, it has treaded tyres rather than the slicks or semi-slicks I’m used to, which gives it different ride characteristics.
Carbon brakes add another level of complexity - they generally aren’t an issue but when you combine them with regenerative braking it does complicate things.
The temperature on the rear varies massively from one lap to the next during a session. And when you compare pushing on a qualifying lap to racing and managing energy usage, the difference is huge. In every braking zone they change and evolve – it throws you out of your comfort zone and gives you a whole new fresh challenge as a driver.
As strange as it might sound, when you’re racing you do a lot of the driving without really thinking. You train, spend time on simulators and in the car in order to do things on autopilot. That way everything becomes natural, automatic in a race situation and gives you brain capacity to cope with the racing situation itself. With a Formula E car, you really have to think hard. It takes a huge amount of concentration, time and practice to make all these new processes and considerations subconscious as you would in other cars.
However, from an electric drive point of view, I was surprised at how natural it felt. When you’re in an internal combustion car, you’re tuned into it. Whether its naturally aspirated, has a turbo, is on wet or dry tyres, you automatically adjust to all these nuances. With the electric car you have a quicker throttle response, instantaneous torque and all the extra systems that come with the electric drive. But picking them up actually came very naturally from a driving point of view.
Over the seasons, we’ve seen some significant changes in the Formula E cars. Gear usage has evolved. From five- and six-speed gearboxes, teams are now using just two or even one gear. Since the opening up of the regulations, the efficiency of the motors have improved as manufacturers make developments. There have also been major advances in the software used in the cars since the basic systems in season one. This allows the teams to adjust things like the way the regenerative braking interacts with the overall braking performance, so the driver feels as comfortable as possible.
Inevitably, when you open up the rules, manufacturers and teams with big budgets will look at all sorts of ways to make the car go faster or help the driver get more out of the car. All these developments bring a surprising amount off of lap times if done correctly.
Having driven in many other cars and series, one thing missing from a driver perspective in Formula E is the lack of high-speed downforce corners; the ones where you know you’re on the absolute limit of the car. But efficiency is the number one goal here so there will be compromises.
However, the series brings other benefits. For example, the format of the race weekend and the locations is amazing. All drivers love the challenge of a tight, twisting street circuit so to have a calendar focused on them is a dream. For the fans, they’re closer to the cars, to the action and have much better access to the drivers and paddock area. It’s a great sport for spectators as well as drivers.
I think one area with huge potential for the series is the driver aid systems. There is so much to think about in the car, particularly for effective regeneration. It would be a huge challenge to remember the appropriate points to coast for regeneration on every section of every lap. At the moment, teams are using certain techniques to help prompt drivers into a re-gen state.
I think substantially more can be done here and as time goes by, teams will use more unique functionality to support the drivers. Although the teams will be reluctant to talk about it and give away their secrets, it’s something that I find particularly interesting from a technical and driver point of view.
What does the future hold?
From a technology point of view, I’d love to see Formula E open the regulations further in coming years. They would need to balance this with team spend but it would be amazing to see an all-wheel drive car as an option. This is a long way off but the removal of mechanical braking and all braking being done under regeneration would be a huge milestone. From a safety point of view, the feasibility of this is unlikely but it would be amazing for the technology to become so advanced to enable this to happen.
And in terms of longer term potential, my gut feeling is that Formula E is where electric racing generally needs to be in five to ten years. I don’t think that the technology is going to move on so quickly that it will be possible to go endurance racing with electric cars at the same speed as internal combustion cars – there will need to be some compromise across performance, speed or duration. I think sprint format racing will be the focus, while the electric rallycross proposal sounds amazing!
We’re still going through a really steep learning curve in electric mobility – and particularly how we can apply it to motorsport – but it’s a very exciting arena. As a start, I can’t wait to see what happens in the next season of Formula E.
To follow Alexander's exploits in racing this year, check out his Facebook and Twitter pages through the links below: