Musing #51: The philosophical difference between Formula 1 and Formula E

Compared to last year and the year before, I have decided to change tack and throw Formula E in to the mix this year. While the renders were shared in January, Formula E physically unveiled its Gen2 car at the Geneva Motor Show earlier today. I find it to be an attractive design, specifically as it is something that Formula 1 is unlikely to mimic anytime soon; unless its American owner, Liberty Media, manages to miraculously convince the teams that the show is more important than the performance.

This brings me to the point of why Formula E finds it favourable to adopt such a radically different design compared to Formula 1, marketing reasons aside. I cannot profess to be an aerodynamicist but over two decades of following motorsports has led me to be more appreciative of its technical aspects. Also, it feels satisfying to be able to tap in to my years of studying physics and engineering, and leverage it to satisfy the curiosity of a random commenter on the Internet.

Formula 1 is considered to be the epitome of motorsports and rightly so. It is all about harnessing the ultimate performance from the machine and achieving the ultimate lap time, much of which is accomplished by being fast through the turns. Hence, F1 cars are set up to have the highest possible downforce so that the turns can be taken as fast as possible while ensuring that the high drag that comes with it doesn't impact the straightline speed as much.

Unfortunately, most of the downforce in modern F1 cars is generated using aerodynamic structures and appendages which leaves a significant disturbed air flow for the car following behind. A consequence of this approach is the poor racing that we see in F1 these days. The much-maligned Drag Reduction System (DRS) overcomes this specific obstacle for the following car, though it seems the wider cars and even more intricate aerodynamic structures have rendered it less powerful (and thankfully so).

On the contrary, Formula E being a spec chassis series, isn't focused on ultimate performance. The philosophy here is to accelerate quickly out of the corners using the instant torque from the electric motors, reach the top speed as quickly as possible down the straights and then coast for the remainder of the straights, before breaking hard while already cornering to aid the charging of batteries using the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). The power absorbed by drag increases with the cube of speed increase, so less drag results in less energy expense over a lap, while ensuring higher top speeds along the straights. The less disturbed air of a low drag/downforce setup certainly helps the following car but a side benefit of this, coupled with the low-grip, all-weather Michelin tyres, and instant torque is that the cars are incredibly difficult to handle around the corners due to which we see a lot more driver errors in Formula E compared to F1's cornering on rails.

I hope Season 5 of Formula E brings in better uninterrupted racing, made possible by having a single car complete the race. However, I hope that some strategic element of a pit-stop is retained, e.g., allowing for quick, short recharges for additional power at the expense of lost time. Formula 1 and E aside, 2018 is looking to be another cracking year for motorsports with a competitive MotoGP field littered with manufacturers and the the new low-downforce IndyCar.