CRIB NOTES: The Formula E season finale

Jean-Eric Vergne answering the question ‘what is Formula E’

The relentless Formula One triple-header has finally stopped, leaving an opportunity to think about literally anything else — but don’t fear that you’re in for a motorsport-free weekend, it’s time for another down-to-the-wire Formula E finale, with races on both Saturday and Sunday.

Whether you’ve just lost your sporting occupation for the weekend after Croatia made it through to the World Cup final and you need a reason to breach those cases of lager or you just watch so many motor racing series you might as well add another: Formula E is on all weekend and you can get right into it because it’s the final two races of the season that will decide a championship.

Here’s the TV times for the UK, don’t worry if you don’t know what any of the words mean yet, we’ll get there.

Saturday:
Free Practice One (on the Formula E YouTube and Twitter): 12:30
Free Practice Two (same places) 15:00
Qualifying: 17:00 (5Spike, which is Channel 5’s secret digital channel)
Race 1: 20:00 (also 5Spike)

Sunday:
Free practice: 14:00 (Formula E YouTube and Twitter)
Qualifying: 16:00 (5Spike)
Race 2: 20:00 (5Spike)

The championship might be decided in either race, having come down so close in the points. Either Jean-Eric Vergne or Sam Bird is going to take the fourth title in Formula E, after a relentless campaign by two absolute underdogs no one would have predicted being the top of the tables, at the end, if we went back to the start of the year.

If you want your heart in your mouth and something to hope for then pick a side, read up quickly and get on board the (power)train to gleeful, electric chaos.

It is racing single seater cars (which is to say, cars that look a bit more like Formula One cars than they do yer da’s hatchback estate) and pretty much the same thing every car racing series does.

You know, first you do some qualifying to decide which order you start the race in, then you start and everyone tries to be the one in the lead until it’s time to jump out of one car and get in the other one.

Oh and also it is electric.

Formula E was formed, as a idea, on a napkin by FIA president Jean Todt and bloodyminded former Spanish politician Alejandro Agag. The former politician and bloodyminded bits are part of what got it from a clever idea unread on a clever napkin to a global motorsport phenomenon with manufacturers breaking down the door to enter.

Been told these signatures do not work for their credit cards FYI.

Now towards the end of Season 4, here is a potted summary of what has happened.

Formula E was announced to great derision. Because the cars do not make hooting great diesel noises and as we know that is the only measure of motorsport. Comments such as “it will be shit” and “I hate this” abounded.

However, for the small number of people interested, which intially was a list of Brazilian driver ‘Lucas di Grassi,’ this was all very exciting. Williams Advanced Engineering (yes, the F1 team) committed to making the generation one battery, which will get its final outing in New York this weekend and McLaren committed to making a power train.

Building enough cars for a championship in time for it to start is a huge undertaking — especially when you need to know they can all run (in theory) the distance. So every car in Season One was the same, built

STOP: HISTORY TIME

Something worth remembering at this point is that the exact moment of inception of Formula E was when Formula 1 switched to full hybrid power units.

Hybrid engines use a combination of internal combustion power and recovered electrical energy — if you think about the amount of power it takes to get a car going, then imagine being able to get some of that back every time you brake and recycle it as power to accelerate again, that’s basically the system.

The Formula E power train is basically like a massively beefed-up MGU-K, in that although it works much harder than the F1 equivalent it is a motor unit that can take power from the battery and feed it to the drive train or take energy from the rear brakes of the car and feed it back to the battery.

To call season one ‘a bit of a shambles’ would be extremely unfair, because actually the titanic effort involved in even existing and getting to the end was incredibly impressive. Formula E’s improbable birth and subsequent stumble through its first, foothold-finding year is a colossal achievement that was absolutely necessary to get it where it is today.

Formula One would love to race in more city centres — they’re not allowed. They can’t build the tracks fast enough to avoid road closures, they can’t negotiate disruption and even with the reduced sound of hybrid power no one wants a dirty great V6 (or 20) honking around outside their chic central apartment.

Formula E managed to, in its first season, get 10 races onto the streets of cities worldwide. No mean feat. Also while there were more than a few driver changes, eventually recruited a fairly settled, specialist grid.

Yes, the cars weren’t especially powerful that season — but no one even knew if racing single seater electric cars would work or if they’d get to round 2. And Renault were rewarded for being the only European manufacturer to get onboard from the start by taking a triumphant team win.

Reliability was shonky for the Season One cars — oh, should probably mention we call them numbered seasons, like a proper teen drama series — and stopping on track a real possibility as teams struggled to manage the demands of electrical regeneration against battery temperature and the single-day race format.

But the point is: it worked. It happened, it functioned well enough to crown a champion (Nelson Piquet Jr, after a fight down to the last race, by one point) and Alejandro et all successfully proved the doubters wrong. You could say you didn’t like it — of course and people certainly haven’t stopped doing so — but you couldn’t say it didn’t work.

Dear god the thing has actually happened — S1 champion Piquet Jr with Alejandro Agag

Onwards! In Season Two things got moreso, as manufacturers and teams were allowed to build their own power train (although the batteries and car chassis remained the same) and the championship got a bit more of a tech arms race flavour to it.

Formula E teams are budget limited, so things can’t get as out-of-control as they can in Formula One and small teams still have a chance of moving forwards. In fact, the grid as we’ve gone on has only got closer and more shaken-up, with manufacturing giants falling off as their customer teams rise.

There’s actually been three manufacturers in Formula E from the start; Renault, Indian car giant Mahindra and tiny, highly bespoke hypercar makers Monaco-based Venturi. It would be reasonable to say that the fortunes of the three turned as mixed as the other teams as everyone tried to ham their way through making a powertrain for the first time and also that Season Two saw the introduction of a fourth manufacturer, Citroen-DS joining up with Virgin.

Something beautiful and magical about Season Two was that former Toro Rosso driver and professionally upset person at this point Jean-Eric Vergne also joined Virgin, to partner teammate Sam Bird. This is important, remember it later. Also watch this video:

And if you want to treat yourself, this video:

The championship fight overall once again went down to the wire — ending in London on a race best described as ‘fighty’ where Lucas di Grassi says he absolutely didn’t do what he explicitly said he was entirely willing to do and crash Sebastien Buemi out at turn one to try to take the title even if it might have looked a lot like that was exactly what happened.

He didn’t win it, anyway. Seb got the point for fastest lap and that was that.

And a second constructor’s title for Renault

Once you’ve got through your difficult second year there’s something to prove. And it was beginning to show, in different ways.

A new manufacturer joined the series as Jaguar announced their entry, specifically couched in the need to combat climate change. Formula E as a whole stopped tiptoeing around the issue and mumbling about technology rather than taking it head-on and got the full-power torque up to say: look, you’re killing the planet and this is if not the complete potential answer at least an attempt at doing something not totally hopeless in this completely vile world.

There’s probably never going to be a time like this in motorsport again. At least, I hope to god there isn’t because this is a frightening tipping point.

Even in the early days of motorsport, technological progress was driven by someone saying ‘hey man wouldn’t it be great if this went up a hill’ or ‘what if you could turn corners faster’ not ‘the entire planet is cooking and we have a very limited range of options to try to fight that and we have wasted so, so much time on technologies that make it much worse that we now hang by our fingertips above an abyssal future we have already fed our children into the hungry maw of.’

You might not think it’s trendy to say that but guess what my dudes? Climate change doesn’t care. Electric vehicles are, currently, the best viable option we have for replacing petrol cars — there is no method of powering them that creates more pollution than combustion vehicles (even if you generate the electricity by coal-burning, the worst possible way, it barely hits breaking even) and each charge vs refuel improves that.

We don’t have any time — or enough buy-in on this topic. So Formula E is making it. Think you don’t feel anything in an electric vehicle? Watch a man sob with relief and pride and ten million other things, winning his home race. Think electric vehicles have no fight? Watch a championship go down to the ugliest, hardest-fought wires and blow up in the favourite’s face when, after winning nearly every race of the season, he crashes disastrously in free practice and destroys his own chances in a cascade of broken carbon-fibre.

Lucas di Grassi — that Brazilian driver who was the first guy to get on board with the series, the one who talks about robots a lot and looks more like Tony Stark than is maybe entirely comfortable given that — finally got his title, after contesting both previous seasons. Sebastien Buemi’s dominance wavered. Amidst a vast influx of European and Asian manufacturers to the series, something in Formula shifted perceptibly.

weyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy

Which brings us to

The finale of which is where you find us. Here in Brooklyn things have come down to a wire with stakes higher than the one we use for the exciting swingy camera shots.

This is the final race weekend with the generation one Formula E cars, which use that same battery and basically the same chassis as the first season still.

Now, power output and regeneration levels have massively increased. Speeds are higher, so are battery temperatures — the machinery is under screaming strain and this title will be decided on the longest race distance Formula E has ever gone.

Racing on tight street circuits, on uneven surfaces, without purpose-built runoffs or the sort of safety features that keep cars out of walls at traditional circuits Formula E is everything people claim to want in F1.

Driver mistakes have immediate consequences, concentration is constant, the physical effort of turning a car without power steering again and again round hairpin corners as it gets no lighter (since there’s no fuel to burn off) than the nearly-a-tonne it weighed at the start is an effort of endurance that’s awesome to watch.

Formula E is hot, airless, hunkered down between concrete barriers that beckon your front wing to them like the the smell of barbecue to a starving man. This weekend, on the harbourfront in New York, a season — four seasons — of that comes to a head.

L-R, Jean-Eric Vergne, Sam Bird: choose your fighter

Brit Sam Bird has been an outsider to the title at the final round of each season so far. This time, he’s the only contender — 22 points seems like a huge gap but with 58 potentially on the table over the weekend, there’s everything still to play for.

Former teammates, JEV and Sam are going to take it — adorably, respectfully, in a way I’ve never really seen a championship taken — right to the end of the line. Unlike previous championships, there’s no beef, no crashing here — like a Nadal/Federer final, this is two guys who are going to cleanly fight it out on who runs the best race.

Formula E is close-fought on tight tracks and anything could happen. A foxed suspension or steering snap can ruin a race, a flaw in your setup can make it a struggle beyond the (extremely substantial) baseline difficulty.

Get your keg back in the refrigerator, get excited and tune in to something you’ve probably never seen before (to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like whatever’s going to happen here and I’m a Formula E journalist) and lose yourself in the screech of tyres, the dusty heat-mirage of the tarmac and the final scrabble for the points that end an era.

Professional motorsport journalist who puts things here when I know nowhere will really take them but think they need writing.