Racing into the future with the ABB FIA Formula E Championship

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The ABB FIA Formula E Championship – a class of motorsport for electric-powered cars – presents not just a thrilling racing spectacle but also a versatile platform upon which to test and demonstrate e-mobility electrification and digitalization technologies.

Anthony Rowlinson Asea Brown Boveri Ltd Zurich, Switzerland, anthony.rowlinson@ch.abb.com

The global e-mobility revolution has many forms: experimental electric aircraft, autonomous ferries, fast-charging bus fleets, or the increasingly familiar sight of Web-connected electric vehicles (EVs) on public roads.

However, there is one e-mobility arena that takes the prize for high-profile, pioneering innovation: the ABB FIA Formula E Championship. This annual event pits 22 of the world’s most talented drivers against each other in the most advanced electric race cars yet created. The championship has been running since its inauguration in Beijing in 2014 and has been title-partnered by ABB since January 2018 →1.

01 Nissan team “Nissan e-Dams” action during the 2019 Formula E Championship at Marrakesh, Morocco.
01 Nissan team “Nissan e-Dams” action during the 2019 Formula E Championship at Marrakesh, Morocco.

The sound of silence
Perhaps the most notable aspect of ABB Formula E is the noise – or, more accurately, the lack thereof. As the world’s first global, all-electric motor-racing category, the race series was born of an idea that would shatter one of the most dearly held conventions in motorsport: that racing should be ear-splittingly noisy, thanks to highly tuned internal combustion engines spinning at up to 20,000 rpm.

Since its inception, ABB Formula E has taken a radically different approach by adopting battery-powered cars driven by high-efficiency electric powertrains that use some of the world’s most advanced e-mobility technology. As they compete on ever more city-center racetracks around the globe, the cars’ characteristic, muted high-pitched whine is becoming a familiar replacement for the roar of petrol-driven vehicles of other racing series →2.

02 The roar of Formula One is replaced by the quiet whine of some of the most advanced e-mobility technology on the planet. Here, the 2019 Formula E Championship in January in Santiago de Chile, Chile.
02 The roar of Formula One is replaced by the quiet whine of some of the most advanced e-mobility technology on the planet. Here, the 2019 Formula E Championship in January in Santiago de Chile, Chile.

Going from strength to strength
In under five years, ABB Formula E has blossomed from an audacious start-up, that was dismissed as a niche curio by both hardcore motorsport fans and the less visionary quarters of the automotive sector, into a sporting property of such relevance that major car manufacturers are now pushing their way into the championship, keen to flaunt their e-mobility credentials through competition success. Already the likes of Audi, BMW, Nissan and Jaguar field leading teams; next season they will be joined by blue-chip industry titans Porsche and Mercedes-Benz.

The championship is flourishing because of the relevance of its proposition at a time of growing concern over matters of sustainability, energy efficiency, pollution and urban congestion. In a single package that maintains a visceral sporting appeal at its core, ABB Formula E can showcase simultaneously: advanced electrification 
technology; urban transport solutions; the latest ideas in connected mobility; smart city visions and developments in sustainable power generation.

Putting the “E” into ABB Formula E
At the heart of the championship is a field of fast, electric racing cars driven by 22 of the world’s most talented drivers – many of whom have been drawn from Formula 1 racing.

Each of the 11 two-car, two-driver, teams competes with their own variant of the same basic machine: an open-cockpit single-seater built around an impact-resistant and highly protective carbon-­fiber monocoque, which cocoons the driver.

03 Gen2 cars compared with Gen1.
03 Gen2 cars compared with Gen1.

The suspension is hung from this central component and aerodynamic bodywork cloaks the inner workings. This much is relatively conventional and typical of almost any contemporary single-seat racer.

04 Exploded diagram of a Formula E car.
04 Exploded diagram of a Formula E car.

But it is behind the driver that the defining hardware of an ABB Formula E race car is hidden. Instead of a fuel tank, internal combustion engine and a multi-speed, semi-automatic gearbox, the “Gen2” racer, introduced in 2019, has a large, high-efficiency battery, one or two motors and a single-speed transmission →3 – 5. These are the elements that put the “E” into ABB Formula E.

05 The 2019 Formula E Championship in Hong Kong. Jean-Éric Vergne of France driving the Gen2 DS E-Tense for the DS TECHEETAH team.
05 The 2019 Formula E Championship in Hong Kong. Jean-Éric Vergne of France driving the Gen2 DS E-Tense for the DS TECHEETAH team.

Better batteries
The cars’ batteries are built and supplied by McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT) – a sister company of the famous McLaren racing team. The batteries are common to every car and central to the car’s performance.

Weighing around 385 kg, the battery is both larger and heavier than the unit supplied for the earlier generation of cars that raced from seasons one to four and its peak output of 900 V is an increase of 200 V over the previous technology. It permits peak power of 250 kW – approximately 330 bhp – and can propel the cars to top speeds of around 280 km/h.

More significant than these headline figures, however, is that the battery’s increased capacity and efficiency allows ABB Formula E cars to complete a full race distance on a single charge. Over the first four seasons of racing, technological limitations meant that drivers would drive half the race in one car then swap to an identical machine with a full battery.

While this unique changeover procedure provided a distinctive ABB Formula E spectacle, it also drew attention to a specific consumer hesitancy that has hindered widespread EV adoption: range anxiety. The Gen2 car’s bigger battery pack counters that concern, however, thanks to a 95 percent energy increase for a 20 percent weight gain →6. In this aspect more than any other, ABB Formula E has demonstrated the rapid pace of technical advancement across the e-mobility landscape.

06 The Gen2’s improved battery performance means the mid-race car changeover can be dispensed with.
06 The Gen2’s improved battery performance means the mid-race car changeover can be dispensed with.

MAT’s Gen2 battery pack was developed with particular regard for temperature management. Its internal lithium cells are highly sensitive to temperature: too cool and efficiency is not optimized; too hot and output life suffers. Homogenous cooling across the multiple individual cells inside the pack was, therefore, a key design goal.

Technology test platform
Elsewhere beneath the aggressively styled bodywork of the Gen2 cars lie experimental technical developments. ABB Formula E provides an ideal rigorous environment in which companies can put their new technology through its paces. For example, twin-motor installations, where each motor is dedicated to one rear wheel (rather than the drive from a single motor being split between two) have been evaluated for potential traction and drivetrain efficiency benefits.

All cars incorporate regenerative braking systems that harvest significant amounts of energy during the many intensive decelerations on the circuit. Until this season, each car’s so-called “regen balance” was controlled by the driver but electronic control introduced for season five has enhanced the process →7. This is precisely the kind of sophisticated energy management technology that is invaluable to car manufacturers in developing class-leading road models.

07 Recently introduced electronic control of regenerative braking systems has further improved car performance.
07 Recently introduced electronic control of regenerative braking systems has further improved car performance.

Taking charge
ABB has brought its technical expertise to the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY series that supports ABB Formula E at 10 races this season.

The Jaguar I-PACE all-electric SUV was named the 2019 Car of the Year at the New York International Auto Show by a panel of 86 motoring journalists from 24 countries, just weeks after it claimed the European Car of Year title. The race-prepared version of the I-PACE is powered at the trackside by custom-made variants of ABB’s Terra 53 DC charger →8. To meet the demands for a charger that could be both mobile at racetracks and easily transported between them, ABB commissioned a team of its engineers to reconfigure a standard Terra unit into a smaller package, with wheels, for easy freighting and maneuverability. By mid-season, the charger units had operated with a 100 percent success rate.

08 The racing version of the Jaguar I-PACE benefits from ABB trackside charging technology.
08 The racing version of the Jaguar I-PACE benefits from ABB trackside charging technology.

These are exciting times for ABB Formula E, with the championship in rude health and further ABB technical collaborations under discussion. As a platform upon which to test pioneering e-mobility technology and show the world the capabilities of electric vehicles, the championship is unparalleled. As Sébastien Buemi, a driver for Nissan e.Dams (a Formula E team), Season 2 champion and ABB ambassador, sums up: “When we compete in ABB Formula E, it feels like we are driving the future.” 

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