The roar of the racing powertrains might not be as loud as a Formula One (F1) car but Formula E, the global all-electric racing competition, has made it to Indian shores, with the Hyderabad ePrix (10-11 February), which marks round 4 of the Formula E World Championship, now in its ninth season.
After three rounds of racing in Mexico and Saudi Arabia (which hosted two races), Avalanche Andretti Formula E racing leads the team standings, led closely by team Tag Heuer Porsche. There are nine more teams in the race, including India’s Mahindra Racing, which has competed in the Formula E World Championship since season 1. From sporting rules to a revolutionary electric vehicle on the track, here’s all you need to know about the competition as India gets set for its first-ever Formula E race.
India’s motorsports moment
India is slowly but steadily returning to the global motorsports map. It is all set to make its debut on the MotoGP calendar, with the Grand Prix of Bharat slated later this year. For a country that has not hosted an F1 race for almost a decade—and given the sport’s massive fan following in India—this Formula E race is a welcome move. “It’s a huge deal. Since the last time India hosted a Formula One race, the fanfare for motorsports, whether it be because of Netflix (referring to the Drive To Survive series) or any other reason, has gone up tenfold. And to now have a full-fledged Indian team in our country, racing in a new-generation Formula E car, is a proper spectacle because it’s a global motorsports series. I think it’s going to shock a lot of people,” says sports commentator and TV presenter Suhail Chandhok, who has followed the competition’s journey since its first race in 2014.
Chandhok says the look and feel of the Formula E cars—and their close resemblance to F1 cars—presents a great opportunity for Indian viewers to “sample” rapid motorsports. The street race format is an important factor too. “The big thing that Formula E has going for it is that you are within touching distance of the sport. It’s coming to your cities; you are not travelling anywhere for it. You are literally moving to your balcony and watching the race…. You also see so much overtaking in a Formula E race and ultimately, when fans are watching a race, they want gripping overtaking manoeuvres,” adds Chandhok.
The car itself…
Is an electric marvel. Back in 2014, when the first Formula E race was flagged off in Beijing, China, the world was still understanding the complex world of electric vehicles (EVs). The Gen1 Formula E cars produced 200kW of power, enough for them to hit a top speed of 225 kmph and regenerate 100KWh of power. Fast forward to 2022-23, and the Gen3 cars produce 350kW of power and can hit speeds of 320 kmph—almost matching the speeds we witness in F1. “They have always been at the forefront of innovation, trying different things.... This new generation of cars is actually quite stunning to watch,” says Chandhok.
The new cars can regenerate an astounding 600KWh of energy and there’s something captivating about the loud whirring noise they generate. According to the Formula E website, compared to the Gen1 car, the Gen3 Formula E car is 75% more powerful, has 95 kmph greater top speed and six times the power regeneration capability.
Know the rules
Season 9 comes with some key changes in rules. For the first time, the races are running over laps and not a fixed time period. According to the new regulations, to maintain consistency with this switch to laps, safety car and full course yellow interruptions to racing will be compensated by added laps, replacing the previous additional racing time feature.
A slighty contentious rule from previous seasons that has been discontinued is “fan boost”. Introduced in the inaugural season, “fan boost” allowed fans to vote for their favourite driver and award them an extra boost of power during the race. The drivers could use this for important overtakes or to defend their positions.
Later this season, the competition will also see “Attack Charge”, based on a pioneering battery and charging technology, that will allow the Gen3 cars to receive an in-race energy boost—delivered at a lightning-quick 600kW. This mandatory 30-second pit stop, during a predetermined period in the race, will unlock two Attack Mode periods, with the cars running at 350kW versus the stock 300kW. For context, Attack Mode is a Formula E system where during the race, drivers first arm their car and then drive off the racing line through an activation zone. As a reward for taking a slower line through the corner, they collect an extra 50kW of power, giving them an edge in both attacking and defending manoeuvres.
All cars on the grid have the same chassis and battery. Formula E consists of two separate titles—one for drivers and the other for teams. It also follows a standard points system, used in other FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile)-sanctioned series, awarding points to the top 10 finishers. The race-day format is similar to F1—two practice sessions, qualifying, and the final ePrix or race.
Big names return
You may have seen the recent announcement that Ford Motors was returning to F1 in a technical partnership with the Red Bull Racing team.
Two massive names from the motorsports universe also entered the fold in Formula E ahead of this season—McLaren and Maserati. While McLaren is no stranger to racing fans, with 20 F1 World Championship titles to its name, Maserati’s debut in Formula E marks its return to single-seater competition for the first time in more than 60 years and also makes it the first Italian marque to compete in Formula E.
There are bound to be comparisons between Formula E and F1. “Both formats are very different and cannot be compared to each other. Of course, it (Formula E) is competitive. But Formula One is highly exclusive and the top 20 drivers and top teams across the world race in it. Therefore, it is the pinnacle of motorsport. In Formula E, there are many good drivers who have missed the boat to Formula One and are highly skilled. That makes it a worthwhile watch for both the racing drivers, teams and the viewers as well,” says Narain Karthikeyan, India’s first F1 racer and founder, NK Racing Academy, on email.
An electric future
The biggest appeal of Formula E is the fact that it is the first sport to be net-zero since its inception. A lot of the manufacturers in the series—be it Mahindra or Porsche— utilise the learnings from Formula E in their road cars, and vice versa. “EVs are the new buzz in the auto world. It is highly relevant in the world of technology and the automobile world,” says Karthikeyan. “Motorsport brings up new R&Ds, which paves its way along to the road vehicles. It (Formula E) will be a perfect platform for showcasing EVs and other technology which will trickle down to everyday mobility for the future,” he adds.
The sustainability factor is also something that will attract new, young viewers. In December 2022, Formula E was ranked the best total performer among more than 300 global sports organisations, including the NFL, NBA, Fifa, F1, and clubs like FC Barcelona and Manchester United—in the 2022 Global Sustainability Benchmark in Sports (GSBS) annual report. GSBS is an independent, global non-profit organisation which analyses and benchmarks the sustainability performance of professional sports organisations.
A home race for the home team
The Hyderabad ePrix is also a key moment for the Mahindra Racing Formula E team, which so far has 5 wins, 10 pole positions and 24 podiums in the competition. The team will expect to add to these numbers under new CEO and principal Frédéric Bertrand, who joined in November 2022. “The goal for the new season is quite simple – be able to get the best out of what we have. We have a brand new car, a lot of things to understand and develop. The car is still not 100% where we’d like it to be. We need to work hard on developing the car and delivering everything perfectly when we are coming to a track,” said Bertrand, speaking on the sidelines of a team event in Hyderabad, where Mahindra Racing also showcased the Mahindra M9Electro, its car for the 2023 season. “The moment we manage to align everything, we’ll get a good result. Mexico and Saudi Arabia were good examples,” Bertrand adds.
Bertrand also has an interesting driver lineup on his hands, with Great Britain’s Oliver Rowland, Brazilian Lucas di Grassi (who won the drivers’ championship in the 2016-17 season) and young Indian racer Jehan Daruvala. “I think I am a lucky team principal, having two very experienced drivers in the car. They are two different profiles but both of them have a high level of experience in the championship and know how to manage races and be fast in qualifying,” says Bertrand. “Behind them, there is a young guy (referring to Daruvala), pushing a little bit, reminding them that ‘I am here’. The trio is going so well together and they are working very hard together. That is a big satisfaction, I don’t have three drivers fighting against each other. I have three drivers creating a team and trying to learn together from their different experiences,” he adds.
Daruvala, who has competed in Formula 2 and tested with the McLaren F1 team ahead of the 2022 Canadian Grand Prix last year, is also looking forward to his new role as he transitions to Formula E. “Obviously, for me Formula E is completely different to what I have been racing in the past 7-8 years. Both of these guys (Rowland and Di Grassi) are super experienced. It’s a great package for me to be a part of. They also give me a lot of information. Being the reserve driver, I am not driving the car itself. Even if I am not at the track, I am at the simulator. When they are trying stuff in free practice, I’ll be doing that kind of correlation on the sim, to see where I can help them,” said Daruvala, during a press briefing in Hyderabad ahead of Saturday’s final race.
The Hyderabad EPrix race starts at 3.03pm on 11 February. This story was updated on Friday, 10 February, 2023.