The Spark package is reaching mid-life. The current format of Formula E car will last only until the end of season four, and in another couple of months two of those seasons will have been served.
(An all-new chassis will take to the tarmac in season five; the tender for supply will close next month, so we don’t yet know whether the supplier will be Spark again).
To guide the electric single seater racing cars around Formula E’s street circuit tracks, Spark specified a XAP steering wheel for the first and second seasons. By now a familiar sight to Formula E fans, the unit features three large rotary dials, set below a digital screen and flanked by push buttons. A row of shift lights sits just above the screen and four paddles are mounted on the rear.
The steering wheel is an especially important bit of kit in this series because Formula E allows very little telemetry to be relayed to teams during races: it’s up to the driver to keep an eye on critical items, such as powertrain temperature and energy levels, while racing. That information is delivered via the steering wheel screen to the driver, who in turn relays it to the team via the radio.
In the first season, all cars had identical powertrains so the steering wheel was utilised pretty uniformly throughout the paddock. Two of the paddles controlled gear shifts in the five-speed Hewland ’box, one was used to activate Fanboost, and one was used to trigger levels of regenerative braking. The three dials were used to switch between pre-programmed power and torque maps as well as to alter regen settings.
The introduction of new powertrains in season two changed how the steering wheel could be used. DS Virgin Racing and NextEV TCR, for example, both run single gear configurations; without the need to change gear, the paddle shifters are suddenly freed for other uses. Similarly, although Renault e.dams has a twin-gear solution, the car has a manual shifter, which again leaves the paddles free for other uses. It offers the engineers the ability to be even more specific with how they programme the car for each race.
For season three, Spark will introduce a new steering wheel, which will again be a mandatory component for all teams. “It will be much more like an F1-style wheel,” one engineer told us, confirming that XAP will continue as the supplier. “There will be lots more buttons and teams will have greater control over how it is programmed.”
The steering wheel may also allow for electronic brake bias adjustment, rather than the manual knob which is currently employed. “The FIA doesn’t want a fully automatic system,” our source explained, when asked if teams would be able to use the new systems to use programming to autonomously balance brake bias with changing regen levels, something drivers have to do themselves presently. “The intention is to make the cars relatively hard to drive to keep the focus on the driver. Electronic brake bias would still support that aim but would allow the driver to keep his or her hands on the steering wheel, which is better for safety and for the racing.”
Spark has also been working on new front bodywork, which could make an appearance at Donington Park this summer for collective preseason testing. From what we understand, a second front wing will effectively be added above the existing plane, connected to reshaped front fairings and meeting the nose in the centre. Like the existing wing, the new addition won’t be adjustable, with the flaps on the lower front wing remaining the only way for teams to alter front end aerodynamic behaviour.
The reason for the updated kit appears to be mostly aesthetic. “It won’t really affect the aero,” says our source. “Organisers want the car to look a bit more different. They’re looking at those F1 concepts and thinking how we can make the car stand out more.”
The season five chassis is hoped to be much more radical-looking than the current car, which is built by Dallara, to help add to the visual drama of a Formula E race day. Because all teams will continue to run identical chassis, compromising overall efficiency for aesthetic flair won’t harm the racing; however, season five is also when organisers would like to move to a single car per driver, which would suggest the new aero design would have to be particularly low-drag to prolong battery life, while incorporating effective powertrain cooling.
In the meantime, we have a revised Spark package to look forward to this summer along with a raft of updated and new powertrains, including the much-anticipated Jaguar/Williams effort and Andretti’s by-now-bug-free system. It’s going to be heaven for tech geeks. (Like us.)