Condensed matter: Putrajaya build day

We thought the Thursday ahead of the second Formula E race would be a pretty quiet day. We were wrong. Here’s what’s been happening.

If you hadn’t heard of Putrajaya before the Formula E organisers decided to hold a race here, don’t worry – you’re not alone. But once you’ve seen this track and its surroundings, you won’t soon forget it.

The place is magnificent, with striking architecture, thick greenery, wide roads and incredible bridges everywhere. The city is a purpose-built home for the Malaysian government, and it really does reflect an appropriate sense of occasion. It’s designed to impress, and impressed we are. These are our thoughts so far, on what was essentially a day for teams to assemble their cars:

  • The temporary pit building is vast. Absolutely, unarguably (and terrifyingly, for those with no sense of direction) vast. The garages are located on the ground floor, and they all have ceiling fans for cooling, and crisscrossed plastic grid flooring. The first floor houses the media centre and all the catering facilities, while the top floor plays host to the VIP Emotion club and race control. There’s probably a lot more besides, but that’s as far as we’ve explored. There are staircases galore, and life-saving air conditioning. It’s a structure that looks like no expense has been spared.
  • The temporary pit building is not watertight, however. At about 5pm today, Malaysia showed us what it can do when it cooks up a storm, and you’d no sooner call it pathetic than you would a Gordon Ramsey meal if he was serving it to you himself, with sharpened chef’s knife in hand. The downpour soon worked its way inwards though, and we watched with a sort of awestruck horror as the emergency exit light housing filled up with water and as the walls suddenly became fetching water features. Before too long, the whole of the floor was a swimming pool – just what you want when there are extension cables and high voltage systems everywhere you turn.
  • Perhaps the biggest news today is that Andretti Formula E reserve driver and Current E columnist Matt Brabham will race in Putrajaya. He will stand in for Charles Pic, who picked up fourth place for the American team in Beijing but who is reported to now have an unavoidable F1 commitment. (We think Pic is sulking after his team mate, Montagny, steamed past him in a move that was more Fight Club than Forza 5).
  • The heat and humidity are intense, but that isn’t overly worrying for the drivers. Jerome d’Ambrosio reckons that Formula E is less physically challenging than other series, partly due to the lower speeds and partly due to the relatively short stints in the car. Lucas di Grassi even felt the time was right to jog around the access road of the track (the roads haven’t yet been closed, so the circuit was still heaving with traffic).
  • The Venturi mechanics have a fight on their hands to get a brand new car built for Nick Heidfeld and ready in time for tomorrow afternoon’s shakedown session. (His other car was…well, more a pile of parts than a car, after that spectacular crash in Beijing.) Although the cars are essentially automotive Lego, there are a lot of complicated parts to put together. What’s more, the driver needs to feel confident that the car is properly sorted, and is not just a rush job likely to fall apart at the first corner. Despite some time to work on the car yesterday and all day today, the Venturi boys and girls are facing a late night tonight to have a chance of competing for points on Saturday.
  • The circuit itself looks superb on paper and even better in reality. The imposing buildings certainly help, but it looks like a track the drivers will enjoy pushing hard at. Overtaking could be minimal here though.
  • The heat is widely expected to prove problematic for the powertrains, which are prone to overheating pretty quickly. The Williams team on site reckon they’ve got a few solutions to try out, which mostly revolve around reprogramming top secret software settings. They say that while they could just tell the teams how best to operate the batteries in all conditions, it’s much more fun watching the teams figure it out for themselves.
  • On the subject of Heidfeld and batteries, when a team needs to replace components, apparently the team has to stump up the cost itself. If a battery fails, it’s sent back to the Grove plant for analysis – not a cheap undertaking. The reason is that the systems back at the Williams base are much more sophisticated than those on site, and the battery can be properly tested once it’s been meddled with. Heidfeld’s battery checked out fine on its return to the UK, but it’s been decommissioned anyway: Williams doesn’t want to take the risk that a tiny fracture may have snuck in. We haven’t managed to dig up a figure yet for the cost of the battery pack  but it’s unlikely to be pennies. Venturi must be feeling the additional pinch – as must all those teams who needed new gearboxes in Beijing.
  • And talking of gearboxes, there are reinforcing struts being fitted this time out to try and make the units a bit more robust. The problem is, the ’boxes were failing because drivers were thumping them into walls, and all that energy has got to go somewhere. “Better the gearbox than the battery,” as we were told. Better to stay out of the walls, we reply.
  • Audi Sport ABT is recognised as having a nose in front of the other teams when it comes to getting to grips with the car, along with e.dams-Renault. But the team thinks that lap times will be much closer this time out, and that the gap will now shrink fast. The team may have found a new driver however – Putrajya’s mayor dropped in and seemed particularly taken with the red, yellow and green cars. We heard his assistant asking ABT’s team principal when the mayor could go for a drive around the track in the car. Told that the circuit was still open to traffic, his assistant then asked when it would be closed and whether the opportunity could be rescheduled. The mayor himself was a good natured chap and evidently didn’t think his frame was suited to the cockpit of the car.
  • Nelson Piquet Jr is looking in feisty form for China Racing. He’s been putting in time on the Campos simulator in Spain, apparently, and is keen to have a good bash at things on Saturday.
  • Buemi looked positively radiant (and no, that’s not a reference to the heat). It might have something to do with his shiny new WEC title, of course. We’re going to be watching him pretty closely this weekend. He might just steal the show.
  • Look out for Mahindra Racing tomorrow, too. The team is announcing a new sponsor – an iconic brand that’s as synonymous with motor racing as it gets. 
  • We’ve been told that the teams run anti-freeze through the electric motor to prevent corrosion. Ironic, in this heat.

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