A press release issued today by Formula E series organiser FEH (read it here: FE098) states that “three or four manufacturers” may be lined up for season two, and has caused a cascade of news stories. It itself, that statement isn’t really news, given that it has always been the stated aim of the series to bring on board multiple makes.
What is more intriguing is the statement by Formula E boss Alejandro Agag that four manufacturers would make Formula E eligible for “world championship status” under FIA rules. Presumably that is a step up from being merely an “international series”, although what the benefits are – financial, political, marketing – we’re not clear on. What we do know is that securing four manufacturers for season two isn’t as big a leap as it sounds.
Currently, the battery being used in all cars is built by Williams, to a very strict set of specifications laid down by FEH and the FIA. The composition of the Williams battery has been a closely-guarded secret until very recently – when the team judged it was too late for other companies to develop a battery in time for next season. The British based engineering firm went from drawing board to first prototypes in just six months last year. Of course, the team had a considerable head start: leading the effort was a chap who had helped develop the first F1 KERS batteries in 2009 at Mercedes, as well as the batteries for the Jaguar C-X75 hybrid supercar.
Even with that ace in the hole, the stringent crash and track testing required meant that, even with a particularly speedy design process, it took Williams a year to get from concept design to delivering the first race-ready batteries.
Karun Chandhok revealed back in June that Mahindra was serious about building its own car and powertrain, and team boss Dilbagh Gill confirmed that the company was already evaluating battery chemistries. That makes complete sense for a huge business which owns an electric car company. Looking at the Williams timeline, that would be about right to get a unit ready for season two.
Venturi, the electric car manufacturer that owns the Formula E team of the same name, was originally in the running to build the whole car. The Monaco-based business has tackled tougher projects – breaking the world land speed record for an electric vehicle, for example, and then breaking it again – but it ruled itself out of the development of the first Formula E racing car for a number of reasons. But building a winning powertrain for seasons two and three is much more to the company’s taste, and well within its capability.
Renault is also looking seriously at bringing to bear its electric vehicle engineering expertise. In fact, what is more surprising is that the car giant didn’t decide to build the whole powertrain for the car that bears its name. The company is in a slightly odd position, though, of wanting to work with Spark on its SRT car for season two (and presumably therefore offering upgrades to any of the teams who want to lease the whole SRT package again) and wanting to work with the e.dams-Renault team. But the company went on a recruitment spree in the summer, attracting top engineering talent to work on its Formula E programme; again, the right sort of timing to deliver a season two powertrain.
That brings the series neatly to the four manufacturers FEH would like. Elsewhere, it’s unlikely at this stage that Audi would divert resources from other racing series to build a car for the ABT outfit. More likely would be the 2016 season, if at all – the company doesn’t seem to have any burning desire to flog electric cars, after all.
The more obvious choices would be BMW (which we understand to be interested at this stage, but we’ve not heard that the company has embarked on a design programme), McLaren (as the company is already involved and, like Williams, has significant battery expertise from F1) and Mercedes (which developed the first KERS systems five years ago and which had a large hand in developing the prototype that the Spark-Renault SRT-01E is based on).
The elephant in the room – and it’s a large, muscular and good looking elephant with a powerful trunk, great stamina and acceleration a cheetah would be proud of – is Tesla. It’s a US car maker (Formula E has two US teams and two US races) that makes only electric cars (Formula E…well, you see where this is going) that are selling spectacularly well, not to mention its own continent-wide charging infrastructure.
It could well be that the rules and regulations of FIA governance simply don’t suit the Silicon Valley start-up spirit of Tesla. But it seems almost inconceivable that the company would not consider entering a championship made for it. There is provision to add another two teams in future seasons, we believe: plenty of time yet to see a Muskmobile in action.