Speed and sacrifice

Current E Beijing 2014 magazine Matt Brabham column

Andretti surged to the top of the teams’ championship at the first race. Reserve driver Matt Brabham explains how.

My interest in Formula E goes back to when the concept was first announced, and my curiosity was heightened when Andretti Autosport became one of the first teams to get involved. The idea of electric racing and the technology behind it is intriguing. The series is unique, and to be able to have a hand in developing it was really appealing.

The drivers that had committed to the series really caught my eye too. The talent and experience in the field is tremendous, with big names in racing from right around the world. I really wanted to get among those drivers and compete with them. It’s very rare you can get such an opportunity as an up and coming driver; learning from them will be invaluable.

The Beijing event was amazing. It was a real honour to be at the first event of its kind, to see how it all operated and to take it all in. I was assisting the Andretti team with strategy, supporting the drivers – Franck Montagny and Charles Pic – where I could. The racing was great, and that big crash both brought global attention to Formula E and showed how safe the cars are.

To compare the performance of the Formula E car with an Indy Lights car, the initial response and power out of corners is quite good – the power out of turns is comparable to most racecars that I’ve driven and, if anything, is more responsive. The main difference is top end speed, but the teams are discovering new quirks with the cars each time they take to the track and analyse the data.

The powertrain noise of the Spark-Renault racecars is quite different and takes some getting used to – that goes for both inside and outside of the car. In the cockpit, you are constantly changing between the different engine maps, to adjust the power available and therefore the battery use. You try and go as fast as possible while making the batteries last as long as possible. It can be hard to keep up with all the changes you can make as you are driving.

The tyres and weight of the car don’t change. However, you have to alter your braking technique due to the energy regeneration systems. The regen only affects the rear wheels, and it can fluctuate depending on the level of battery charge. This can cause an imbalance between the front and rear brake bias, which can be tricky.

In terms of getting the maximum from the Formula E car, there is a lot of guessing going on at the moment, which is natural due to the infancy of the series. This is leading to different strategies to find the most efficient method of using the available energy to set the fastest race time. In preseason testing at Donington Park, in the UK, it seemed as though every team took a different approach; it was surprising how quick and how slow different teams were in certain segments of the track.

I took part in the testing sessions and it felt to me that Andretti had one of the strongest set ups and strategies. It felt like our team was able to get on top of the car and systems before most of our competitors. The focus for the team was always very direct. We weren’t looking to set hero times. Testing was aimed at extracting speed from the tight Formula E street circuits, like Beijing, which means ignoring the fast, flowing nature of Donington.

Admittedly, that felt like a sacrifice. However, it really helped during the first event at Beijing. The results – with Franck coming in second and Charles in fourth – indicate that it was the right way to go.

As the season goes on, the competition will get closer as everyone finds the optimum way to operate the cars. To some degree, you could already see that happening in Beijing.

I am not sure if I will get the chance to race in a Formula E event yet. We’re still some time away from the next race (Malaysia, in November). Of course, as a racecar driver, you always want to race whenever you can, but I’m thankful just to be there with the team and to be part of the experience.”

This feature is extracted from the Current E Beijing 2014 magazine. Read the digital magazine for free, here.

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