Mercedes-Benz Motorsport signed an agreement this week that gives the German manufacturer an option to enter a Formula E team in season 5 (2018/19). The team are the incumbent Formula 1 champions, and their interest in electric racing has been seen as a huge vote of confidence in the series.
“Racing has always been a technology R&D platform for the motor industry, and this will make Formula E very relevant in the future”, said Toto Wolff, executive director of Mercedes’ F1 team. This line of thinking is clearly shared by many of the major car manufacturers, as evidenced by the involvement of Renualt, Audi and BMW. Both on and off the racetrack, electric and hybrid-electric engines are becoming mainstream technology, and the pace of development has been blistering.
Which brings us to 2018…
Why are all eyes on Formula E season 5?
BMW and now Mercedes have (all but) confirmed that they will enter Formula E teams in the 2018/19 season. Several other manufactures have expressed an interest or will have some form of involvement. But if they are so enthusiastic about electric racing, why wait until then? The answer lies in the FIA’s technology “road map”.
The road map sets out how the technical specifications of the cars will change from season to season. It’s an extremely ambitious plan, because it relies on technology that doesn’t yet exist and relies on technical developments that haven’t yet been made! For example, between season 1 and season 2, the road map asked manufacturers to increase the range and power of their cars… but kept the batteries the same. This year, teams are being asked to make their cars significantly lighter. In season 5, teams will be asked to run for the entire race on a single charge.
It’s this key change (amongst many others) that has really caught the attention of high-end car marques. BMW and Audi, like all manufacturers, are in the business of selling cars. But selling electric cars to petrolheads might not be easy when the perception of plug-in vehicles is that they have a very limited range. Mercedes don’t want their badge on the front of a car that has to retire after only 30 minutes of racing. They fear this would simply reinforce this perception to viewers, and affect forecourt sales as a result.
So season 5 is about much more than a racing series, it’s about the culmination of technologies and a shift in our culture. It’s the tipping point at which the car industry will release models (which will be in development now) capable of matching petrol equivalents for range, comfort and power. More importantly, it could mark the point at which there is a cultural thirst for electric vehicles – and Formula E looks very well placed to capitalise.
The first race of the new Formula E season takes place in Hong Kong on Sunday 9 October. The ePrix starts at 4am EDT / 9am BST / 10am CEST / 4pm local time.
Image: Venturi in pre-season testing at Donnington © Formula E