Comment: How Formula E could get its "overtaking problem" under control
The first three races of the 2024 Formula E season are behind us. The bottom line is that they were unable to offer the entertainment value that the electric series usually does. One reason for this was the race lengths calculated by the FIA, which have a decisive influence on energy management and therefore on the number of overtakes. But can Formula E get it right? A commentary.
There is a fine line in Formula E: after the races in Mexico and Saudi Arabia, many fans and the media complained that there were too few overtaking manoeuvres. On the other hand, there may be a lot of shouting again in mid-March when drivers wave each other past at the Sao Paulo E-Prix.
In both cases, the tip of the scales is the amount of energy available in the battery: if there is enough energy available, the drivers can go flat out and set faster lap times. However, this results in fewer overtaking because the drivers can brake very late and have to "lift" less.
At the 2023 Diriyah E-Prix, Formula E still completed 39 and 40 laps respectively - with a usable amount of energy of 40 kWh. This year, the FIA, which always sets these parameters a few days before the race weekend, took a much more conservative approach. The drivers only had 38.5 kWh at their disposal, while the races were only supposed to be 37 and 36 laps long. It is quite possible that the FIA took the criticism of some races in 2023 to heart and wanted to avoid "fake" overtakes at all costs.
Dirty track throws plans into disarray
The Riyadh Street Circuit probably caught the FIA off guard, however, as the grip level and the associated energy consumption were significantly lower this year than in 2023. This was already evident in the first free practice session, when the best times were around five seconds slower than last year (although they should have been faster).
The main reason was probably the numerous construction sites in the immediate vicinity of the track, which generally stir up a lot of dust that is transported by the wind. The dirty asphalt meant that the drivers put less energy onto the road and therefore had to recuperate less, meaning that there were hardly any overtakes.
Instead of reacting to that, the FIA left the race length for the second race at 36 laps - even one lap less. Nick Cassidy shook his head in disbelief during the press conference after Friday's race when he heard about this. As expected, there were hardly any position changes on Saturday that were not due to attack mode activations. That was definitely too little.
More flexibility in race length possible?
Admittedly, it's not easy to tread the fine line between saving too much and too little energy. Especially not when the track is surprisingly completely different from the simulations beforehand. All the teams had to struggle with this problem in Diriyah, too. But couldn't the FIA and Formula E have at least reacted after the Friday race by increasing the amount of energy or extending the Saturday race?
It may not have been possible to make adjustments at short notice because all the teams had prepared with the original data and would otherwise have protested. But the bottom line is that the overall product of Formula E should be right for the spectators. For this reason, a little more flexibility in determining the race length would be desirable. And the surprise factor has never hurt in motorsport...
We are curious to see how the FIA will proceed ahead of the Sao Paulo E-Prix, where so-called peloton racing began twelve months before. If the race length were shortened, the drivers would have to save less energy. The slipstream of the car in front would therefore not provide as great an advantage as it did in 2023, while at the same time, fans would crave more overtakes than in the first three races of the season.
At least in terms of grip conditions, the track in Sao Paulo should be easier to plan for than the desert race in Diriyah. We are hoping for the perfect energy compromise.