Formula E

Opinion: slipstream, energy saving & racing? The crux of Formula E after the Sao Paulo E-Prix

Tobias Wirtz

Tobias Wirtz

Apart from pure acceleration races, motorsport has always been about using the available resources efficiently to reach the finish line first. Formula E in particular has never been any different. At the Sao Paulo E-Prix, however, this has now led to rows and rows of drivers deliberately letting their rivals overtake them, mainly at the front. Have the extreme slipstream games of Brazil taken motorsport ad absurdum? A commentary.

"I actually had a perfect strategy: I always wanted to be second - so in a safe position where I can still save energy," was the statement of Antonio Felix da Costa at 'ProSieben'. "I paid the price for leading the race for too long," Stoffel Vandoorne, on the other hand, tweeted. The Formula E race in Sao Paulo was marked by peculiarities rarely seen in motorsport.

114 overtaking maneuvers, including eleven lead changes - in Monaco, where there were similar numbers at the Formula E premiere on the 2021 Grand Prix circuit, that was cool. Not in Sao Paulo, because it had nothing to do with racing.

Clearly, in Formula 1, drivers also have to switch gears and use the tires in a way that calls out the best performance from the tires, while at the same time making sure they degrade only moderately by the time they pit or end the race. In endurance racing and oval racing, it's often a matter of planning fuel stops so that you can just about make it to the finish line on fuel and not have to refuel just beforehand. Full throttle is the exception rather than the rule.

This also applies in Formula E: Here, energy management has been the crucial issue since the series came into existence. In the Gen1 cars, the tactic was to run the battery of the first car as flat as possible, then switch to the second car in the pits to contest the rest of the race. A necessary aspect at the time to be able to offer more than 20 minutes of racing. However, this generated a lot of rejection from motorsport purists and "petrolheads".

With the introduction of the Gen2 cars, the tactical focus shifted from vehicle switching to attack mode. Energy saving, however, remained the central point. In the third generation of vehicles, fast charging was to be added as a new tactical element. For well-known reasons, however, this season initially had to be started without the attack charge. The attack mode from Gen2 was retained for the time being, but lost much of its earlier influence on lap times and thus on racing.

Felix da Costa: "Now it's just getting too much"

Even if Daniel Abt seemed almost annoyed by Eddie Mielke's comparisons with stand-up attempts in track cycling on 'ProSieben' on Saturday: the comparison fits, even more than the one with chess. But if the only thing that matters in a car race is to let the competitors drive in front of you for as long as possible in order to have the decisive tactical advantage at the end, that leads to the question: How can something like this be prevented in the future?

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Because what happened on Saturday in Sao Paulo cannot be intentional. Even if Formula E celebrates itself for the numerous overtaking maneuvers. "I do like slipstreaming, but if you're fast, you should be able to win a race. And that wasn't the case with Stoffel today," Antonio Felix da Costa described on 'The Race.' "I don't know if I like that. This car provokes that anyway, but now it's just getting too much."

That the issue of slipstreaming would play a major role in Brazil was clear to all teams and drivers from the start. Just how much energy a driver can save while trailing the Gen3 cars was already evident in Cape Town: within four laps, Antonio Felix da Costa had turned his energy disadvantage into an advantage in the slipstream of Jean-Eric Vergne, overtaking the Frenchman on the penultimate lap.

Old criticism goes, new criticism comes

But what can Formula E do to avoid absurd wave-bys like the one in Sao Paulo in the future? It won't be easy, in any case. Massive interventions in the track design would probably be necessary. Since air resistance increases exponentially at higher speeds, top speeds would have to be significantly reduced. Unlike in Formula 1, electric race cars produce hardly any significant downforce via aerodynamics, so a driver can follow his car in front closely in the corners without any problems and save energy.

With Cape Town and Sao Paulo, the series has held races on the two fastest circuits in its history in recent weeks. There is no longer any talk of disappointingly slow lap times for the Gen3 cars. Criticism of the hard Hankook tires has also fallen silent for the time being. The drivers are enthusiastic, the top speed statistics impressive and the pictures spectacular. The dilemma is that for this, the battle for first place is now falling by the wayside - perhaps the oldest principle in motorsport.

Installing more chicanes on the long straights cannot be the solution: in Sao Paulo, the accordion effects were already too massive with the current layout, leading to tricky situations and rear-end collisions in the closely packed field. In Brazil, at least, the solution could therefore only be a complete revision of the track layout, should another E-Prix be held there next year.

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Hope for Gen3EVO, but not attack charge

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Changes to this dilemma, as Twitter user Sarah asked us, are unlikely to happen even with the introduction of Attack Charge in a few weeks: The problem will continue to haunt Formula E on at least some courses. This is likely to include Berlin, but not London.

For season 11, which will in all likelihood start at the end of 2024, however, a facelift of the cars, called Gen3EVO, could be introduced. Unlike the Gen1 and the cancelled update of the Gen2 cars, however, the focus here should not be on looks, but on improving aerodynamic efficiency and reducing drag.

Whether Formula E can really succeed in turning the Gen3 cars into significantly more streamlined vehicles with just a few modified body panels, however, is completely unclear.

"Business as usual" cannot be the premise

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One thing is certain, however: there is still a lot of water flowing down the Rhine before the start of Season 11. Time that Formula E doesn't actually have. Although six manufacturers remain in Formula E even without Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Penske, Porsche has so far only signed up through Season 10. Even though the Zuffenhausen-based company's Formula 1 plans are on hold for the time being, it is not set in stone that it will extend its involvement in the electric series. And that decision must be made soon.

In particular, the negative statements made by Porsche officials before the start of the season about introducing the attack charge in the middle of the season should set alarm bells ringing and ensure that race series organizers take concerns seriously. Rumor has it that the negative response surrounding the energy chaos race in Valencia in 2021 once influenced Mercedes' thinking about extending its Formula E commitment beyond the 2022 season - something the Stuttgart-based company did not do in the end. Not just for that reason, of course. Nevertheless: Formula E should address this issue.

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