Formula E returns to Monaco this weekend, but it’s different this time. Rather than racing on an abridged version of the track as they’ve done before, they will finally race on the full version of the most famous racetrack in the world.
Previous Formula E races have cut off almost half of the track – rather than going up the hill, around the casino, and down through the tunnel, they turned right after the start/finish straight and rejoined the track at the marina.
This offers Formula E a unique opportunity, one we’ve never seen before – we are now going to see a direct comparison between Formula E and Formula 1 cars for the first time.
But first, a little recap of the chaotic events in Valencia.
2021 Valencia ePrix race recap
The weekend was a tale of two races – with a one-of-a-kind chaotic race on Saturday, and a relatively “normal” processional race on Sunday. It made for quite the interesting weekend, regardless of what kind of fan you are.
As we mentioned prior to the race, rain was forecast for the weekend, and the weather did not disappoint. Saturday’s race (round 5) was entirely wet from start to finish, in a way that we have rarely seen in Formula E before.
Round 5 started behind the safety car due to these wet conditions, and throughout the race there was quite a bit of chaos from the wet roads. Though Formula E cars race on “all-season” treaded tires for every race, these tires offer somewhat of a compromise between wet and dry conditions, never quite offering optimal performance in either condition.
So we saw a lot of cars going off track all through the race. There were several trips to the gravel – a new experience for Formula E, which normally races on city streets without gravel runoff areas. And several crashes as well. These crashes brought out five total safety cars over the course of the race (including the start), a record for Formula E. Which led to one of the more bizarre finishes in motorsport history.
Safety cars are an interesting thing in Formula E. Previously, they had been thought of as a way to save energy – lower speeds behind a safety car means cars can save up energy which means they then don’t need to worry as much about energy efficiency when the safety car comes in. But a new rule was added last season where energy is deducted from each car’s allowance for every lap behind the safety car, to ensure that efficient driving is still important even in races where the safety car comes out.
And efficiency was going to be important this weekend anyway. On top of the rain (which reduces efficiency significantly – tires have to push water out of the way, which adds rolling resistance), Valencia is a relatively high-speed track without many opportunities for regenerative braking use, so it was thought that energy use would be quite high and efficiency would be even more important than usual. For this reason, nobody really wanted to lead the race–- everyone seemed content to let Nyck de Vries hold on to the lead, expecting to attack near the end of the race.
But as the end of the race ticked down, it became apparent that everyone had miscalculated. A late safety car left us with just two laps of racing left when it came in, and after energy had been deducted from the cars, they were all… nearly empty. Half the field had about 1 or 2% left with which to finish those two laps, which simply wasn’t going to be possible. Cars started slowing to a crawl in a desperate attempt to make it to the finish, and some just stopped by the side of the road knowing they wouldn’t make it.
In the end, eight cars would stop or be disqualified due to energy limitations, including some who had been running at the front with podium hopes. A further seven cars had fallen victim to collisions or mechanical problems of some time. As a result, there were only nine finishers classified after the race – one of whom, Jean-Eric Vergne, crawled over the line more than four minutes after the race was over.
To be clear, the cars did not actually run out of energy – they just ran out of their allowance of energy. In order to make sure Formula E cars perform similarly regardless of charge and to keep the playing field level across the board, they’re allowed to use less than the full battery’s capacity. That limit is further lowered, as mentioned above, when safety cars come out. So when half the field “ran out of energy,” the cars could still drive, it’s just that the rules disallowed them from doing so.
Mercedes was the only team that seems to have left themselves with enough of a buffer to finish the race comfortable. As a result, de Vries, who did an excellent job at the front for most of the race, ended up cruising to a bizarre but well-deserved win. And his teammate, Stoffel Vandoorne, who had started in last place due to a penalty, managed to finish on the podium in third place. Second went to Nico Muller with Dragon-Penske, their best result since 2016.
The Sunday race, round 6, was much less controversial. It was dry and polesitter and rookie Jake Dennis spent the race holding the lead and backing everyone up with an aggressive energy management strategy. Most cars behind were happy to oblige, given the previous day’s chaos, and nobody mounted any effective challenge to Dennis’ lead.
The race continued as such with a relatively tight pack and not a huge amount of action. There was your standard jockeying for position and still a good amount of passing, but not the chaos that we’ve gotten used to in Formula E.
Things still got a bit more exciting near the end, as they always do in this series, and the action picked up a bit with some interesting fights in the field. Notably, Dennis’ team radioed him halfway through the penultimate lap telling him that he had to slow down by about one second, lest he cross the line too early, adding another lap to the timed race, and putting everyone’s energy management programs in jeopardy again. He did, which led to a bit of a traffic jam as he parked it on the apex of the final chicane, but everyone else obliged and was happy that they got to actually finish the race that day.
Dennis ended up winning from pole in a lights-to-flag victory, an impressive feat for a rookie on a team that is quitting the series at the end of this year and hadn’t had a great season before this weekend. Andre Lotterer and Alex Lynn rounded out the podium for Porsche and Mahindra, showing that Lotterer can actually be fast when he doesn’t crash into everyone all the time (a rare sight).
In a way, this second race was a bit refreshing. Seeing Formula E cars race on a real racing circuit, in dry conditions, without the chaos we’ve gotten used to, with normal strategic concerns, etc., was kind of nice. It was a bit of a “boring” race in that sense, but it was nice to see that Formula E could produce something a little more traditional.
It also made the championship more interesting, as none of the five championship leaders or three leading teams scored any points in Sunday’s race. Mercedes and Jaguar are still quite a bit ahead, but beyond that things get very close. And in the drivers’ championship it’s anyone’s game still, with no clear favorite to win the season yet.
Formula E news
After the chaos of Valencia’s Saturday race, there were lots of calls for some sort of change to the regulations. At first the series denied that they would change anything, but this week they relented. They will now still remove battery capacity when the safety car comes out, but not after the 40-minute mark in a 45-minute race.
This will give teams better strategic control over what happens in the race. Had the energy been deducted earlier during Saturday’s race, teams might have been able to do more aggressive energy saving programs and finish, albeit more slowly than they’d have liked. But since the energy deduction came so late, this gave teams little time to adapt.
In other electric racing news, the PURE ETCR electric touring car championship got FIA approval and will become the FIA eTouring Car World Cup starting in 2022. This will be a different series than FIA’s recently-announced Electric GT series, helping round out the list of zero-emission GT racing.
NASCAR also just announced new regulations for the future. While the series is sticking with big V8s, they’ve apparently designed these regulations with potential future hybrid systems in mind. From Ars Technica’s article:
“The ability to have hybrid in there very easily in the very near future was important to us, something that NASCAR and the industry has already worked on,” said Ford’s Rushbrook. “We’re able to do that. That’s going to be important so that we can continue learning the technical innovation of hybrid systems, and beyond that, to full electric cars, too.”
2021 Monaco ePrix race preview
And now on to the big event: Formula E, in Monaco, on the full track, for the first time ever.
As mentioned above, the Monaco ePrix has only ever raced on half of the traditional Monaco circuit. In the track map below, imagine cars turning right at turn 1, but instead of going up the hill towards turn 2, they cut down a side road to rejoin the track with a hairpin at turn 11, then continued from there.
Now we’ll get to see classic parts of the track like the hairpin and the tunnel for the first time. The hairpin has been chosen as the attack mode activation zone, which should offer an interesting choice for drivers, particularly given how low-speed the hairpin turn usually is.
And of course, this brings up the question of direct comparisons between Formula 1 and Formula E. Now that the two series will race on the same track for the first time, we’ll get a direct comparison between relative speeds.
Well, mostly direct, anyway. The first turn of the Monaco track will be re-profiled for this weekend’s race, returning back to the original 1929 layout that should offer a somewhat faster entry into turn 1 for the long run up the hill to turn 2. There’s also been some changes to the chicane after the tunnel, which looks like it should offer a slightly lower exit speed.
It’s expected that Formula E will be a lot slower than Formula 1, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone at this juncture. Formula 1 budgets run in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year, while Formula E cars have relatively little development costs – all cars have the same chassis, body and energy storage, and only small amounts of powertrain development are allowed. Formula E also runs on street tires rather than slicks, which can account for several seconds per lap, especially on a circuit like Monaco where mechanical (as opposed to aerodynamic) grip is paramount.
Besides, while electric cars can match and beat gas cars in normal street, drag race, and single-lap performance these days, long high-speed races are a different beast. A Formula E battery is 54kWh, whereas the 100kg of fuel that Formula 1 cars are allowed to use in a race is the equivalent of almost 900kWh worth of energy. They’re just running on different levels.
A more amenable comparison for Formula E will be the racing excitement generated by the race. While the Monaco Grand Prix is a flashy spectacle, it’s known to be an exceptionally boring race, where virtually no passing ever happens. The race is famously decided on Saturday, where whoever gets pole position is expected to win on Sunday. The track is just too tight and curvy for F1 cars to get a chance to pass each other.
While the track is the same in Formula E, the passing is much better. Since Formula E cars rely less on downforce and are more similar to each other in performance, there are more chances for passing. We’ve seen this in previous iterations of the Monaco ePrix, but now we’ll have some new passing zones on the extended track – the entrance of the hairpin and the exit of the tunnel in particular. So while it will be a slower race than F1, it will likely be more interesting.
Finally, since we’re racing on the full track now, we’ll get to see another direct comparison: to the future Formula E Gen 3 cars. When we come back to Monaco in two years with the next-gen cars, not only will we see how they compared to the current Gen 2 cars, but also to see how much that generational improvement closes the gap between Formula E and Formula 1.
So tune in for this weekend’s race, it should be an interesting one. Plus, the Prince of Monaco loves electric cars, so this is as good a race as any to support with your viewership.
The race starts at 7 a.m. PDT/10 a.m. EDT/2 p.m. UTC/4 p.m. local Monaco time. The race will be aired live on CBS Sports Network in the US (broadcast starts 24 hours from the time of this posting), or if you’re elsewhere, head over to Formula E’s website to find out how to watch the race in your country. If you can’t find a way to watch the race live, Formula E usually uploads race highlights to their YouTube channel within days.
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