Formula E: Excitement is electric as 'greener equivalent of F1' powers into Battersea for season finale

Nelson Piquet Jr can clinch the first title, while local boy Sam Bird is hoping for a home victory in London's first ePrix

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The Independent Online

Anyone who claimed to reach 140mph in south-west London on a Saturday would be laughed at on most days, but this weekend Battersea Park will be transformed into a motorsport enthusiast’s paradise as the final round of the inaugural Formula E season takes place.

In case you haven’t caught it this season, Formula E is the greener, electrical equivalent to Formula One: the races feature cars that run solely on electric power and take place on street circuits in some of the most iconic cities across the globe.

In the nine rounds so far this season, Formula E has graced Beijing, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Monaco and Miami among others; now London is set to bring the curtain down on a very successful debut year.

But the same question has continually cropped up since the first race in September 2013: how does it differ from the more familiar F1?

There’s no other category quite like it, given that Formula E is the only fully electric racing series in the world. Each of the 10 teams runs two FIA-homologated Spark-Renault SRT_01Es, which are complemented by a 200kw battery provided by the Williams Group, the  company that runs the Williams F1 team.

During races the cars are limited to 150kw, unless the driver is a lucky recipient of a FanBoost nomination (more on that later). There are pit stops, just as in F1, although drivers do not come in to change tyres or fuel – rather, with the electrical technology yet to harbour enough energy to last the near-hour race duration, they come in once a race for a complete car change.

But unlike F1, Formula E is hugely competitive at the front. No driver has won more than two races, and heading into the final, double-header round, in which 60 points are on offer, there are six men still mathematically competing to win the championship. One of those is Britain’s Sam Bird, who this season has combined his World Endurance Championship commitments with a full season driving for Virgin Racing.

For a driver who has come through the ranks at the wheel of a petrol engine, this year has been a new environment for 28-year-old Bird.

“I think it’s been a very exciting new challenge for myself, the team and the championship as a whole,” Bird said. “It’s been very well-received, and it’s grown into a championship that is very popular among motor sport fans and other fans of sport, and I’ve very much enjoyed it as well.”

If driving around city centres in electric racers was not hard enough in itself, as Bird explains, the drivers must make sure they do not exceed the power usage limit before the end of the race.

“Obviously we’re pushing around street circuits, which is always challenging, but the fact that we have to push and conserve energy in our cars is very challenging – and then the driver changes are a tricky area as well.”

It means that those behind the wheel – who include names familiar from F1 such as Nick Heidfeld, Jarno Trulli and Bruno Senna – must race to a carefully thought-out strategy that determines when drivers can push to the limit and when they must conserve energy, while still maintaining a fast enough race pace.

“I think looking after the battery and having a good strategy is the main concern for our championship,” added Bird. “If you’re not the quickest in another category but you manage somehow to push the car to its absolute limit you can still get a result, whereas if the car is slow in our championship or you’re not together with the circuit or the car is not performing well, you still need to stick to a strategy to a certain number of kilowatts a lap and if you can’t do that, you will not finish the race. If you use more energy than you’re allowed, you’ll be disqualified.” Another unique selling point of the class is how involved the fans are. Friday was devoted to the eVillage, a concept that sees all 20 drivers turn out for autographs, meet-and-greets and the chance for race fans to experience what Formula E is all about.

Then there’s FanBoost, which allows fans to vote on the internet for their favourite driver right up until the day of the race. The top three in the poll receive a five-second boost of 30kw in each of their cars during the race, a measure that can greatly aid overtaking when deployed at the right time.

Bird, who was born in Roehampton, barely a home straight from the track, will hope home support ensures he is one of those handed a valuable boost in a hugely competitive field.

“Everybody will be treated to some great, close, wheel-to-wheel action on a venue where motor sport has not been seen like this for nearly 50 years,” Bird said. “It’s a single-make formula and the driver line-up is superb. I’d say it’s one of, if not the toughest driver line-ups currently in motor sport globally, so those two things combined make for very, very close action and on their day anybody can win in Formula E.”

Although Bird still has a theoretical chance of the title, his prospects are slim as he sits exactly 60 points behind championship leader Nelson Piquet Jnr.

“I’m not thinking about that too much,” Bird said. “I just want to have two good races in front of my friends and family and home fans, bring home two decent results for Virgin, and hopefully that’ll be two pieces of silverware.”

What is Formula E? All you need to know

The world’s first fully electric motor sport series features 10 teams, each with two drivers. Races take places on temporary street circuits around 10 major cities across the globe.

What cars do they drive?

All teams this season use an identical Spark-Renault SRT_01E with a 200kw battery, equivalent to a 270bhp engine. During races the cars are limited to 150kw, with  three drivers each receiving a 30kw boost for two five-second bursts.

Do they make pit stops?

Yes, but usually only once to change cars, because one battery cannot last the whole race. Energy use and pit stop strategy will be crucial.

Who should I look out for?

Britain’s Sam Bird will be the home favourite, while nine former F1 drivers feature, including experienced duo Nick Heidfeld and Jarno Trulli. There’s one female driver, Simona de Silvestro who has raced in IndyCar in the US.

Jack De Menezes

Fans can vote for Virgin Racing and Sam Bird to win FanBoost and earn an extra five-second speed boost to make him go faster in the London race by visiting: fanboost.fiaformulae.com

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