How Formula 1 & Formula E are helping shape modern electric road cars
Formula 1 is recognised as the ‘pinnacle of motorsport’ around the world, showcasing the absolute best and latest automotive technology. The most skilled drivers on the planet race some of the fastest, most advanced cars ever dreamt up, but it’s far more than just how powerful or quick you can make a car.
F1 and more recently, Formula E (F1s electric sibling) are helping to inform and improve modern electric cars for the road. Better efficiency, increased range, improved aerodynamics and optimised battery technology means the EV you could be driving next week on an elmo subscription is more related to an F1 car than you might think.
Read on to find out how – don’t worry, we’ll keep it simple.
Energy is wasted an awful lot in ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles. The genius engineers in Formula 1 and beyond realised there was huge potential there to improve a cars power by harvesting that previously wasted energy.
When you set off in an ICE car, you accelerate by burning fuel in the engine. This creates lots of mini explosions which move a load of pistons to spin a crankshaft, that turns the wheels of your car, all within in fractions of a second. It’s clever, sure, but very inefficient. That’s because when you slow down, all that effort and energy you used to get going… disappears. It’s very difficult to recapture kinetic energy created by an ICE car. If you want to get moving again, you need to use up more energy.
So, in 2009*, Formula 1 introduced KERS to their cars – the Kinetic Energy Recovery System. In short the system captures that previously wasted energy when the car slows down by using a small electric motor/generator. The motor produces a small electrical current by capturing the kinetic energy from the wheels as the car slows down, and converting it into electricity. KERS then stores that energy in a battery to use again for later. You could think of it like recycling for energy.
It has a long history, though…
Regenerative braking has been around for some time, with the idea of regenerating energy for re-use around since the late 1800s (particularly for use on the railway network at the time).
American manufacturer AMC also debuted their ‘Amitron’ concept in 1967, which made use of an early form of regenerative braking.
But, albeit created beforehand, KERS was not widely adopted as normal until recent years, it could be argued, thanks to Formula 1.
In F1, it was seen as a boost button…
KERS meant the driver could momentarily increase the power of their car, making for faster acceleration, without doing anything extra themselves or using up more fuel from the combustion engine. They’d just activate the KERS, and it would take the stored up electricity in the battery and use it to give the car a power boost through the motor. Then, when you slow down again, it charges back up and you start the cycle over again. Fantastic for racing!
In road cars, though, it’s less about power and more about efficiency. Modern electric cars use regenerative braking (essentially KERS) by using the electric motor in your EV as a generator, capturing the kinetic energy and sending it back to the car’s battery. Some EVs will even use the KERS to stop the car completely when you take your foot off the accelerator, known as one-pedal-driving.
It may seem complicated, but this energy management technology makes modern electric cars far more efficient than their petrol and diesel counterparts, by harvesting that previously wasted energy. That’s great news for us EV drivers who want to maximise the range in our cars.
*Current F1 cars have a slightly different set up using magnets, with energy recovery systems split into two: the MGU-H and MGU-K. We won’t go into that here (as the ‘H’ one isn’t really relevant for EVs), but no doubt the ‘K’ system will continue to evolve and improve, making its way into your everyday electric car.
Both Formula 1 and Formula E are pushing the boundaries of battery technology. When racing, these batteries must take on and expel energy extremely quickly, repeatedly, in many different temperatures and under high stress; something that electric road cars will need to contend with too.
It’s only natural, then, that these advanced lithium-ion batteries be used in the road going EV. After all, more and more people are switching to electric, and the need for faster charging is ever growing. Plus, unlike a Formula E car, these road car batteries need to be able to charge, charge and charge again thousands of times after years and years of abuse during its lifecycle, all while maintaining a good battery health (or ‘State of Health – SOH). In Formula E, it just needs to last a season of races (if that!).
The battery health (SOH) of an EV is, essentially, how well its holding charge compared to when new.
It’s all very well creating more powerful chargers, but if the batteries overheat while charging or simply can’t take all that electricity on board in one go, they’ll degrade very quickly. Your EV that could previously do 200 miles in one go may now only do 150, because the battery has degraded over time.
The good news is that, thanks to F1 and Formula E batteries leading the charge in durability, modern day electric car batteries are vastly improved. Even electric cars built ten years ago would struggle today, but now most manufacturers will give an 8 year, 100,000+ mile warranty just for the battery alone. Claiming they’ll not lose more than 30% of their full battery health in that time. Some Tesla owners have reported less than 10% worth of degradation after 200,000 miles of driving and charging, so no need to worry!
It’s not just the battery or motor that F1 has influenced in the modern road car, though. Electric vehicles are known for being efficient, but they’re let down by the traditional shape of the car. So, manufacturers have tried to be clever on how they design the exterior of their EVs to make them as aerodynamic as possible – all thanks to the tech used by F1 teams… well, sort of.
As McLaren have put it, aerodynamics is…
“the study of the properties of moving air and the interaction between the air and the car, often the defining science in modern F1 design”.
The smoother a car can cut through the air in front of it, the less drag it will create and quicker it will be. But, it’s not that simple, as if you make a car too ‘slippery’ through the air, it could spin out and lose control. That’s why F1 teams are constantly chasing the balance between downforce (how grippy and glued to the road a car is) and aerodynamic drag.
This has drip fed its way into the modern electric car. Manufacturers have made their EVs lead the way in aerodynamic efficiency – that’s why four of the top ten most aerodynamic production cars ever made are modern electric cars built within the last ten years. The less power you need to make a car move through the air in front of it, the more efficient it will be, the more range it will have. But don’t worry, your EV won’t suddenly spin out because it’s so aerodynamic.
We could be here for days!
Yep! There are a lot of ways these motorsports help inform road going electric cars. The long and short of it is, Formula 1 and Formula E seasons (in particular) are being treated as ‘fast paced laboratories‘ for the road car.
It’s a huge topic, which you can find out more about using the sources below.
How Formula One innovation is shaping the world’s electric vehicle future
How is Formula E shaping the cars we drive in the real world?
You can try an electric car for yourself
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