Automakers use Formula E to market EVs, test their technology

The Dec. 15 start of the fifth season of the Formula E electric race series brings yet more automakers onto the starting grid with the addition of BMW and Nissan. They join Jaguar, DS, Audi, Mahindra and the Chinese electric brand NIO, while the 2019-20 season will see the arrival of Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. The series’ growing popularity with some of the world’s biggest brands underlines the importance of electric cars to their future lineups. But is getting onto the starting grid purely a marketing exercise for these companies, or is important technical knowledge flowing from the race machines to the road cars?

The series has changed massively in terms of drivetrain from the first series. Now teams develop their own powertrain. The shared componentry is limited to the battery pack, which this year is supplied by the McLaren-Lucid partnership. The battery pack now has enough energy to allow the cars to run a full race distance instead of the drivers swapping cars halfway through. This change has ramped up the flow of knowledge. “I would say it’s now 50-50 between marketing and test bed,” said Paul McNamara, technical director of Williams Advanced Engineering, which previously supplied battery packs and remains Jaguar’s technical partner. “It’s different for different manufacturers, but there is quite a lot of test bed in there. Don’t underestimate that side of it.”