Nissan Plugs in for Formula E Electric Car Racing

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 16, 2019

RED HOOK, BROOKLYN—Nissan, which became the first Japanese automaker in the fast-growing Formula E series this year, scored an impressive victory in the last race of the season in Brooklyn. Driver Sebastien Buemi finished in third place (and second place in the championship standings). His fellow team driver Oliver Rowland came in sixth.

Nissan's e.dams team in the pits. It looks chaotic, but it's choreographed. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Earlier in the week, I sat down with Buemi and Rowland at Nissan HQ near the track. “Fans want to see good racing,” Buemi said. They got that this season, because the Gen2 cars are a step ahead this year, and able to finish the entire 45-minute race without a vehicle switch. Nissan was cautious about its last race. “It’s been a whirlwind,” said Michael Carcamo, Nissan’s global motor sports director. “We knew a lot of learning had to happen.” Going into those last racing days, Nissan had taken five pole positions and had been on the podium four times.

Nissan team drivers Oliver Rowland (left) and Sebastien Buemi, who came in third (of 22) in New York. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Winning is part of the goal, but so is selling a battery-powered future. The company wants the consumers who are thinking about going electric to realize that there’s at least a little Leaf in the Formula-E race car. “The energy management software shares some of the Leaf’s DNA,” Carcamo said.

The quiet is a bit eerie, but it's fast and furious racing, with the lead frequently changing. (Nissan Photo)

The car is a mix of proprietary and shared components. From just 24 kilowatt-hours, the battery jumps to 54 kWh, and with power increasing from 200 kilowatts to 250, top speed jumps to a potential 174 mph. Of course, the track is important. In Brooklyn, Buemi said, 130 mph is more the top speed. But that’s plenty fast enough.

“Gen2 is a totally different car,” Rowland said. “Fans may have liked to see the drivers switching cars, but now we are showcasing how much battery technology has improved. Electric cars are ready to go.”

Nissan's NISMO racing version of the Leaf was displayed in Brooklyn. A dedicated Leaf racing series might be a good idea. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The 22 cars from 11 manufacturers cost about $1.12 million each, and last three years. They no longer make pit stops, not even for tire changes. There are all kind of rules, garage tour director Martin Smith pointed out. I never could understand the whole “the leader’s pace determines the rest of the pack” thing, but I think I’m on board with “fan boost,” which delivers extra go power to drivers that fans vote for online.

The Formula E cars can now reach 174 miles an hour, though not in New York. (Nissan Photo)

Only about 20 team members can work on the cars. Many aspects of the cars can’t be changed, so the big bucks are spent on the powertrain and the software, especially the code that controls battery use. We heard there was a team of programmers behind the garage wall in Nissan’s pits.

The team celebrates the New York win. (Nissan Photo)

The drivers can’t just concentrate on driving; they also have to make sure they manage their remaining energy. According to Buemi, if there’s battery capacity at the end of the race, “it means you could have gone faster.” But coasting to a stop before the finish line isn’t good either.

Next year, BMW and Mercedes-Benz join the fray. “It’s obviously different from any Mercedes I have driven before,” said Benz driver Gary Paffett during testing in Italy last month.

It really does feel that EV racing, and Formula E in particular, has arrived. The sixth season of Formula E racing starts November 22 in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, here is six minutes of video highlights from Formula E in Red Hook:


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