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The differences between Formula E and Formula 1

By Rob Watts, February 11, 2020

A question we’re often asked; what exactly is the difference between F1 and Formula E?

While they might appear quite similar to the casual observer, the two championships are in fact very different. Formula E’s growing popularity has understandably led to many comparisons with F1, but the series that literally developed from an idea scrawled on the back of a napkin now has an important role to play in the future direction of modern motorsport.

To understand the main differences between F1 and Formula E, first, you must understand the philosophy of which Formula E’s very existence is built upon.

Sustainability

Formula E became the world’s first fully-electric international single-seater racing series when it launched back in 2014, and while F1 has the richer heritage (it’s been around since 1950), Formula E has grown to become one of the most important racing series in global motorsport.

Founded by Spanish businessman and former politician, Alejandro Agag, Formula E’s goal is clear; to promote the uptake of electric mobility and renewable energy solutions in major cities around the world.

While F1 currently stages Grand Prix in 21 different countries (compared to the 12 countries that hosted an E-Prix last season), Formula E travels only to densely-populated cities that are actively fighting to counteract climate change and reduce air pollution.

By helping to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles in these locations, Formula E has attracted some of the largest car manufacturers in the world, including the likes of Audi, BMW, DS, Jaguar, Mercedes, Nissan, and Porsche. Not bad for a series less than six years old!

Road relevance

So why, with the exception of Mercedes who compete in both, are these manufacturers focused solely on Formula E rather than chasing the exponentially larger global reach offered by F1.

The answer to that is simple. In modern motorsport, and in the car industry generally, major manufacturers are no longer able to comfortably justify the enormous R&D costs required to compete in F1 when the future road relevance of the product they’re producing is fairly limited.

Consumers today are more environmentally aware than perhaps any generation since mass car manufacturing began and with many countries planning to outright ban the sale of petrol and diesel-fuelled vehicles from as early as 2030, Formula E offers the perfect platform for global carmakers to promote the next generation of low-emission vehicle technology.

So what is Formula E doing that F1 isn’t to make all these manufacturers rush there to promote their green tech credentials? Let’s start with the cars themselves...

Electric technology

It’s worth remembering that Formula E is NOT a spec series, as some seem to think. Although visually the cars appear similar, this is simply because the chassis itself is homologated.

The teams instead focus their R&D efforts on developing other parts of the car such as the powertrain, gearbox, and suspension, and it’s these elements, along with some incredibly advanced software, that sets one car apart from another in terms of performance.

While modern F1 cars use a V6 turbo-hybrid power unit (pairing an internal combustion engine with two electric motors), a Formula E car uses a fully electric powertrain that draws power from a battery that’s kicking out an impressive 250kW!

The first comparison people tend to look for is speed, and while Formula E cars do accelerate at a similar rate to F1 cars, their top speed peaks at around 280km/h, roughly 70km/h less.

In all honesty, they’re just numbers though and the slightly slower top speeds don’t seem to have any impact on the quality of the racing!

Street circuits

It’s worth remembering that F1 cars are built for pure performance and are designed as such to race on much wider, longer and faster circuits. Formula E cars, in comparison, are destined to be nimble enough to race effectively on tight, twisty street circuits that are often much shorter and narrower than your average F1 track.

But wouldn’t it be better if Formula E just raced on ‘proper’ circuits like F1 and other series? Well, to answer that simply, no!

The whole reason Formula E races on city street circuits is so it can deliver world-class motorsport direct to the fans, eliminating the need to build costly new infrastructure for each race or the requirement for fans to travel by car to purpose-built circuits located far away from their homes.

Don’t be fooled though by the absence of ‘big-name circuits’ such as Silverstone, Spa, or Monza. Formula E travels to some of the most famous cities in the world including Paris, Berlin, London, New York, and even Monaco!

Race format

Anything F1 can do from a fan perspective, you can bet Formula E’s gonna try damned hard to do even better, and there’s no better example of that than its compact weekend schedule.

Unlike F1 where practice, qualifying and the race are spread across three days, all of Formula E’s official track sessions take place in one day with the exception of a 30-minute shakedown session on Friday evening. That’s a lot of track action to take in!

Formula E races last for 45 minutes +1 lap and usually take place on Saturday afternoons (compared to the traditional Sunday slot for F1), but before that, there are two separate practice sessions, and a two-part qualifying session culminating in a ‘superpole’ shootout with the six fastest drivers battling to secure pole position for the race.

Starting from pole in Formula E is important, but not as crucial as it so often is in F1. While most F1 races end up being won by the driver starting from the front row, Formula E races tend to be more unpredictable with races often being won by drivers who’ve fought their way through the field.

Pit stops

Unlike F1, pitstops are not mandatory in Formula E and teams are not allowed to change tyres unless they suffer a puncture. Whereas in F1, a driver might make 2-3 pit stops during a race, changing tyres each time, Formula E drivers use specially designed all-weather tyres whatever the conditions, and are only allowed four sets for the entire weekend.

Until as recently as season four (2017-18), Formula E drivers were unable to complete a full race distance without needing to stop to change cars halfway through the race. Advancements in battery technology mean that the drivers now have double the amount of usable energy as they did previously, making pitstops a thing of the past.

Another feature of Formula E that sets it apart from F1 is the close competitiveness of the grid, with eight different teams winning at least one race last year compared to just three in F1.

Due to the way the cars are designed, you’ll see plenty of overtaking as the drivers are able to follow other cars closely and can call on extra tools such as ‘Attack Mode’ and Fanboost’ during the race to help them pass an opponent.

Points system

Just like F1, Formula E awards points to the top 10 finishers each race so it’s fairly simple to follow. For the first time ever, Formula E will join F1 next season in becoming an official FIA World Championship meaning the drivers will compete to be crowned the series’ first-ever Formula E World Champion.

If you haven’t had the chance to attend a Formula E race yet in person, seriously, what are you waiting for? If the combination of seeing 24 of the world’s fastest racing drivers racing flat out through the world’s most iconic city streets doesn’t set your heart racing, then maybe it’s time to check your pulse!

Keith Prowse is an official hospitality agent for Formula E. Click here to discover hospitality packages at 2020 London E-Prix.

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