Pop Culture

Talking Formula E and EVs with Patrick Carpentier

MONTREAL, QC – The FIA’s Formula E series is well into its third season and is about to undergo its inaugural race in Montreal on the last weekend of July, which is also the title-decider in the 2016/2017 FE season. As the first FIA-sanctioned electric car racing series, Formula E brings a vibe that is very remote from the exclusive F1 venues. Racing on urban circuits, right where people live, work, and play, provides an accessibility that is the key to the series’ success, with inexpensive tickets and strong social media presence.

The Montreal race’s organizing committee could not have found a better spokesperson than Patrick Carpentier for its inaugural race. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable, Carpentier brings to the table more than 20 years of experience as a professional race driver. And you’ll hardly ever meet such a down-to-earth guy in the world of single-seat racing. We had a chat over the phone right as New York City’s own inaugural Formula E race weekend got under way in mid-July. I immediately got an “Excellent!” comment from Patrick when I told him the NYC race was sold out. So is he feeling electricity in the air for the Montreal race?

PC: Things are looking great! Some of the series’ drivers tested the track on race simulators and really liked what they saw. And to add to the excitement, the championship will be decided here in Montreal! This is what we were hoping for as the season went on. (Sébastien) Buemi can’t be here, as he has a World Endurance Championship race at the same time, so it opens things up for (Lucas) Di Grassi and (Felix) Rosenqvist.

DB: I drove on part of the track downtown, and noticed sections with steep crowning. Won’t that be difficult for the drivers?

PC: A lot of roadwork was conducted along the streets that will shape the track, and the race is running on the best sides of some boulevards. But still, all of the road surfaces’ tricks will play the same for all drivers, so they will be on equal footing. All urban circuits, including Toronto’s for example, present quite a set of challenges for the teams.

DB: I would have been curious to see the Formula E cars run on Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Montreal’s F1 track, and for once the neighbours would not have complained about the noise!

PC: The urban street setting is avant-garde, and we enjoyed great racing this year. Formula E also goes hand in hand with the winds of change that we see around the world. Just the other day I was reading that VW expects to build one million EVs in a few years, China is imposing EV quotas, and Volvo of course announced that all its new models will be electrified from 2019 on.

I never thought the EV movement was that strong until I started digging on the topic. Formula E’s spec racer will change for the 2018 championship, and the car is just gorgeous! With more power, more range, and better everything, I think this series offers the best platform for development that the racing world has seen in quite a while. Major manufacturers are getting on board too – BMW just announced they’re buying Andretti’s team, and Audi dropped out of endurance racing to get into Formula E.

DB: With the increased rate of electrification in production cars, manufacturers seem to be applying the old “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” recipe – Formula E offers a potential for technological transfer from track to production, especially on the software and energy management sides.

PC: Indeed, EV range is increasing, and the industry has found a way to recycle and reuse EV batteries for energy storage in homes, once their life cycle is completed for transportation use, with Tesla leading the way. It’s a great global movement towards a greener and more efficient future.

Adding on top of that, with development in storing that energy and topping it up with accessible solar panels, it’s not far-fetched that many will be able to stay “off the grid” as we say. I really can’t see any disadvantages to this approach, especially with startups that have found ways to disassemble and recycle the components that make up battery systems.

Formula E has also found other ways to be sustainable, especially with tires. Instead of using multiple compounds and thread patterns and use up tons of tires, all cars race on the same Michelin street tire, in the dry or in the wet. It lowers the costs for everybody and engineers can directly apply what they learn to street tires, unlike with, say, F1, whose tall sidewalls and slick threads bear no similarities to today’s low-profile rubber. The series runs all over the world and on all type of surfaces, so even for tires Formula E is really a great development platform. It’s great to bring all of that here in Montreal as the electric movement has terrific traction here in Quebec.

And the autoTRADER.ca numbers bear this increasing interest out

To expand on this, as discussed with Carpentier, Quebec has 23 percent of the country’s population, yet the province owns nearly 50 percent of the nation’s EV fleet, which amounts to roughly 30,000 vehicles. And according to search data from autoTRADER.ca, interest in road going EVs is up in the province and across the country as well.

From July 2016 to beginning of July 2017, the number of searches in the province of Quebec for plug-in electric vehicles increased by 168 percent, while EV searches were up an average of 102 percent across the country. The overall number of searches were highest by far in the EV rebate provinces of Ontario, Quebec, and BC, indicating that provincial programs – which offer from $5,000 to $14,000 toward the purchase of electric vehicles – are certainly generating growing interest, as well as the vast majority of EV availability.

In Quebec especially, this EV appeal is undeniable, with that province’s high gas prices and low electricity rates generated by emissions-free hydro-electricity, plus a healthy $8,000-maximum EV rebate. In Ontario, the year-over-year growth is a much lower but still very robust 86 percent; especially considering that’s coming off a relatively high number of searches in July 2016. That’s the year when Ontario’s maximum EV rebate increased from $8,500 to $14,000 on some new electric vehicles, driving up interest in both new and used EVs.

British Columbia saw an increase of 78 percent from a slightly lower base, which is still impressive, but perhaps not as high as one might expect given that the climate in southern BC is ideally suited for EVs – at least compared to the rest of the country. The numbers also indicate that EV curiosity in Alberta and the Maritime provinces is small but growing, both up roughly 107 percent but from more limited bases.

The interest in EVs in the prairie provinces of Manitoba (up 52 percent) and Saskatchewan (50 percent) are also growing from a super small base, but at a rate roughly half compared to the rest of the country, judging by these search numbers. A combination of factors are likely involved here – climate, cultural, lack of government incentives and a lack of EV infrastructure, especially quick-charging infrastructure.

Not only the cars but buildings changing too

Speaking of charging infrastructure, Patrick Carpentier is not only a former racer, EV enthusiast, and racing commentator, he also dabbles in real estate, owning a number of residential projects here and in the US. So he also discussed the infrastructure upgrades and building code changes coming up as well.

DB: Since I know you’re not only a racer, but also a major builder, I thought you would find it interesting that Ontario will introduce a change in its building code so it becomes mandatory to include a 50 amp, 240V circuit linked to an SAE socket in the garages of new single homes and condos.

PC: Are you serious? That’s brilliant! It so easy for an electrician to wire that in while a house is being framed, and the cost is next to nil. That is great news, and I’m impressed with everything that’s coming out with EVs. The EV movement has been around for a while; as a matter of fact a fan told me that the first car to ever reach 100 km/h was an electric car.

DB: That was the “Jamais Contente”, a French car. In fact, after testing many plug-ins, I grew addicted to the instant torque of electric motors and bought one myself. And speaking of performance, what can we expect out of a Formula E?

PC: Top speed is around 225 km/h, power is at a maximum of 270 hp during qualifying, but since we’re racing on tight urban tracks, all-out speed is not that important. As you mentioned, the instant torque really comes into play on these city streets, where the cars offer impressive acceleration. The new 2018 car will be even faster.

Just look at startups like Faraday Future with their 1,000-plus horsepower and torque specs, electrics will remain fun to drive, and their low centres of gravity thanks to under-floor batteries will help handling too. No oil to change, no mechanical issues, motors for every wheel with split-second traction control with no mechanical delay…. Everything will soon be going in that direction because the cars are not only greener, but much more efficient at every level.

DB: And speaking of what makes EVs tick, with Formula E being a spec series, and all teams using the same basic car, how exactly is every team giving its car an edge? Software tuning, energy management?

PC: Exactly that, and more. Initially, managing heat from the batteries was the greatest challenge – they simply overheated. The series was launched in a bit of haste at first, and the batteries supplied by Williams Engineering could have been more developed before being thrown into the fray. But the teams have more leeway on the car than one may think. Gearboxes are unique to every team; some like Renault use direct drive, while others have two, three, or even four speeds to manage torque.

Springs and shocks are also selected by the teams who fine-tune their race car’s suspension like we do for any other series. Electric motors are also supplied by the teams, and some of them are running two of them in the car. Teams also engineer their own inverters, and cooling systems for the motors and batteries. It’s still the same fine art of tuning your car to the track, but with the sanctioning body deciding on chassis, bodywork and batteries to level the playing field a bit, and put the priority on developing the propulsion systems and electronics.

DB: And as a driver, what feels different with a Formula E car?

PC: I will be driving one for the first time on the Friday before the Montreal race, during the open-door event for the public. Brakes are probably the biggest difference for the driver, because a Formula E car, like any EV, uses regeneration to brake at first, not the friction brakes, but the intensity of the regen and the transition from regen to friction changes during the race as the battery goes down in charge and the systems draw more energy from braking – it’s quite an adaption, and it changes on every lap! Brake feel is thus never the same. It also influences front–rear bias, and it’s apparently easy to lock your rears as the battery depletes!

DB: If I understand correctly, teams actually swap cars during the race, since charging the batteries or swapping them is not practical in a racing context?

PC: Exactly, and that comes from the short development time before the series’ launch. However, despite using the same basic battery package, energy management has improved to the point that we’re now harvesting 50 percent more energy from the regen than during the inaugural season. The 2018 car will be able to do the whole race without a mid-race “pit stop” to swap cars.

Today’s FE cars could probably do it in Montreal, but FIA understandably didn’t want to change the rulebook during the season. That 2018 car will really be something, and Mercedes-Benz has signed on, and the buzz is that Ferrari is interested in joining in too. I think Audi made a really good decision by joining FE this year. I hear other series are testing the electric waters too, as a rallycross EV was recently tested in Florida.

DB: Indeed, the Red Bull Global Rallycross series will add a category for EVs. I, for one, can’t wait to see a Leaf perform a 21-foot leap!

PC: That’s great! There’s another Red Bull event that involves stadium motocross racing in a straight line across multiple jumps, and this year an electric bike almost made it to the finals.

DB: Showing that it’s really in with the times, Formula E draws on social media interaction. What is the social-media-activated “fan boost” exactly?”

PC: Fans can vote during the first leg of the race for three drivers to get a “fan boost”, activated during the second part of the race. It’s akin to a short extra burst of energy from the batteries that’s released to the social media “winners” by race organizers. The driver activates it when he sees fit to do so, but if the driver waits too long to use it, it may provoke more of an energy drain than a speed boost, so the driver really has a lot of parameters to manage during an FE race.

The teams are computing numbers full time during a race, maybe even more so than in traditional racing. In FE as in other series, full course yellows influence energy use and strategies evolve all the time. I think it’s a great show for the fans.”

DB: We can hope that the interest generated by Formula E in major urban centres will have a spillover effect on the marketplace. Quebec is already doing well, and we can hope that initiatives like Ontario’s Electric Vehicle Discovery Centre will help educate the public on EVs.

PC: That’s a great idea, too bad fuel is so inexpensive in the US! Low fuel prices limit EV’s success. But even if our future is electric, I dearly hope that people who are passionate about cars like us will be able to tinker on their hobby cars for many years, without any legal hurdles. That being said, my next everyday car will be electric, that’s for sure.

DB: And speaking of that, I read that you’re tinkering on a high-horsepower VW New Beetle in your spare time, and got the electric “bug”, if I may say so, when you read about a hot-rodder who built an electric Beetle drag car. I read on autoTRADER.ca that VW may come up with a fully electric Beetle for the upcoming third generation of the reborn icon.

PC: Are you serious? That would be really cool! Oh, and that electric “super” Beetle does the 0–100 km/h in less than 2 seconds! Major manufacturers and new players are all coming up with new vehicles that will take advantage of the electric propulsion to optimize our driving pleasure with no clutches, transmissions, or drive shafts to maintain. The pace of progress is quick, and just like computers a few years ago I think we’re getting in the golden moment where great advances will be made. It’s great to be part of that movement!

Montreal’s inaugural Formula E race weekend is happening from July 29th to the 30th. During the Friday, July 28th open-door event, Patrick will drive around the track in a Formula E for the very first time, and his lap will be transmitted on big screens from his point of view in the car. Watch also for a friendly Theo electric taxi race between Mayor Denis Coderre and celebrity entrepreneur Alexandre Taillefer, founder of Montreal’s famous electric taxi company.

Patrick Carpentier’s comments were translated from French.