An exclusive drive in Audi's futuristic, electric racer

Despite the publicity, Formula E has had a quiet start. In season five, things are getting serious. Join us for the experience of a lifetime as we get behind the wheel of Audi's new purpose-built electric racer.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
10 min read

With virtually every major global manufacturer launching a flood of electrified offerings by 2020, there's a very good chance your next car will spend at least part of its time motoring along in blissful, emissions-free silence. So why, then, are nearly all the world's racing series still burning gasoline with wild abandon? Though Formula 1 has made a token concession to hybridization, it's still a petrol-powered endeavor. Other major series like NASCAR and WRC, meanwhile, haven't even gotten that far.

One series, however, jumped on the EV bandwagon early. It's called Formula E and, while this all-electric series got off to a bit of a slow start, things are getting serious for the 2018-2019 season. New teams mean more and better competition, while new cars mean more power and more range. What better way to see how it's all coming together than to take one for a spin? 

On the track in Audi's 2018 Formula E racer

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2018 marks the fifth season of the supposed future of motorsport. Back in 2014, Formula E whirred its way into the world's consciousness as the first international, all-electric racing series with bespoke, open-wheeled racers visiting 10 cities around the world. Interesting in concept, Formula E faced early criticism for cars that were too slow, too basic and, frankly, too quiet compared to Formula 1. 

But the most frequent complaint lobbed against the fledgling series was the thing that most people complain about when pondering EVs: range. Those early Formula E cars lacked the juice to complete even a single race on a single charge. This necessitated a novel solution: car changes.

Yes, mid-way through every race drivers had to pull in the pits. Pit stops of course aren't unusual in racing, but instead of a trained crew hurriedly swapped on a new set of tires, the drivers actually hopped out of their car and ran to a second, fully charged one.

While these mid-race tests of driver agility added some excitement to the proceedings, they served as reminders of everything wrong with early EVs: batteries too small in cars that take too long to charge. For an industry desperately trying to convince the world that range anxiety is a thing of the past, these swaps were an unsightly mid-race reminder. 

This year, that goes away. The new car jumps from 250 horsepower to 340 while also offering far more range thanks to a new, 52 kilowatt-hour battery pack. That's nearly twice the size of the one before and, yes, finally enough for a full race distance.

2018 Audi Formula E

A beautiful place for a day of driving.


Back to the future

I made the trip to Mallorca, Spain to experience Audi's new-era Formula E car, the E-Tron FE05. However, before being allowed to head out of the pit lane in that rig I had to prove my worth in the old car, the championship-winning FE04. With so much less power than the new one — indeed less power than our long-term Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan — I felt confident that this car would be the far easier to drive of the two. 

Team principal and three-time Le Mans-winner Allan McNish quickly advised me otherwise. The braking system on the older car, he said, is significantly more rudimentary than that in the new one, which can result in some unpredictable behavior. I was directed, by him and seemingly every other member of the Audi team, to always make sure the car was settled and straight before applying any significant amount of brake pressure.

Not an easy thing to do on Circuito Mallorca's tight and twisty asphalt. I can say quite truthfully that I've driven go-kart tracks with more relaxed layouts, but while the condensed character here and varying quality of asphalt means this track doesn't rank up there with the grand prix greats, it actually makes it the perfect testing ground for Audi to hone its championship-winning ways.

Most Formula E tracks, you see, aren't tracks at all. The series prides itself on bringing the racing to where the people are, which often means closed roads in city centers -- or nearby shipping ports, as in the case of the New York ePrix. These city streets are rarely smooth and seldom fast, meaning Mallorca's tight, twisty and uneven stretch of pavement is just about perfect.

Before I could get in the car I required some instruction on how to get out of it should something go wrong. Squeezing out of any formula car is a challenge for even the most dexterous, but this being an electric one added an extra bit of intrigue. If the car stopped for any reason I was told to stay in the seat and wait. However, if I saw smoke or some other sign that the car was on fire, my directive was to jump, not step, out of the car.

2018 Audi Formula E

The Very Big Hook, just in case. 


Why jump? Because if something catastrophic happened and there were a short, having one foot in the car and one foot on the ground I might complete an electrical circuit through my groin, which does not sound like a very good time at all. 

Indeed, while racing mechanics are used to wearing fireproof clothing when refuelling machines, Formula E mechanics require an additional piece of safety equipment, something I'll refer to as the Very Big Hook. The VBH, which looks all the world like a prop from a '70s variety show, must be looped around the midriff of the mechanic who physically plugs in the car to charge. A second mechanic, standing a safe distance away, holds the end of the hook. That way, should something go horribly awry, the second mechanic can pull the first away without also getting electrocuted. 

Disconcerting? Not really. Honestly, if I had to choose between completing the electrical circuit between the 26 kWh battery pack and the ground and getting doused in race gas and ignited, I would most certainly go for the former.

I shoved all that to the back of my mind as I squirmed into the cockpit and was strapped in, six-point harness making me one with the carbon fiber racing machine. Lying on my back, looking just over the racing steering wheel and its collection of buttons and knobs, any thoughts of electrocution were gone, replaced by the anticipation of speed that drives so many of us to part with so much of our time and money. 

Pulling out of the pits was an exercise in simplicity: just press the gas and turn the wheel. Audi's FE04 has no transmission to shift, no clutch to manipulate and, despite the lack of traction control, is quite docile with moderate applications of throttle. Get on the gas hard, though, and surges forward with what feels like well more than its rated power. But that's the beauty of EVs: all the torque all the time equals lots of fun.

The steering was remarkably light, something I was quickly thankful for as the tight confines of the cockpit meant I couldn't move my arms very well and had to do much of the steering with my hands and wrists. What was most remarkable, though, was the feedback. When you're strapped in that tight you of course get a great feeling for the car, but it was the absence of noise that added another element. I could hear each tire talking to me, so when I got on the gas too hard out of a corner or was trailing on the brakes too much turning in, the tire at the affected corner of the car would squeal and complain. 

Yes, the car felt frightened under braking, especially on the bumpier transitions, but with that level of feedback I quickly shook off my early nerves. Within a few laps I was legitimately having fun out there. That just made me more eager to try the new car.

2018 Audi Formula E

Much of the magic is hiding under the skin.


What's new

For Season 5, all the Formula E teams get new cars. And, while they're all still based on the same chassis (the SRT05e from Spark Racing Technologies and Dallara), each team has a lot of leeway to develop their own systems within the car. This means that while Formula E still looks like a spec series, it isn't entirely.

The Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler Formula E team (its full name) has full control to develop much of the powertrain of the car, meaning the learnings surrounding energy usage, deployment and regeneration are all proprietary. For a company looking to get an edge on the competition as its road-going E-Tron SUV hits market this year, this is vital.

What the team can't change is the body, something of a shame for those who like variety. Good news, then, that the new car looks so good. It is, I believe, the best looking open-wheeled formula car racing today and the only one that doesn't look significantly worse with the addition of the so-called "halo" system, that hoop you can see over the cockpit. (It's designed to protect the driver's head.)

But it's more than a looker, featuring aerodynamic aspects that many have been begging Formula 1 and Indy to adopt, most notably a split rear wing. A big rear wing creates a huge vacuum behind the car, destroying the downforce on anything following behind. This makes passing difficult and, ultimately, the racing worse.

The absence of rear wing means this season's Formula E cars impacts the wind a lot less, theoretically delivering closer racing. That said, it's all a bit academic, as the limited speeds of most Formula E tracks mean aerodynamics take a bit of a back seat to things like torque — which, did I mention, the new car has a lot more of? 

2018 Audi Formula E

"You press this button to whistle at your horse and this one to make a campfire."


Driving the new one

Squeezing into the new Audi E-Tron FE05 isn't that much more difficult than the old one, the only real difference being having to climb over the halo ring. I've never had the opportunity to sit in a car with a halo before, and I was pleasantly surprised (and relieved) that it doesn't block your view nearly as much as it seems. Once inside the cockpit, the support bar directly ahead was no wider than my thumb held at arm's length.

The FE05 pulled out onto the track with no more drama than the old car, but it would only take a single press of the throttle to feel the difference in power. The car leaps forward with even more aggression than its predecessor, an effect that you'd be forgiven for thinking would create a more challenging car to drive. That, however, is not the case.

Though faster and heavier and still completely bereft of traction control, the FE05 was even more of a treat than last year's FE04. The suspension was far more capable of soaking up Mallorca's imperfections while the brakes had me feeling far more comfortable slowing the thing down. The feedback, meanwhile, was every bit as remarkable. 

While I'll be the first to admit that I never pushed the car to its limit -- "Ham-Fisted Auto Journo Crashes Priceless Audi Racer" is not the kind of news I was hoping to make -- I quickly got comfortable enough to begin to push the envelope just a bit, kicking the tail out around the track's tightest hairpin and again making those tires squeal and complain under braking.

In short, I had a really, really great time in the new car, and I'm more than a little jealous of Lucas di Grassi and Daniel Abt, Audi's factory drivers for this season.

2018 Audi Formula E

Team principal Allan McNish showing me the quick way 'round.


Bringing it to the road

Motorsport is fun and all, but making cars faster just for the sake of going faster is a little hard to justify for a major corporation like Audi's parent Volkswagen Group. There has to be a point, and that's another area where Formula E stands out compared to Formula 1.

While modern F1 cars still screaming around with tiny, turbocharged V-6 engines backed by ridiculously complex hybrid systems that bear little if anything in common with anything on the road you can buy today, the engineering challenges surfaced by Formula E are very much the same faced by those engineers working to make Audi's road-going E-Tron SUV a better, faster and more long-legged car. 

"We've got quite a lot of experience within Audi in terms of electrification," McNish told me. "The motorsports arm has always been there in advance of what's coming to the production line, and understanding what you require, what's the important factors, how you can develop. Its not always direct technologies from one part across, but we've done it so much with our Quattro programs, with TFSI, with laser lights on the R8 and this is the next example."

So while Formula E races in 2019 still aren't likely to be the most exhilarating events on the planet, the series offers something that most top-level motorsports are woefully lacking: relevancy. Its cars, though advanced, roll on real tires turned by motors and battery packs much like those found on the next generation of electric vehicles. 

Thanks to that, I'm bullish on this series. Say what you like about Formula E, through these first four years it has been steadily moving in the right direction. That's not something I can necessarily say for Formula 1. 

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