Last September e-racing365 entered into a discussion with a high-level key source regarding Nissan’s first all-electric single-seater powertrain which would be used for its maiden Formula E campaign in the 2018-19 season. This triggered a remarkable story which threatened to divide the paddock and shift future regulations in the nascent Gen 2 era of the championship.
This is the story of how e-racing365 tracked a complicated and fascinating story…
The detailed information was intriguing. A unique twin-MGU setup with input from McLaren Applied Technologies and the UK-based EV engineering gurus at Integral Powertrain.
Testing had begun, in great secrecy, approximately a month earlier. It was a difficult phase and rumor abounded that Nissan was having a troublesome start in its return to international racing after the disastrous LMP1 project in 2015.
The pressure was therefore on from even before the very start. It always is at this level of the sport but there was a perfect storm of it on the way in the months that lay ahead.
A piece alluding to Nissan’s system was published on Sept. 24 last year. E-racing365 has been told by sources at Nissan and also the FIA that it was this article which was a major contributing factor to what transpired through the season.
At the Valencia test in October, Alexander Albon was offered the possibility to race in F1 with Toro Rosso. This triggered a series of events in which Oliver Rowland was deployed to southern Spain to fill Albon’s shoes.
All this took place on the evening of the first day of the Valencia test. E-racing365 broke the news of Rowland’s call-up the following morning.
Two days later, this reporter was asked to vacate a Nissan round-table media get-together just as it was about to begin. That instruction was politely but firmly declined.
The assumption had initially been that Nissan was upset by the revelation of Rowland’s substitute role. This seemed odd as a few hours after we ran that story, Rowland was walking into the Nissan pit box to get comfortable in ‘Albon’s car.’
In fact, we were mistaken. The annoyance had in fact been the reporting of the initial twin-MGU story all along.
Buemi: “We Have a Complex Car”
By the Santiago race in January the rumor mill regarding the Nissan IM01’s powertrain began to work overtime.
Several drivers, without prompting, approached e-racing365 to remark upon how exceptional the Nissan was at certain points of the Parque O’Higgins venue.
Sure enough the Nissan was quick and Buemi started from pole in only the car’s third ever race, albeit only after di Grassi’s bizarre exclusion.
Buemi suffered peculiar episodes at the Turn 6/7 chicane during practice and the race, both of which saw him hit the wall.
The methods of how and to what effect Nissan’s twin-MGU powertrain was applying its power started to get intriguing.
Post-Santiago, Buemi told e-racing365: “We have a complex car but at the end of the day every package has strengths and weaknesses.
“I don’t want to go into the details but we know the good points of our package and the areas we have to work on, but to be honest, there’s nothing that comes for free.”
By Mexico, teams were openly deploying personnel to the stadium section to study the Nissans and some drivers from rival teams were instructed to follow them closely in Free Practice to gather further opinions.
Behind the scenes some manufacturers were preparing for a last resort of protesting the cars under the suspicion that they were spinning up one of the MGUs and effectively creating a secondary energy source in doing so.
The speeds of the two MGUs have to be related by a single value ratio declared at homologation. This stops teams changing the speed of one MGU relative to the other which would allow one to be used as a kind of flywheel device to store energy outside of the RESS.
In addition there were also questions about how the two motors were connected. The possible use and function of an epicyclic gearbox and thus exceeding the regulatory maximum six-ratio rule was mulled over by many of Nissan’s rivals.
E-racing365 then uncovered what was described as some form of ‘a gentlemen’s agreement’ which is understood to have been discussed at a Technical Working Group meeting in either late 2017 or early 2018 whereby such a system, similar to which Nissan was believed to be using, was not in the ‘spirit of the regulations’.
Yet the facts remain that Nissan went through the correct and binding homologation procedures with the FIA in August 2018 to get the car signed off to enter the championship to the correct and valid regulations.
End of the matter? Nowhere near!
As Formula E headed to the Asian leg of races in March the pressure was cranking up on both Nissan and the FIA to fully explain how the IM01 was applying its power and managing its energy on the track.
It is believed that at Hong Kong the FIA started to investigate data and to look into the package and particularly how it was applied on track.
It was there that its main architect, Vincent Gaillardot, spoke to e-racing365 about the situation a little.
“I will not go any detail, we have a concept, we also had some concepts in Seasons Two and Three on which we asked for clarification,” said Gaillardot.
“Obviously, we are trying to see what is possible to do as a next step to the technology within the rules.”
Gaillardot acknowledged the reasons for added clarification and stated that the team had offered up data which is believed to have included details on the software that is being used by the team.
He also recognized that some of Nissan’s competitors could have “some possible variations of interpretation” on how the team is utilising its technical setup.
“Yes, I can understand [the concern], but honestly, we have been through the rules and the legality of every aspect of the different solution we have on our system,” he continued.
“Now, obviously there are some possible variations of interpretation which is why we have asked for clarification.
“I know what we have done and how we have done it, which is the only thing I can say.”
At Sanya two weeks later, Buemi had another curious braking episode, this time in the Super Pole session.
It came after he had been prompted by the FIA to conduct a specific braking procedure in qualifying. A coruscating meeting had also taken place the night before in which the FIA warned against official protests and requested ideas for regulation rewrites for 2019-20.
This revelation left one team principal aghast. “It beggars belief and frankly the whole thing is heading down a big rabbit-hole on cost and regulatory mismanagement,” they said at the time.
The FIA was clearly rattled in Sanya and allegedly stymied the team’s recharging time on Buemi’s car after Super Pole meaning that he was forced to start from the pit lane. The former champion and indeed most of his team were furious.
For the record, even if the FIA had been carrying out additional checks on the Nissan, it is a relatively easy thing to facilitate charging while doing so.
It was just another chapter in an elaborate plot-twisting yarn that in years to come will likely yield more intriguing detail.
Then came the dramatic epilogue in Rome.
Roman Candles Fizz
The final act started in Rome where a hastily arranged Technical Working Group was convened on the Friday evening.
It was here where the pressure cranked up on both Nissan and the FIA and where any relative cordiality between the teams threatened to dissipate entirely.
To his credit, Michael Carcamo addressed one of the two questions posed to him by e-racing365 at a spiky pre-event press conference in the eternal city.
The second question, with hindsight was telling.
“Should dual motors be outlawed, do you have a single motor backup for next season?” we asked.
“I won’t discuss any technical developments,” came the reply.
The subsequent outlawing of twin-MGUs was confirmed just before the Bern race and henceforth came a resolution that, although it didn’t suit everyone, did at last bring to an end Formula E’s biggest manufacturer-led technical drama to date.
Yet the questions kept on coming and as of yet there have only been half of them answered.
Had, and if so why, the FIA executed a volte-face on twin-MGUs? Exactly how had it been homologated in the first place? Was former FIA Technical Delegate for electronics Sylvain Rivier’s move from the FIA to a role with the Nissan-Renault alliance in the summer of 2018 merely unfortunate timing? Was an intricate deal of understanding for the bigger picture of Formula E done between the governing body and Nissan?
Aspects of the saga then began to sound like conspiracy theories, and certain facts are still disputed on both sides of the debate to this very day.
“This is a competitive environment and when one person is doing something that nobody else is doing, there’s an interest,” Carcamo told e-racing365 in Bern after the FIA decreed twin-MGUs to be illegal for 2019-20.
“Because if that thing was much better, then you would be at a disadvantage.”
Ultimately, it may just have been that good old fashioned bad timing was Nissan’s downfall in a saga that lasted for the duration of an entire season.
Purely from a technical innovation standpoint Nissan couldn’t hide bitter disappointment over the whole saga.
“That we won’t have the chance to develop this solution further, maybe that’s the only point of wishing that we had more time, because it is a complex [technology] which comes with its own penalties which we suffered at the beginning of the year,” rued Carcamo.
“But you can see that the trend and the pace has been quite good in the development of the technology.
“Just wish we had more time that’s all.”