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Insight: How Spark Ignited Formula E

How car supplier Spark Racing Technology enabled Formula E to get off the ground…

Photo: Formula E

The last race of Formula E’s fourth season in New York City earlier this year saw a final farewell to the championship’s original car: the Spark-Renault SRT_01E.

It is fair to say the Gen 1 car was respected rather than really loved by drivers and teams.

Yes, it was rudimentary. But those criticizing it missed the point and purpose of its existence.

Deliberately designed to showcase the powertrain possibilities of first-generation Formula E rather than win beauty or design contests, the Gen 1 car has played a vital role in establishing the electric racing concept.

It was the car that launched the series from its humble beginnings into one of the most exciting and burgeoning disciplines in motorsport today.

“This car gave us the foundation to build Formula E,” series founder Alejandro Agag told e-racing365 last summer.

“We needed to show we were real and serious. Before, we had the Formula LEC car, which was identifying that it was possible, but it was quite basic.

“In the summer of 2014, we showed a level of professionalism to make people appreciate we were serious about this. It will always be a very special racing car for me because of these points.”

When Agag speaks about his affection for the Spark SRT_01 E, it is completely genuine.

He even plans to acquire the car that won the first-ever Formula E race: Lucas di Grassi’s Beijing-winning chassis.

“I really want to have that car,” he said.

“For me, it represents one of the most memorable moments of my life at Beijing in September 2014.”

Photo: Formula E

A Series Sparks into Life

For constructor Spark Racing Technologies, the road to Beijing four years ago was a tortuous yet hugely fulfilling one.

Pierre-Alain Michot was a seasoned race engineer with the ART Formula 3 and GP3 team before he was seconded to Spark in early 2014 to be a part of the group overseeing and managing the SRT01_E project.

“It was a huge effort, a very demanding time but also a satisfying one because we were doing something no one else had ever achieved really,” Michot tells e-racing365.

“It also challenged both the drivers and the teams because at that time the teams were not aware of what an electric car was.

“Their personnel were mainly coming from F1, GP2, GP3 or sports cars, but to get to all of the energy and also be able to use the maximum of the car by keeping the driver and the car at the limit was a massive challenge.”

On June 28, 2013, the FIA officially appointed Spark as Formula E’s car supplier.

Its brief was simple enough: 40 electric single-seater racecars were needed for testing by early next summer.

Six months later, Lucas di Grassi was driving the development prototype at a windswept La Ferte Gaucher airfield in northern France.

Other experienced drivers carried out the development work, including former Tyrrell, Williams and Ligier F1 tester Emmanuele Collard and Porsche factory GT driver Frederic Makowiecki.

But before any wheels had turned, the design, production, supply-chain and build process needed to evolve.

Photo: Formula E

“It was important to work in conjunction with the FIA and Formula E to ensure that we were in line so they got what they expected,” recalls Michot.

“Looking back, even from the first concept to what was achieved in Beijing it was already a big step and there were lots of hurdles along the way.”

What many have forgotten is that the original battery supplier, widely known to be Nissan, was unable to deliver the requested battery in the specified timeframe.

“Williams Advanced Engineering did the battery but it was a really tight time allowance, and McLaren did the powertrain for the first car,” says Michot.

“Without these partners, I think it would have been difficult to do something, but that is where we have been strong, to be able to make everything working together and to ensure everyone is working toward and happy with their concept.”

One of the driving forces behind the Gen 1 Formula E car was Spark technical director Theophile Gouzin.

“Theo did an amazing job just to be sure that it all happened from a pure engineering perspective,” says Michot.

“Williams had great people in place working on it and I think they have spent crazy hours to make it all happen too.

“In the end, we had a battery which was reliable and we have been able to do over 40 races with minimal reliability issues. That is very good and a good statement technically.”

Photo: Formula E

The early races saw teams and drivers naturally finding their collective feet which led to many mistakes.

“As we could see for the first races, there were a lot of penalties and disqualifications for over-use, which still happens today,” says Michot.

“It was a tough job to be able to get all of the information and to make everyone happy with what they needed for the series, but I think the way that the FIA, Spark and Formula E worked to make it happen was a very good thing.”

After-care engineering and support were vital for teams right through to Season Four as the Spark chassis underwent improvement and refinement.

“For the Gen 1 operation we would generally have eight [staff] on track for support,” says Michot.

“We were up to ten at the beginning when it was a bit trickier and the series had to be in place.

“There was also additional support staff from McLaren and Williams, which also decreased over the seasons, as the car was more reliable and the teams had a bit more freedom in the way of using [it].”

A New Generation Beckons

It’s understood that there are 51 first-gen cars in existence. Most will be sold to sponsors and partners, while in some cases it’s believed that one or two drivers – as well as Agag – will acquire one.

This outcome marks the end of Formula E’s first chapter, but another is just around the corner with the Gen 2 era about to begin in Saudi Arabia this month.

The FIA has gathered another stimulating concept under the very much hands-on governance of president Jean Todt and the Formula E promoters spearheaded by Agag.

Spark has once again been at the forefront of the development process, which has included input from the likes of Dallara, Michelin and McLaren Applied Technologies.

“A lot of the hard work is done but now we start again,” says Michot.

“The new car is a lot different and has been an even bigger challenge. To see a full grid of them at the first race will be an awesome spectacle.”

Few doubt that Spark and its roster of dedicated suppliers will again deliver the hardware for a second spectacular episode of motorsport’s fastest-growing discipline.

Photo: Formula E

Sam Smith is e-racing365's Formula E Editor. A 20-year veteran in motorsports media, including press officer roles in both the FIA Sportscar Championship and at Lola Group, Smith is a well-known face in the Formula E paddock, where he served as series editor for Motorsport.com from 2014-17. Contact Sam

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Kris

    December 2, 2018 at 8:46 am

    Was a life time experience to see a motorsport event with an innovative concept did born ‘in my backyard’ (A.K.A. Donington Park). In the first pre-season tests the teams looked like more amateur people gathering for a track-day. By the last time that they officially tested here, the number of staff and the professionalism sky-rocketed. Sad that with the growth of the championship they did move the pre-season tests to Spain and many teams from Donington Park which cannot allow us British fans to follow their development that close anymore – luck for the Spanish ones that now can do it.

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