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Gadget editor Arthur Goldstuck tries out one of the Jaguar TCS Racing electric cars. Pic: Aki Anastasiou


E-Prix electrifies CT and SA

The first Formula E world championship race in sub-Saharan Africa lived up to its promise, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

The Cape Town E-Prix last weekend was one of the greatest advertisements yet for the future of electric vehicles, for the city as a tourist destination, and for the country’s continued ability to host major international events.

The first Formula E world championship race for electric cars to be staged in sub-Saharan Africa ended with a win for the Porsche team, but the biggest winner was probably the city itself.

According to Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis, speaking after the E-Prix, the estimated economic impact of hosting the event was more than R2-billion.

“It was truly a goosebumps moment for Cape Town as we saw the Formula E hosted in our city and our continent for the very first time,” he told Eyewitness News. “Cape Town really put on a show and did not disappoint, and our city was beamed to cities across the globe with incredible images of Cape Town seen for the very first time.”

The globally televised event focused heavily on the setting of the race, which took place on a circuit using the city roads around Cape Town Stadium in Greenpoint, nestled between the sea and Signal Hill. It is expected to result in a major tourism boost for both the city and the country.

Last Sunday, Hill-Lewis posted on Twitter: “Cape Town shone around the world yesterday for
FIA Formula E. I’m bursting with pride at how our city hosted this event, and how tens of millions saw our city and country on tv for the first time. They’ll be booking flights soon!”

The Cape Town E-Prix, included in the ninth season of the Formula E championship, was the culmination of more than five years of work between the city and local Formula E promoter E-Movement and its partners. The competition is a formal world championship under the umbrella of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), which also presides over Formula 1 racing.

That, and the general appearance of the Formula E cars, is almost the only similarity between Formula 1 and Formula E. The latter applies a stringent set of rules for the cars, down to the precise weight and battery power, and has introduced numerous novel elements, “duels” and regulations to the races.

The Jaguar TCS Racing team’s Mitch Evans fell foul of one of these, when he received a “drive-through penalty for an overpower violation”. From starting in fourth spot on the grid, Evans was penalised for using too much power at the start. He was forced to rejoin the race at the back, and fought his way back to 11th place.

Mitch Evans in Jaguar TCS Racing’s Jaguar I-Type 6, leads team-mate Sam Bird during qualifying for the Cape Town ePrix. Pic: Andrew Ferraro / LAT Images

Line honours were taken by Portuguese driver António Félix da Costa in a Porsche, while the qualifying round saw Nissan’s Fenestraz clock the fastest lap ever in Formula E.  The cars all have to use the same battery, which is charged to 60% capacity before the race, and has to use “regenerative braking” to find the rest of the needed charge.

The nuances of Formula E were encapsulated by both the Jaguar and Mahindra teams. The latter withdrew its two cars before the race due to safety concerns over a flexing issue on the rear suspension of its cars. As a result, South African driver Kelvin van der Linde was robbed of the unique opportunity of competing on home soil.

Jaguar only had one car in the race, after Sam Bird crashed into the barriers while trying to avoid the crashed Maserati MSG of Edoardo Mortara during qualifying round. A consolation was that both Jaguar-powered cars of the Envision Racing team finished in the top five.

That didn’t do anything to ease the frustration of James Barclay, Jaguar TCS Racing team principal. Himself a South African, he grew up near the Kyalami racetrack and matriculated at Pretoria Boys High.

“It’s been an incredibly frustrating day here in Cape Town,” he said after the race. “The Jaguar I-TYPE 6 has been strong all weekend, Mitch was holding fourth place really well and we were managing our pace for later in the race. We need to evaluate why Mitch had an overuse of power.”

Evans told us: “The track is very challenging, and we have the challenge of trying to get the power down. It’s so competitive because all the drivers are world class, and the teams are world class. The biggest difference obviously is the noise, or the lack of noise. With the different type of noise that we deal with in electric cars, you realise how much you used to rely on the noise of the combustion engine car for reference.”

We were given an opportunity to sit in the cockpit of Evan’s car (see photo), which provided a sense of the massive amount of controls facing the driver. The steering wheel alone contains 15 different controls, buttons and levers. Each of three levers, in turn, has around 10 separate controls. This highlighted the fact that Formula E needs both the driving skills of an F1 racer and the video game-level skills of a champion gamer.

Barclay agreed, pointing out that the driver engages with every one of those controls during a race.

James Barclay, team principal of Team Jaguar TCS Racing

“They need to have the ability to go very, very quickly,” he told Gadget. “But they need to have huge capacity in terms of processing information, and there’s not many people that can do all of that. You got a really good indication there (in the cockpit): they are changing regeneration settings, they are changing braking settings, there are lots of things that allow us during the race to optimise performance over the full race distance, and they’re obviously talking to their engineers and on the radio a lot.

“That’s why it’s incredibly complex. We don’t have ‘ship-to-shore controls’ like you have in Formula 1 where sometimes the engineers can make a change while the driver’s driving around and not know what’s happening in the background. Here the driver has to make the changes.

“You’re recruiting good drivers or good video game players. This generation of young drivers – they are that. Joking aside, time playing on the simulator as a youngster, and then turning up in racing, you see the difference between the generations.

“The younger generation drivers have just taken it on board quickly. We’ve had a younger Sacha Fenestraz who’s with Nissan now, he was our reserve driver and he’s really bedded into the championship really well. He’s the Sim generation.

“It’s probably why somebody who’s come from Formula 1 to Formula E struggles, because they just can’t process, because they’re just used to driving. And now it’s like, an engineer on radio saying, ‘I need an energy code, I need an energy code, by the way, what’s the car doing?’ Yeah. And you know what Monza is when you’re going around Monza, because you’ve done it for years and years and years. Here it’s the first time for everybody, all 22. So the only way that you can learn the circuit is on the circuit. So this generation just learns quickly, and then they come here it’s just application.”

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