Mercedes-Benz is taking part in Formula E

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Why on earth?

It’s no secret that Mercedes-Benz has a special weakness for motor racing. After all, they're celebrating the 125th anniversary of motorsports this year. But can you do motor racing without the smell of engine oil and super plus gasoline? In Season 6 (2019/20), the Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E team will take part in the ABB FIA Formula E championship — the first all-electric racing series in the world. But why are they doing this?

Germans love their cars, but the “gasoline in their veins” is slowly but surely turning into electricity. The transformation of the automotive sector is both far-reaching and obvious. Almost 5,000 new all-electric vehicles were registered in Germany in October 2019. That might not sound like much compared to the total of 180,000 cars that were registered in Germany, but the rising graph of the number of registrations makes every stock corporation turn green with envy.

Compared to October 2018, the number of registrations of electric cars has increased by almost 47 percent. Thus our motorsports strategy perfectly reflects Daimler’s corporate strategy and the transformation of the automotive industry. Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport will take part in Formula 1 with the most advanced hybrid drive systems in the world, and Formula E is THE racing series for electric vehicles. As a result, our involvement in Formula E is a logical and consistent step.

The electric drive system takes center stage

According to a recent YouGov poll, 55 percent of the respondents believe that electric vehicles will be the transport system of the future. Among those who support this claim, 80 percent are even generally willing to buy an electric vehicle within the next four years.

Then why isn’t the number of electric vehicle registrations rising much faster? Well, to be honest, many people still don’t really trust electric drive systems. Their comparatively short range, the still insufficient charging infrastructure, and the assumed lower performance compared to combustion engines continue to be among the most frequent arguments against the purchase of an electric vehicle.

That’s why Britta Seeger, the Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG with responsibility for Mercedes-Benz Cars Marketing & Sales, thinks Formula E is so important. “This series is an ideal platform on which to demonstrate the capabilities of smart battery-operated vehicles and to promote the EQ brand. One of our main goals is to make EQ a brand that is not only respected but loved. Formula E will help us to achieve that,” she says.

The front view of the Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrow 01. It has its premiere on the racetrack on November 22, 2019 in Diriyya / Saudi Arabia.
The front view of the Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrow 01. It has its premiere on the racetrack on November 22, 2019 in Diriyya / Saudi Arabia.

Anyone who has seen electrically powered Formula race cars accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in 2.8 seconds and then zip at the maximum permissible speed of 280 km/h past the high-rises along the city-center street circuits is more willing to believe that battery-powered drive systems can be reliable partners on daily routes to work or the local shopping center. The competition with the manufacturers of other electric vehicles, who are also our direct rivals in the struggle for road vehicle sales, will further strengthen the brand. The competitors who are also taking part in Formula E include Porsche, Audi, and BMW.

According to Seeger, another benefit of this series is that the races take place in major global cities such as Mexico City, Rome, and New York. “For us, Formula E is an exciting startup that addresses a completely new target group,” she says. “In addition to existing motorsports fans, it enables us to reach very urban, tech-savvy young people.”

This target group is probably among the 55 percent of the respondents who think electric drive systems are the technology of the future. It goes without saying that Daimler CEO Ola Källenius would also like nothing better than to turn Formula E fans into future buyers of our products. It was Källenius, after all, who initiated Ambition2039 in May 2019. The goal of this strategy is for vehicles with electric drives (i.e. electric cars and plug-in hybrids) to make up more than half of total car sales in 2030.

How much Formula E can be found in series-produced vehicles?

Is Formula E a means for achieving this goal? Yes, you could put it that way. Through their involvement in motorsports, manufacturers have always increased their understanding of cars as a system, but that’s not all. In a competitive environment, it also takes less time to discover where the limits of technology and engineering lie. Compared to other racing series, Formula E and its technology are also very close to everyday life. This means that many of the insights gained from all-electric Formula racing can be directly transferred to the development of series-production vehicles.

The Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E Team has a technology partnership with SAP. The racing team uses a tool for real-time analyzes.
The Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E Team has a technology partnership with SAP. The racing team uses a tool for real-time analyzes.

As the head of motorsports at Mercedes-Benz, Toto Wolff is also responsible for the company’s involvement in Formula 1. This is the series in which the race cars are powered by the world’s most advanced hybrid power units, which have also enabled Mercedes to capture six world championship titles. Wolff knows how helpful the findings from motorsports can be for the development of series-production vehicles — but also where the limits are. “When we talk about knowledge and technology transfer, we aren’t implying that we can solve all the problems by simply installing a brake disc from a Formula 1 car into a road vehicle. It’s all about the learning process, the method, and the attitude,” he says.

What we can learn from Formula E

One of the areas where we can learn a lot through Formula E is battery temperature management. Have you ever noticed how unreliable the battery of your smartphone becomes when it’s very hot or cold? Engineers face the same challenge before every Formula E race. Heat, in particular, causes batteries to lose energy — that’s why they have to be cooled down to between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius prior to every race. In this way, the engineers can keep energy loss during the race as low as possible for as long as possible. Depending on the ambient temperature, the engineers can calculate what will probably happen. As a rule of thumb, for every degree Celsius that the outside air is warmer, the battery’s base temperature will increase by 0.3 to 0.5 degrees Celsius.

 The number of team members is strictly limited: per race day, the teams may have only two race engineers, one data engineer, four mechanics and one team leader.
The number of team members is strictly limited: per race day, the teams may have only two race engineers, one data engineer, four mechanics and one team leader.

Another challenge is posed by recuperation — energy recovery through braking on the rear axle. Races are the ideal place for making improvements in these areas. That’s because an old race car driver adage also applies to Formula E: The driver who brakes properly will win. The innumerable braking processes that take place on every racing weekend provide the engineers with a comprehensive data pool.

This has led, for example, to the development of the brake-by-wire system, which is used in Formula E as well as in road vehicles. This system maintains a balance between the brakes on the front and rear axles. A sensor determines the position of the pedal, and an electronic system translates this information into brake pressure. The advantage of this system is that the electronics can automatically use the motor to transform some of this braking force into recovered energy.

For many people who are new to Formula E, the most surprising thing about the races is the connection to series production — the connectivity of the Formula E cars corresponds pretty much to what is conceivable for road traffic in the near future. Formula E enables the developers to learn more about data networking, which forms the basis of autonomous driving. After all, an autonomously operating vehicle has to be able to communicate with other vehicles, with the driver, and with a control center that brings together all of this data.

How Formula 1 and Formula E complement one another at Mercedes

Mercedes-Benz is currently the only manufacturer to be involved in both Formula 1 and Formula E. The two series complement one another not only in terms of technology but also in their focus. On the one hand there is Formula 1 — the pinnacle of high-tech motorsports and top-level competition. On the other is Formula E, which epitomizes the transformation of the automotive industry.

In addition, the Formula E team benefits hugely from the experience gained from Formula 1 — and it does so in every way imaginable. The team from Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains in Brixworth has for years now developed the power units for the Mercedes race cars used in Formula 1.

The colleagues on this team are now also developing the core element of the Formula E cars: the motor generator unit (MGU). The Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E Team Principal Ian James, 42, from the UK says, “Put simply, the MGU, which is a kind of ‘engine’ of the Formula E vehicles, is nothing but an enlarged version of the MGU-K, which forms part of the Formula 1 power unit.”

Ian James Ian James is Managing Director, Mercedes-Benz Formula E Ltd. & Team Principal Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E team since 2019.
Ian James Ian James is Managing Director, Mercedes-Benz Formula E Ltd. & Team Principal Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E team since 2019.

The findings and abilities of the colleagues who have worked in the DTM series for many years will also help put the Formula E team on the fast track to success.

The Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E team will have its baptism of fire under real-life conditions when the season kicks off in Diriyya, Saudi Arabia, on November 22. Ian James’s expectations concerning his team’s entry into the racing series are still very modest.

Above all, we’re racers. At Mercedes we can look back on 125 years of motorsports. But we know that Formula E is completely different from other racing series.

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Ian James Teamchef of the Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E team

“This was particularly evident during the previous season. Such variability, involving seven winners in eight races, has never occurred before in any series. We’re doing everything we can to be successful. However, we are necessarily humble and know that we will first have to learn. To do anything else would be like looking into a crystal ball. That’s why we haven’t set a specific sports goal.”

An advantage for Mercedes-Benz is that the automaker HWA AG has managed the racing activities of Daimler AG in the DTM since 1998 and its HWA Racelab Team was already able to gather experience in Formula E last season. Beginning in Season 6 (2019/20), HWA will also take over the racing activities for the Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E team. In last season’s final standings, the team from Affalterbach ranked ninth among the eleven participating teams.

However, the ranking is irrelevant for James: “We decided early on to have HWA Racelab first complete a kind of training year. The team has been through a steep learning curve, and every problem that has already occurred will help us in the future. We’ve gathered extremely important experiences in all areas, ranging from battery management and software development to the procedures on site.”

The chassis is standardized, the drivetrain is the key to success

Apart from the drive system, the biggest difference from Formula 1 is that all of the teams use a uniform chassis. This means that on the circuits the drivers engage in a big technological competition under similar technical conditions. There are no adjustable spoilers, which are a typical feature of other Formula race cars. In fact, the Formula E car has no rear spoiler at all. Instead, there are two very striking smaller spoilers above the rear wheels. The front wheels are completely covered. Moreover, there is an oversized diffuser at the rear. Incidentally, there is even a maximum price that the vehicles can’t exceed: A complete Formula E car and its drivetrain cannot cost more than €817,300.

The drive train of the Formula E car consists of inverter, engine, transmission, parts of the rear axle as well as the used software for the energy management. Here, unlike the rest of the car, the engineers are free to develop.
The drive train of the Formula E car consists of inverter, engine, transmission, parts of the rear axle as well as the used software for the energy management. Here, unlike the rest of the car, the engineers are free to develop.

The use of a uniform chassis makes a look at the drivetrain especially interesting. There is no upper limit to how much the development of the drivetrain can cost. In the case of Mercedes, it costs a low eight-digit figure each season. However, the team aims to have income and costs balance each other out beginning with the third season. Moreover, it has found the first customer for its power unit: the Venturi Formula E team from Monaco.

The drivetrain — including the battery and the electric motor — forms the heart of the Formula E car. Located between these two parts is what we call the inverter. It converts the direct current from the battery into alternating current and thus supplies the electric motor with energy. Depending on how much power a driver wants from a Formula E car, more or less energy will be drawn from the battery.

That’s why various performance modes are available on the steering wheel of the Formula E car. If a driver uses the full 250 kW (approximately 340 hp) that is available for qualification laps, the electric car only takes a split second (0.3 seconds, to be exact) longer than its Formula 1 counterpart to accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h. The drivers only have 200 kW (about 270 hp) available during the actual races so that they can employ special features such as the Attack Mode and the FANBOOST.

Formula E has unusual rules and regulations

This is just one of the unusual rules and regulations that govern Formula E racing. But there are more.

Things that could only be done in video games 30 years ago are now a reality in Formula E. If a driver steers off the racing line and through the Activation Zone, he or she can go into Attack Mode to use an additional 35 kW of power for several laps during a race.

The “halo” glows blue to show the spectators that the driver is in Attack Mode. In Formula E, the halo is a cockpit safety device — a U-shaped bar that protects the driver against flying objects during accidents. Before every race, the FIA specifies how often and for how long the Attack Mode can be used during that particular race. Time penalties can be imposed against drivers who do not use the Mode at all.

The supporters know the cockpit guard, called Halo (halo), from the other FIA formula series
The supporters know the cockpit guard, called Halo (halo), from the other FIA formula series

As is the case with other racing series, Formula E also has safety-car or full-course-yellow phases (top speed of 50 km/h, a minimum distance from the vehicle in front, no overtaking). Effective immediately, the drivers have one kilowatt-hour subtracted from their total amount of energy each lap during these phases. This rule is meant to discourage drivers from immediately putting the pedal to the metal instead of saving energy.

Another special feature is the FANBOOST, which pays tribute to the widespread digital interaction of our smartphone-focused age. It enables viewers to vote by means of an app, at a website, or on Twitter, giving them the only opportunity worldwide to actively influence racing results. This is how it works: The feature allows fans to vote for their favorite driver to get an extra temporary boost in power during the race.

The five drivers who receive the most votes are notified of this fact by radio during the race, enabling them to use 250 kW (about 340 hp) for a short amount of time. The FANBOOST becomes available 22 minutes after the race begins. Drivers therefore do not get it until the second half of the race, although they can then use it at their own discretion. Here too, the halo also shows the spectators which mode the driver is using — if it’s the FANBOOST, the halo glows magenta.

Need more speed? With the FANBOOST the supporters can give the driver more power. The voting will be activated six days before an E-Prix on Monday at 17:30 local time.
Need more speed? With the FANBOOST the supporters can give the driver more power. The voting will be activated six days before an E-Prix on Monday at 17:30 local time.

Of course, people who are familiar with traditional motorsports series might at first find the Formula E rules and regulations to be somewhat strange. Mercedes-Benz Motorsport boss Toto Wolff’s attitude to the Formula E regulations is a healthy mixture of curiosity and skepticism. “As a tech startup, Formula E can experiment in ways that Formula 1 wouldn’t dare to,” he says. “Some of the concepts may not work or may not be accepted, while others could become quite exciting.” The same could be said for Mercedes-Benz’ entry into Formula E racing.

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Jessica Abt

She made her first journalistic experiences at Radio 7 in Ulm. That fits: Because she talks a lot and loves interviews with exciting people of all kinds. But because she also writes accurately, she also worked for a while in Berlin where she wrote for Germany's leading tabloid paper. She has been with Daimler since 2017. This closes the circle: First, she is back in the south in terms of housing technology. And secondly, she can again pursue her great passion for good conversations professionally - in the Daimler podcast "HeadLights".

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