An electric race driver in interview: Formula E leads the way

An electric race driver in interview: Formula E leads the way

As you may have noticed, we at AndroidPIT are becoming increasingly interested in the topic of e-mobility. With the ABB FIA Formula E Championship landing in Berlin this week, we took the opportunity to go down and check it out. I caught up with BMW i Andretti Motorsport driver, Alexander Sims, to hear more about it.

Formula E is a class of motorsport for fully electric racing cars. It was devised in 2011, and is steadily growing in popularity and notoriety. Some famous F1 drivers of the past, such as Felipe Massa and Jean-Eric Vergne are racing this season and manufacturers, in particular, are using Formula E as a platform for demonstrating their latest EV tech and e-mobility developments.

We met up with Alexander Sims at the BMW i Andretti Motorsport team garage to talk about the sport and what it means for the wider mobility industry. Sims is not your typical racing driver. He’s driven in Formula Renault, Formula 3 and various GT classes, but he has picked up none of the flashiness that you might associate with some of his peers. He’s about as far away from James Hunt as you can get.

For Sims, Formula E is an especially difficult challenge, because the organizers have gone to great lengths to make the race different from traditional motorsport. "Every aspect of driving is different," explains Sims. "In the race itself, we go from doing predominantly flat out laps in practice to then having to save energy in the race, because we're energy limited, which is great, because it gives a point of difference between the cars and we have to strategically dictate how we use our energy, which creates overtaking opportunities."

All teams use the same chassis in Formula E and the same batteries. It’s only really the electric drivetrain that differentiates the cars, and that's where a competitive advantage can be gained through engineering and investment. What’s interesting about what BMW is doing, is that the i drivetrain in Sims' racing car is the same as the one you’d get in your new BMW i3, though tuned differently, of course. The development of one seeps into the other. I got the sense that Alexander was really into the tech side of this sport, and asked him how closely he works with BMW engineers to improve the drivetrain technology.

"All of our development is specifically to do with the Formula E motor, there's nothing that I would ever say that would immediately cross over to series production cars. But as I understand it, the engineers learn in a very fast moving development cycle in multiple environments, and some of those things can be transferred from an engineering perspective. I can't comment on what those things exactly are."

androidpit formula e car
The BMW i drivetrain in this racing car is the same as the one in a BMW i3. / © NextPit

Sims has been driving a fully-electric car off the track for some time, and was somewhat of an early adopter of the technology. He’s also chairman of the Zero Carbon World charity, which donates charging stations and campaigns for wider EV charging infrastructure. But what does he think about the current state of charging infrastructure in Europe?

"It's moved on a heck of a lot over the last eight years or so that I've been interested in EVs and driving them pretty much every day. Obviously, you always want there to be more charging stations, more options in different locations, but it's really moving in the right direction. Thankfully, it's become more commercial, bigger businesses are in the game, and it's moving quickly. I think the joined up networks throughout Europe that are being installed by the IONITY network are really starting to make traveling proper distances feasible."

But, can electric motorsport such as Formula E convince drivers to switch to a zero carbon vehicle? Sims think so.

"It's biggest strength is really just making people aware. In the early days, certainly, when you’d just see a few i3s and Nissan Leafs on the road, many people didn't even know that electric cars were a thing. Whereas now I think most people know that you can get electric cars, but Formula E really helps with the image to create a cool, sexy sport where the cars look good. It's promoting electric vehicles in general, and in a positive way."

The BMW i Berlin E-Prix takes place on the Tempelhof Airport site, which presents a unique challenge for the drivers (Formula E races usually take place on city streets) as Sims explains: "It's probably the widest and longest circuit on the calendar, and the track surface itself is made up of lots of these concrete slabs, so it should be quite bumpy and a different grip level to what we've experienced on a few recent circuits which have got tarmac. It's a pretty cool, iconic location."

Race 10 of season five of the ABB FIA Formula E Championship takes place on Saturday, May 25 in Berlin Tempelhof. The race starts at 13:00 CEST.

What do you think about Formula E? Is this kind of sport good for the promotion of fully electric vehicles? Let us know in the comments section below.

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