Why Formula E Drivers are the Most Vital Component: Part I

‘They are still by far the most important thing.’

Racing drivers across the land will be glad to hear that statement from a leading Formula E engineer.

Drivers know this of course, because despite misperceptions and phantom notions still persisting, their craft remains unique.

“I’ve had many arguments when you get new or younger engineers coming in and working with drivers,’ says Mahindra Racing’s Head of Powertrain Angus Lyon.

“I could pick something very simple on a system, I could do something that delays power application when the driver puts the throttle pedal down, because I say that’s going to use a bit less power.

“Then we do some calculations saying that is going to save one-tenth of a second in terms of the power over the race.

“However, the first thing the driver feels is that they are not getting the power when they want, so they don’t feel confident coming into a corner to really jump on the throttle and use that to steer the car.”

“What do they do then? They immediately back off a bit, lose half a second of lap time when you’ve in theory gained a tenth. So you’ve got to make sure all of the systems are really transparent and just feel like an extension to the actual drive.”

And this is what drivers do. They offer as much as software can provide. They are extraordinary validators.

Formula E teams play with throttle pedal maps and brake pedal maps, just to try and make the car a bit more controllable, but still make it so that the driver is controlling it.

Should they brake, the car slows. If they brake too hard, it locks up. If they gives it too many beans on the corner exit, the rear spins around, because they want that. They want to be able to control it.

“There’s a lot of detail and subtlety there from the driver, but they are also using software and using electronic systems to enhance the performance,” says Lyon.

But a lot of the time it’s not enhancing it, it’s just making it easier to drive at the limit. Mostly, Formula E drivers don’t drive the car at the limit. While so-called purists scoff, herein lies the rub.

Remember the great turbo days of F1 from say 1983 to 1988?

Of course you do, and if you don’t you’ll have heard about them. Keke, Nelson, Nigel, Ayrton all on assault marine style charges with 1200 bhp and qualifying tyres that would stick to the moon and back.

But who was the most successful driver from that time? Alain Prost, the professor, 34 of his 51 wins were with a turbo engine car which rewarded precision more in brain than brawn.

“In theory people think the fastest is the car that’s got ABS and traction control and stability control and driving control, and the driver just becomes a monkey pressing every pedal to the full and doing that with the steering. It doesn’t work that way,” says Lyon.

So Formula E drivers have got to have full confidence that the car is just an extension of their own backside. A lot of effort goes into that in Formula E.