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The most important sport you've never heard of
FORMULA ONE may be considered the pinnacle of motor racing, but Formula E is arguably its future. "It has to be," says Mitch Evans, who drives for Jaguar Racing alongside Nelson Piquet Jr, a former F1 pilot. "This is where the (car) manufacturers are putting their investment."
Like all the streamlined racing machines in the Formula E series, Evans' car runs purely on battery power. The sport's 11 teams are given a fixed amount of energy to expend, and race furiously for 45 minutes, plus one lap. The object is to cross the line first, but to do so without overspending their energy allocation.
That makes every race a constant struggle between speed and efficiency.
"A huge part of this programme is the conservation of energy. How do you work the car hard, whilst making sure that you're conserving energy?" says Robin Colgan, the managing director of Jaguar Land Rover Asia-Pacific.
It's precisely that aim that gives the sport its relevance, he says. If Jaguar can make its Formula E car go the distance, the argument goes, its engineers can do the same for the Electric Vehicles (EVs) that it plans to sell you.
In a sense, the brand has been here before. Jaguar developed disc brakes to help it win the gruelling 24 Hours of Le Mans race, and the technology is now standard on all road cars.
It was a "straightforward decision" to enter Formula E, says James Barclay, the team director of Jaguar Racing. "At Jaguar Land Rover we have very much an electric future, and we want to go back to the true ethos of what the brand stood for with regards to using our race programme to develop our future technologies."
Jaguar has filed patents on technologies it developed in Formula E that it will use in everyday cars, says Mr Barclay. Electric motors, battery software and heat management are some development areas that racing can rapidly improve, he told The Business Times in Hong Kong, where Formula E ran its 50th race a fortnight ago.
For Jaguar, racing electric cars produces a high return on investment, especially compared to building the kind of World Endurance prototypes that contest the Le Mans 24 Hours. "To put it into context, people were talking in excess of US$300 million for a World Endurance Championship. We're not even close to a tenth of that," he says. "It's significantly cost effective, but at the same time, developing a very relevant technology for production cars."
Formula E is remarkably cheap because the teams purchase off-the-shelf cars and batteries. That leaves them free to focus their budgets on motors and battery management.
That being so, many car manufacturers scrambling to build EVs or plug-in hybrids to meet tightening emissions requirements have followed Jaguar into Formula E.
The British brand became the first major manufacturer to field a team in 2016, and now battles the likes of Audi, BMW, DS Automobiles (Citroën's upscale sub-brand), India's Mahindra, and Nissan. Mercedes-AMG and Porsche are gearing up to join them next year.
Having such big names in the sport will make the competition intense, but there is another race to win, and it's in showrooms. Jaguar has already launched an EV in Singapore, the I-Pace, and BT understands that at least 10 units of the 400 horsepower sport utility vehicle have been sold.
Jaguar Land Rover has said it will offer electrified versions of every new model starting next year.
Similarly, Mercedes-AMG will also have plug-in hybrid derivatives of every car in 2020, while Porsche is preparing to launch the Taycan, a high performance EV.
Audi expects as much as 30 per cent of its total sales volume to come from EVs by 2025, and BMW already sells half a dozen EVs or plug-in models in Singapore. Next month, Nissan is expected to launch the Leaf electric hatchback here, and says every model line will be electrified eventually.
Yet, with EVs and plug-ins accounting for only 2.2 per cent of total car sales around the world last year, the race to bring them to market has only just started. It's impossible to tell which car company will come out ahead, much as it is in Formula E racing. In the series' first five races this year, five different drivers from five different teams have won.