Imagine the drama, twists, and turns of a Formula One race and add a battery to it: That’s what you get when you tune in to a Formula E race, the new class of auto racing. Following in the footsteps of consumer electric vehicles before it, Formula E is the world’s first electric racing series. It’s similar to Formula One except that the races take place on city streets and only last an hour, a much shorter race. The result? The kind of motor race that everyone, from true auto-racing enthusiasts to environmentalists, can get on board with. (Even Richard Branson is a fan.)
That kind of experimental tinkering with auto racing is what drew champion Lucas di Grassi into the Formula E fold. After years of competing in Formula Three and Grand Prix races, in 2012 di Grassi signed on to be the first-ever test driver of the Formula E series run by the FIA. He competed in, and won, the first first-ever Formula E race, as well as the 2014 Beijing ePrix, and he hasn’t slowed down since.
Di Grassi says he saw the future of auto racing long before the rest of the industry did. "When I understood that the world was turning to electricity, and energy sources and mobility was turning to renewable [energy], it was very clear to me that the sport I loved would follow the same route," he says. "Back in 2012, back when we created Formula E, there was no consensus in the industry yet. Today it’s quite easy to understand that everything was going to go electric, but it wasn’t back then." Now di Grassi is one of the world’s foremost drivers in the newest auto sport to sweep the world. Here’s his strategy to win.
Do your homework — and study your opponent
Preparing for a Formula E race is unlike any other motocross sport, thanks to the track. Formula E races take place on different city streets — the last was in Circuit Moulay El Hassan in Marrakesh, Morocco — and competitors aren’t allowed to test-drive the route beforehand. So before a race, di Grassi heads to his simulator, where the model is up to the hundredths of a percentage definition of a track and the car he races. He uses it to test different braking points and energy use, as anyone would do the week before a race.
But that simulator isn’t just to get a feel for the track — it’s to get a feel for the opponents. Di Grassi and his team know which cars his opponents will drive. "We know which car has its particular strengths on the track," he says. "So we analyze those cars on the track and try to understand where would be the optimal places to attack, defend, or attack before the race even starts."
Hire the best possible team
It’s not just the driver in the hot seat, it’s also the team of engineers who sit behind the scenes that can make or break a race. Not only do they work on car developments to improve the aerodynamics and suspension beforehand, but di Grassi relies on his team of a dozen engineers who feed him status updates from a live radio during the race — everything from whether to make an early pit stop or wait until later, his energy status compared to everyone else’s, whether he should switch gears or motors, and how his battery is operating. "They are giving me constant updates on strategy," he says.
Rely on your energy source (and use it to your manipulation)
That teeny surge of panic when trying to urgently send a text or find a location on your maps app as your cell phone battery dies — we’ve all been there. Now imagine watching your car battery drain while you’re racing at 200 miles per hour. Unlike a Formula One car, which uses a fuel tank and combustion engine, a Formula E car runs on a 200-kilowatt battery and electric motor. It only has a limited amount of energy for a race, so drivers race against the clock to hit the finish line before their car loses its energy source. "You have to have a very strategic point of view of how to best use your energy," di Grassi says. "On every lap, or nearly every corner, you have to be looking at your onboard computer … and understand if you’re using more or less energy that you’re allowed to."
The key is to balance between racing at extra-high speeds to win and effectively saving the battery in order to finish. It’s a fine line that Formula E racers have to get used to, but it adds a level of competition and manipulation to the game — di Grassi likes to use it as an advantage point over his opponent. "Sometimes you can play your opponent so that he uses more energy … at some point in the race, so you know he won’t have enough energy at the end of the race," he says. In short: "It’s almost like playing chess at 200 miles per hour."
Trust your instincts
If the average human reaction time is about two hundredths of a millisecond — 2/10 of a second — "most of the time, that is the difference in winning first place or coming in sixth or seventh," di Grassi says. Reacting in a split-second is how he won the 2014 Beijing ePrix. He was in third place and fighting for second, but knew that he should let the driver in second place (Nick Heidfeld) take on the driver in first (Nicolas Prost). He found his opportunity in crisis: "I [decided to] let them fight themselves to let me get close enough by," he says. His thinking turned out to be correct: Heidfeld tried to overtake Prost on the last corner on the last lap, but Prost in turn hit Heidfeld and sent him sideways into the curb. That collision allowed di Grassi to pull ahead and win. Those decisions are "a combination of instinct and experience," he says. "Your mind plays a big role in any professional sport — you’re only as good as you are in your head."