The 2020/21 Formula E World Championship season kicked off in dramatic fashion on the final weekend of February, with two night-time races on the historic streets of Diriyah, held under floodlights against the striking backdrop of the Saudi Arabian town’s mud-brick architecture.
You don’t have to be a massive petrolhead to find Formula E pretty interesting. First, there are the sport’s environmental credentials to consider. It’s an all-electric affair, where single-seater electric vehicles battle it out in comparative hush – no engine roar, just the high-pitched whine of gearboxes and the sound of tyres on the track. The floodlights debuted in Diriyah last month, meanwhile, were based on high-performance, fully renewable LED lighting, in keeping with the sport’s mission to showcase clean energy usage.
Then there’s Formula E’s unique approach to energy management, which relies heavily on data and analytics. In short, Formula E cars do not begin a race with enough battery power to finish it and do not (currently) take pit stops in order to recharge batteries. That means the way the energy in a car’s battery is expended and replaced can make all the difference between a driver finishing on the podium, or running out of power.
As a result, very specific driving styles and tactics are adopted, so that the motor can be used to regenerate power to recharge the car’s battery at regular, opportune moments - for example, by reducing speed into corners several metres in advance.
All this takes some careful strategizing in advance, as well as lightning-fast decisions during the race itself, based on conditions and competition out on the track, says James Barclay, Team Director at Jaguar Racing:
Effective race planning and accurate decision-making, both based on data, are fundamental to everything we do and every performance improvement we are able to achieve as a team.
With that in mind, Jaguar Racing recently announced it is partnering with UK-based software company Micro Focus and using its Vertica and Idol products to fine tune its race-day performances. In particular, the team is applying these tools to three different kinds of data: in-car telemetry, audio and video.
In-car telemetry - basically sensor-driven information from the car itself - is what drives a very important tool for most racing teams: driver-in-the-loop simulation. This is a virtual environment, in which different driving tactics for different track conditions and races can be tested out and issues that drivers might encounter can be identified. In the week running up to the two races in Diriyah in February, Barclay and the rest of the Jaguar Racing team were hard at work on these simulations, even while quarantining in their hotel rooms. Says Barclay:
It’s about turning the hours and hours spent on the simulator into actionable data that we can use to improve driver and car performance.
Video data comes from the car’s own cameras, as well as live television broadcasts. Audio data largely relates to radio communications between drivers and their engineering teams in the pit lanes. These pit-lane comms are open to the public and other teams and provide valuable insights into how competitors are faring:
So we might hear on the radio that a [rival team’s] driver is in trouble with their energy or battery temperature and that allows us to say, ‘Okay, we don’t need to worry about them, because they’re not in a great place.’ Equally, if we hear a competitor saying, ‘I’ve got great energy, I’ve got great thermal management', then we know they could pose a real threat.
Formula E - the next generation
When Formula E began in 2014, drivers had to change cars midway through a race, because of the limitations of battery technology at that time. That was Generation One of the sport, Barclay explains. Today, three years into Generation Two, it’s all about using those driving tactics to get the most out of more modern batteries. But in two seasons’ time, Formula E moves to Generation Three, he says:
The fast transitions that this sport has achieved reflect huge advances in battery technology. Generation Two is all about proving the power of battery technology and dispelling some of the anxiety about range. We go longer and faster than we could with Generation One technology. The intention for Generation Three is to showcase fast charging, probably with mid-race pit stops, and the cars will take another big step forward in terms of performance.”
Now we’re still waiting for the official word on Generation Three and what that will look like, but we’re working on the assumption of mid-race pit stops - and for me and my team, that will mean more data and more data analysis. We’ll need to make decisions about when we stop, how long we stop for, and how much charge the car takes on during a single pit stop - that kind of thing. You can’t just do that randomly. It’ll need to be based on how the race is going, how competitors are doing, all sorts of factors play into that. It’s basically a game of chess and that’s a game we need to play with the best data to hand. And, of course, we’ll need to go into that race with a good strategy, based on hours of simulation. These are not decisions you can make on gut feel. We want to act on data - so it’s vital that we use our data strategy to stay ahead of the pack.
So far, it seems to be working. Despite having to retire from the Friday night race in Diriyah, Jaguar Racing’s driver Sam Bird emerged as the winner of the Saturday night race. As a result, Bird has now won a race in every one of Formula E’s seven seasons to date – and this was his first win for Jaguar Racing, which he only joined this season.