Silent Killers: 2023 Jakarta e-Prix
Jakarta. 3pm local time. My cap was soaked through, what with my never-ending brow sweating profusely. We had managed to wrangle grid walk passes for the e-prix, and there I was, soaking in as much as I could from the grid while my cap soaked up as much sweat as it could off my head. A couple of the guys with us chose to sit it out — the heat, and more than that the humidity — was killer. Me? I wasn’t going to give up a chance to walk a world championship grid. A soaked cap was hardly a problem. You can feel the tension there, moments before the race start. It was visible on the face of more than one driver. A few of them kept to themselves, sat in a corner, away from the madness of the fans and media that were thronging the track. Were they going through the race start in their heads? Re-playing the track? Who knows. There was another bunch of drivers that looked as cool as cucumbers. Laughing, grinning, throwing jibes at each other. They might as well have been in a bar with their buddies with how chill they seemed to be. Some just had a smirk, oozing quiet confidence — a whole spectrum of emotions was on display. The teams were scrambling about the cars, checking pressures, funnelling cold air from crates of dry ice to cool the batteries. Soon enough, we were ushered off the grid, drivers strapped in, the teams scurried back to the pit wall and then the lights went red. It was time to race.
Back at the track
This wasn’t my first rodeo. Since I had been to the Hyderabad e-Prix, I knew what to expect — close racing, fast cars, top drivers and world-class teams battling it out for this Formula E championship. This was the second year in a row that Formula E had made it down to Jakarta, and the first one was such a hit that this year it is a double header. Which means double the races, double the points, double the fun.
Obviously, there was interest around how the Mahindra team was faring. This season, they started on a high with a podium on the first weekend in Mexico, but since then, nothing. They haven’t regressed as much as the other teams grew faster than them. Changes have been made mid- season — Roberto Mehri has been brought in to replace Oliver Rowland, while Lucas Di Grossi continues. Why wasn’t Jehan Daruvala brought in to race, you ask? Well, he was tied up with F2 commitments in Barcelona that weekend. We caught up with the two drivers before the race to see what they were feeling since they were coming to the end of the season. Di Grassi was surprisingly positive, despite the season he’s had and seemed to be drawing a lot of that positivity from the team. “We are not celebrating victories but we are fighting and we can see that the progression is coming there. It’s a nice feeling to see that people are still fighting. The fire is still burning in them rather than giving up because it’s very easy to say look season is over and give up,” said Lucas, when I asked him about what the morale in the team is like right now. Mehri, on the other hand, had just been called in and he seemed focussed on doing the best job he could but not putting too much pressure on himself. “The main target is to try to be not too far from Lucas,” he said. Fair play, that’s a good target to have!
Race to road
Over the course of the race weekend, I got to meet some really cool people. Fun (probably irrelevant) fact from the little time I spent with some of the guys over at ABB: the chargers that charge the cars are exactly like the DC fast chargers you would find on the highway. Except, the ones in the paddock have wheels so they can be moved around from once race to the other. They also have detachable cables, for the exact same reason. However, one the most interesting people I met over the weekend was Julia Pallé — the sustainability director of Formula E. I knew Formula E was sustainable and all that, but some of the stuff she told me really opened my eyes to the innovation that the Formula E championship is championing. She spoke of the circularity of the cars — of how the cars have been designed with their end life in mind. “With the batteries, it is really about the cells – the silver bullet in terms of the recyclability. What we have been working on with Williams is that the cells will be repurposed every other season. Season 9’s cells will return in season 11. And season 10’s cells will return in season 12. The reality is there have been such great improvement in the technologies to recycle the metals including lithium, that over 95 per cent of the metals are recyclable and the lithium is over 85 per cent, close to 90 per cent,” said Julia. They’ve also been working on recycling the carbonfibre used in the car’s construction, extracting the carbon black from the tyre to reuse it and a lot more. We talk about race-to-road in motorsport, and it is usually done in the context of the latest and greatest technology. In the case of Formula E, I hope it is more than just tech. I hope there’s a shift in the fundamental thought process of designing a car as well. Imagine road cars, designed from the outset with circularity in mind!
The racing over the weekend was tight. Maserati dominated all the timed sessions and Maximilian Gunther bagged pole positions for both races — Maserati’s first single seater pole position since Fangio all the way back in 1957. In race 1, it was Pascal Wehrlein of the Porsche team who pulled in to the lead of the race and held it. Formula E races tend to have a lot of overtaking because drivers need to regenerate energy during the race and occasionally back off early, but the first race had fewer laps and drivers could keep the cars at their limits for longer. Pascal held on to his lead, won the race and jumped up to the top of the driver’s standings and took Porsche to the top of the team standings as well.
In the second race, it was the Maserati of Maximilian Gunther that managed to take the win. He drove a controlled race and despite being harried by Andretti’s Jake Dennis from behind, he sealed the deal. Another fun fact: This was the first race win from pole over the entirety of this Formula E season! Mahindra, on the other hand, had a tough weekend — Lucas’ goal over the weekend was to get the car in to the points, but he couldn’t do that. Mehri, on the other hand, pushed as hard as he could but couldn’t finish better than P17 but then again, this was his first ever Formula E weekend. Pascal currently stands in the lead with just one point — this championship is going to go down to the wire.
Formula E is constantly questioned. Is it real racing? Are the cars really race cars? Is it really sustainable? And spending a weekend there, at the track, speaking to the people behind the scenes was eye opening. The racing is tight. There are elements such as attack mode introduced to increase the spectacle, and I’m all for it. The cars, they might not be the fastest, loudest, meanest formula cars out there but they’re still properly quick (topping out at 320kmph), but more than that, they’re a close pack which always makes for interesting racing. And as for the sustainability bit? Formula E claims to be net zero, since its very inception. And this includes not just the racing cars, but the entire spectacle — the logistics, the moving from one country to the other, the footprint of the fans coming to watch the race, all of it. Some achievement, that!