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Nissan in Formula E: From the Track to the Street… Or Is it the Other Way Around?

Nissan inaugural season in the Formula E all-electric racing circuit wrapped up this week with the last two races of the calendar in New York City. And it couldn’t have hoped for a better ending, as the team’s star driver, Sebastien Buemi, racked up a victory and a second-place finish.

Formula E’s 2019 season was the fifth for the circuit, which hold races in city streets around the world. The big change this year was that, for the first time, teams used one car for entire races. In earlier seasons, battery-range constraints meant that drivers changed cars halfway through each race.

The circuit is evolving… and so is the technology.

Nissan joined the party this year, and to better understand the role the company intends to play in it, we sat down to chat with Michael Carcamo, Nissan Global Motorsport Director.

Here’s what he filled us in on.

Three years of preparation

First of all, it’s worth noting that Nissan spent three years preparing its arrival in Formule E. And that that arrival came in 2019 was very deliberate, as Michael Carcamo explained to us: “The old system meant that races had to be run with two cars. We knew that this year, teams would use one car that is more powerful and has a longer range. With the new generation of the LEAF, which debuted just before the start of the season, the synchronicity was perfect. It too offers more power and more range than before.”

Photo: D.Rufiange

From the street to the track

That Carcamo brings the LEAF into the conversation is not happenstance either. In fact, the knowledge acquired with that model was put to use by the company’s racing division, particularly in terms of physical components that could jump the fence from street to track. Most of all, though, it was energy and battery management lessons learned with the LEAF that helped the team take its first steps with the electric race car.

From the track to the street

At the same time, will developments and advances made via this racing initiative find their way into future EVs from Nissan? Michael Carcamo is clear on that as well: “Conversely, it’s also clear that what we’re learning here will be used in future production cars. We operate under extreme temperatures and we try to obtain maximum power while consuming the least amount of energy possible. That’s what we’re learning to control here thanks to software that’s available to us. At the end of the day, that’s the kind of thing we’ll be able to carry over to production cars.”

Plus transferring that knowledge shouldn’t take very long either, unlike technologies developed in Formula One, says Carcamo: “It will happen faster, for sure. What can be quickly transferred is the expertise gained for building our engines and the materials we’ll use to make them as efficient as possible. What will be slower is the transfer of units as such, because of the development costs these entail.”

No matter how you break it down, however, the consumer will be the beneficiary in the long run. And it also helps explain why you see BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Jaguar so involved in car racing.

Photo: D.Rufiange

Nissan’s role

That list of automakers just mentioned reveals something interesting: Nissan is the only mass-market brand presently active in Formula E. For Michael Carcamo, it’s a question of common sense:

“We are the first Japanese automaker to participate in this series and that’s important for us. We are the manufacturer that has sold the most electric cars with over 400,000 units sold, and we want to show people the whole exciting part of the electric car. Often the perception is that EVs are dull and that they are nothing more than practical. Seeing race cars speeding through their city streets will change the way people see EVs. People will realize that for a bunch of reasons, owning an electric car is the right thing to do.”

- Michael Carcamo, Nissan

Nissan’s mission is clear, and its “Innovation for All” slogan says it all: the company wants to develop technologies that are available to all, and at a reasonable price.

The series

As for the series itself, we’ll spare you all the technical details. Suffice to say that all of the cars that race in it are virtually identical, as they all use the same chassis, batteries, tires and front suspension, among other elements. In the back, teams have more leeway to make adjustments.

Photo: D.Rufiange

20 people are allowed to work in the pits with each team’s two cars. It’s more difficult to know how many people have input in the project, as several of those involved fill several roles at the company.

When we try to learn more about the cost of each car, or about the way batteries are recycled, we tend to get more evasive answers.

Ask about the cost of the series, and the answer is they are lower than any other racing circuit’s. Ask about the cost of each car, the replies are worthy of the most seasoned politician. Still, during our sit-down with Michael Carcamo, he did mention that many millionaires could find it in their budgets to buy one if they so wished.

Take that as you wish. Meantime, online estimates as to the cost of Formula E vary from $200,000 to $300,000 USD per race.

It should also be mentioned that Formula E, for all its virtues, still faces a steep uphill climb. Before the start of the current season, Forbes magazine reported the series lost some $140 million over the course of its first four seasons of racing. Then of course there are the controversies that have bedeviled it in certain cities. Ask Montrealers about their experience with the race, which fishtailed badly out of town two years ago, not to be seen again.

Photo: D.Rufiange

Recycling…

This hot potato was tossed by Nissan back into the laps of Formula E organizers, since it is they who supply the batteries for the cars. Our time in NYC last weekend was too short to allow us to follow up with the organization, but for sure the question of the true impacts of this all-electric racing series merits further investigation.

For instance, it takes three cargo planes to fly all the material around to each city…

Alejandro Agag, president of the Formula E series, has said simply that “to make an omelette, you need to break some eggs. And to eliminate CO2, you have to produce some.”

We might well have occasion to revisit the question, especially if Formula E returns to Montreal – something FIA president Jean Todt gave his approval to in mid-June of this year.
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