The steps needed to keep drivers the most important agents
I am often asked if the driver or the engineer is the most important element in Formula E, because the cars drive so close to each other during the whole race. I’m clearly biased, but I’d say it’s still the driver that makes the biggest difference, because you need a skill set that’s different from pretty much every other racing series.
Take for example the brakes in Formula E – we have carbon brakes that only work well when hot. But you don’t want to heat them up like a normal combustion racing series for starting and wasting energy, so you’re not putting any heat into the brakes, which means they’re completely cold, the tires too. As the battery is completely full, you cannot have regenerative braking and for the first braking zones you have no recuperation.
Braking with cold brakes and cold tires is just one of the unique techniques you need to master, especially on tracks that only exist once a year before they become public roads again. It’s not like the ultimate Formula 1 tuning process, where the drivers know every corner like the back of their hand. Normally in a Formula E weekend you only have around 12 to 20 laps, depending on the conditions, at full power before the race starts to get it all done.
We practice most scenarios on the SIM card, but you can’t experience everything in this environment. Racing strategies boil down to game theory because there is no best outcome. It depends on what the other drivers are doing and you have to react.
It’s up to the pilot how much energy you’re willing to use to hold or gain places, because when you’re fighting, you go slower and use more energy. The engineer can tell you not to waste time fighting someone with 2-3% more energy, or tell you if you have enough gap to use attack mode without losing a lot of squares. But in the end, it’s the driver’s decision.
That said, the importance of the driver has clearly diminished a lot. In Formula E, each team has a computer that decides for the drivers what is the optimal energy saving strategy.
Pilots have the final say on attack mode and key strategy calls, but their overall approach is heavily influenced by software
Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport footage
This is transmitted in a specific part of the track, either by audible signals – a “beep” to lift and save energy, a “bop” to use regenerative braking – or lights of different colors on the flying. And during a race you can change the mode to a more defensive or offensive strategy, so the computers are already optimizing a lot of things. This is not just the case in Formula E, but in several series to make the cars easier and more consistent to drive.
We can’t go back to a ‘pure driving’ analogue world, where you would see Gilles Villeneuve gliding around corners without any computer interference. As in everyday life, it is almost impossible for racing to exist without software input. It is an integral part of the systems we have, such as cars with hybrid systems, turbo engines, electric brakes, etc. All sports depend on development and motorsport is no different. It’s not realistic to completely reduce the influence of computers, but that doesn’t mean we let a computer drive the car.
I think that in general the FIA understands that the driver must remain the most important agent. The current direction is good, but we are moving so fast with autonomous development of technology and software that we must continue to find ways to integrate these systems in a way that keeps drivers as relevant as possible, controlling the elements the most important ones, while closing the software-assisted driving options where it’s not relevant.
A little more specific development, such as torque vectoring or rear-wheel steering to help turn the car hairpins – although this would be software-assisted – is more road-relevant than the beeps and bops than we have in our ears. What cannot be integrated to give the driver more control over the car can be used in specific cases, for example to develop fully autonomous pit stops.
It is important that drivers remain in control as technologies develop, but this should not come at the expense of motorsport as a vehicle for progress.
Di Grassi is realistic that the analog world is gone, but he’s eager to see a balance that means pilots don’t become useless
Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport footage