International electric junior single-seater racing finally began last weekend with ERA’s first race at Zolder. The ‘will they, won’t they’ of pre-season continued all the way until the race itself, which proved the series’ value
Up until the completion of lap one of the inaugural ERA race, there was a fair amount of scepticism over whether a race would actually take place. The series had been in its planning and development stage since 2019, and its first season of racing should have been in late 2021 in Europe, followed by a ‘driver bootcamp’ in the USA in early 2022.
But neither of those happened, nor the splitting of the championship into a ‘Sports’ class, for competitors using the standard ‘Mitsu-Bachi’ F110e car based on Japanese Formula 4’s Dome F110 chassis and equipped with a 24kwh battery and a 130kw motor, and an ‘Innovation’ class which would allow race teams to enter and also develop their own powertrain and energy storage systems. That idea has been pushed back to 2023.
A demo event was to occur at the Pau Grand Prix in early May this year, but instead that was a demo consisting of an incredibly small number of laps. Then the planned season opener on Istanbul’s proposed Beyoglu circuit on May 20-22 got moved to the Istanbul Park circuit Formula 1 has used, and then that was postponed to the end of the year.
So the Hungaroring became host to round one on June 10-12, except that got turned into a multi-driver demo, then the same happened at Jarama a week later. Two cars had made it on track there, and the original test chassis had done a lot of miles, but otherwise there wasn’t a fleet of them ready to race.
That was still the situation when ERA arrived at Zolder last week. The series was two down on its targeted grid size of 10, and drivers had yet to be signed to fill all eight cars. On the Thursday evening, some calls were made asking drivers if they would be interested in trying out an all-electric single-seater… and if they could get to the track the next morning.
So, eventually there was eight names for Friday free practice, which didn’t go ahead and was turned into pre-event test sessions. This was basically doubling up as pre-season testing for several of the cars and drivers. Four sessions got turned into three and one driver was unable to take part, then another skipped the official race weekend action on Sunday.
Qualifying started with a spin within seconds for eventual star of the weekend Cameron Hawes, who was clearly still learning how to handle the unique demands of an electric racing car, but not many got to see what happened next as the international stream got taken down by the service provider and ERA’s channel was temporarily deleted.
Live timing remained, and those trackside got to watch in full, but it did not inspire confidence in the product. The results of qualifying were also very spread out, with MRF Challenge champion Michelangelo Amendola – arguably the highest calibre driver on the entry list by some margin – almost 10 seconds off the pole position laptime as he went on one long run during qualifying to build familiarity with the car while others pitted several times to adjust the balance for speed.
Oddly two grid positions also seemed to be reversed from the qualifying results, with no explanation at the time as to why.
Amendola had quit racing earlier this year due to financial reasons, but ERA provided an opportunity to return and he wasn’t the only one who brought a feel-good story by being on the grid. Richard Morris’s Racing Pride company partnered with ERA in the run-in to the weekend and it included having ambassador Sarah Moore in the commentary box as well as Morris being in the car, at least until it failed on the way to the grid during the race’s first formation lap.
The six drivers who did get to start didn’t have regenerative braking enabled, nor car-to-pitwall communication and the live telemetry the series had advertised would be featured, but given how the grid had been assembled those were all sensible decisions that allowed the drivers to concentrate solely on how the car handled and temperature management of the brakes, tyres and of course the battery and motor. And they only had one race of 15 minutes plus one lap to learn that in, as the format of longer races and running two of them per weekend was another element that was quietly dropped.
The first corners were very reminiscent of Formula E’s inaugural race in 2014, as drivers looked very uncertain approaching the first braking zone, and the Villeneuve chicane was another place where a wide variety of entry speeds were taken. But once lap one was in the books, you could see the lead group getting to grips with everything and either start to push or to manage their pace to look after temperatures.
A graphics-heavy TV screen wasn’t needed to show that, although it would have been good to hear from drivers when speeds dropped significantly to know if it was a car issue or just inexperience, and the traditional race format delivered lots of overtaking, a proper lead battle and enough time for a narrative to unfold. And what a feel-good narrative, as teenaged heritage touring car racer Cameron Hawes took victory in a photo finish after a race-long lead scrap and burst into tears afterwards knowing this result may help him find the budget to continue racing.
What the race did was help observers forget about all of the uncertainty and delays and lack of communication that came before it, and above all instil confidence that at Vallelunga in a week’s time there will also be an actual race to watch, maybe even two, with at least eight cars as the opening round is sure to have attracted other drivers’ attention. This time there should be no excuse for the cars not being ready either, as ERA is based at Zolder so there was no transportation involved on Sunday night to get them back to the workshop to be prepared for the next event.
What is ERA preparing drivers for?
An electric future in motorsport, clearly. But the similarities to conventional single-seaters and FE right now are slim, and that championship will move on soon to its Gen3 car which is even more radical than its predecessors.
The series with the strongest links to ERA is the eTouring Car World Cup (ETCR), which hosts ERA as a support series. ETCR is massively unconventional in its race format and presentation, and has made its own small entry list feel more significant as a result with three factory teams running only six cars for 12 drivers.
ERA is already confirmed to support ETCR in 2023, the two series share some race direction officials, and the champion will recieve a prize test in one of the touring cars. Tin-tops may not seem like the kind of direction that drivers with single-seater ambitions would want to follow, but the DTM was a legitimate step on the way to F1 for many drivers when it had high-downforce cars and manufacturer teams.
ETCR now almost fills that space of being so unlike any other touring car that it could hold surprising relevance for those targeting FE, whether they be coming from ERA in the future or more likely elsewhere, and in the paddock we found out why.
Bruno Spengler is a long-time BMW factory driver and former Formula 3 racer, and during a lengthy DTM career became one of the series’ biggest names as a winner for Mercedes-Benz and latterly BMW. He now races in ETCR for Romeo Ferraris.
“I did a bit of FE with BMW, doing some development work for the Gen2 car. It was very interesting, I really liked it, so I was watching this championship last year when it started, as Pure ETCR at that time, and that attracted me because the electric racing, when I did the testing in FE, I liked it,” Spengler said to Formula Scout of what attracted him to ETCR.
“I liked the way the power develops in an electric car, and the feeling it provides you. So watching ETCR, watching the team Romeo Ferraris from the outside, is a team that had a very nice atmosphere. Not knowing the people too much, but just by watching and seeing what was going on. And also they were very competitive last year, so that’s definitely what’s attracted me to the team and also to the championship.
“And very curious to try the most powerful touring car ever built, also, because that’s the case.”
ETCR drivers only get to show off that power in short bursts however, with the field split into ‘Pool Fast’ and ‘Pool Furious’ due to two drivers using each car. Each pool has qualifying in two segments with recharging in between, two quarter-finals and two semi-finals where the faster drivers go in the first of each of those races, and then a final.
All races usually last three laps and they are run at 300kW but with a power boost to the qualifying trim of 500kW for 40 seconds per race. Each event’s overall winner is decided by who has picked up the most points from either pool.
For comparison, FE cars currently race with 200kW and use 250kW for qualifying. So is FE the closest thing to an ETCR car?
“Yeah. Even though it’s totally different,” Spengler says. “The driving style in FE and here is totally different. FE is a lot lighter, even less power. 500kW, when you turn it on it’s very impressive, it’s unexpected. It’s a lot of power, it’s close to 700hp, so it is very special so you have to adapt your driving style from 300kW to 500kW. I would say the delta is much bigger than in FE where you have these two power levels, it’s a little bit closer together. Here, the delta is much bigger so the way you drive the car is much different between 300 and 500.
“With 300kW, let’s say you brake maybe at 120 metres from the corner. But at 500kW you brake at 200m. So it’s very different.”
ETCR doesn’t exist on simulators yet, and although the series does race on conventional tracks there’s little data to go off until race weekends. It’s quite literally plug in and play, which would prepare drivers well for FE.
“In this championship we have almost no practice, you don’t drive a lot, even at testing. You always have to recharge. Recharging times are quite long, because the battery’s big. You don’t get many laps to really feel the car, so I guess I will improve race by race,” Spengler adds.
“I learned the car [in testing], but I think you always feel in this car that you still have something to learn, to find, the limit. Going over the limit is easy because the tyres are road tyres, so it’s easy to overshoot the entry, it’s easy to do [too] much. To find the right balance will be the challenge, to find the right balance in driving as quick as possible during the race weekends because free practice is very short. Again, limited amount of laps. So this is the biggest challenge, to really find the limit as quick as possible without overdoing it.
“It’s definitely the most different [series I’ve ever done] on its own. It’s a challenge on its own. I feel I can not take much from what I learned in the past, to here. I can take my experience from the race approach, from the weekend approach, how to deal with pressure and all that, of course. But pure driving, yeah it’s a race car, a racing line is a racing line and all that. But it’s so different that it’s a challenge on its own and I really have to learn new things and I have to learn a new approach, but I like it. It’s something that motivates me.”
It’s all about adaptation, and Spengler thinks the level of difficulty in ETCR is matched by the level of professionalism in the paddock (a point of view some may disagree with despite the high calibre of drivers and teams involved). DTM used to have the F3 Euro Series on its support bill, and it’s where Spengler was picked from as the manufacturers watched the young drivers in action each weekend. ERA can only benefit from a similar effect with ETCR.
“People are attracted to this championship, and I feel also it’s a championship that has so much potential to even grow bigger,” he says of ETCR. “We are only in the second year and we see already such a high professional level. So I’m excited also for the future for it.”
ETCR is the second world cup for touring cars, as one also exists for TCR cars with internal combustion engines, and it is like F1 and FE co-existing as world championships.
“I don’t think the aim is to put it as a rival. I think in general in motorsport and also outside of motorsport, we are trying to have some diversity,” Spengler reckons. “So definitely it’s I would call ETCR and FE [unique] series on their own. They are great series, they are growing, they are developing, they are green series. And it’s a series on its own. I don’t see it as a rival, I don’t see competition between the World Touring Car Cup and ECTR.”
If drivers from the pinnacle of tin-top racing don’t see ETCR as close enough to conventional touring cars to be a rival, then neither should young drivers and they could see it instead as a step towards FE.
Spengler’s own single-seaters to factory DTM driver journey had one huge stumbling block, as after winning North America’s Formula Renault 2.0 championship and coming second in Germany’s in 2002 he was signed as a Mercedes junior to contest the 2003 F3 Euro Series with Frederic Vasseur’s ASM team.
“I had a big accident unfortunately in 2003. I broke my first vertebrae, L1, it was at Dijon [pre-season testing],” he recalls.
“It’s not a highlight, but it’s definitely a part of my career that is there, and I learned a lot through this period because it was like three months where I couldn’t drive. It was a very special moment. It was hard because I wasn’t sure.
“I was at the beginning of a semi-professional career as a Mercedes junior. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get my seat again after all this time in the hospital not being able to drive. But I had very good support at that time from Norbert Haug [vice-president of motorsport at Mercedes], who called me at the hospital and said ‘don’t worry, as soon as you’re back on your feet, you’re back in the car’.
“So this gave me a lot of power to rehabilitation and put myself in good condition as quick as possible to be back in the car, and after this period I came back in the car and my second race I scored a podium.”
Spengler was 10th in his rookie season and 11th in the next, with several future world champions ahead of him in the points, but it was his title-fighting DTM form that put him on F1’s radar in the late 2000s. Maybe, and it would require both series to first of all survive and then grow a lot more in stature, a future ERA driver could go on to win in ETCR to put their name in the hat for an FE seat.
More on electric racing
Cameron Hawes wins the first ever ERA race
Podcast: How to electrify junior racing feat. Hazel Southwell
The first look at ERA: electric racing’s junior single-seater arrival
Pourchaire’s first thoughts from testing FE’s Gen3 racer
How Nissan could shape the future of driver development in FE