The weeks before the race
Practice, qualifying and the race in Formula E all take place on a single day. No motorsport format is more compact and complex. This is why the teams have to maximise their pre-race efforts. “Before travelling to a race track as an engineer 70 per cent of my work has already been done,” says Markus Michelberger. During the weeks before a Formula E event, together with his colleagues at ABT’s headquarters in Kempten, he analyses the setups required for the next race track – for aerodynamics, the mechanical suspension system and the electric drive system.
The resulting start setup for the total of four Audi e-tron FE04 Formula E racing cars is subsequently tested and further developed by the racing drivers, Daniel Abt (pictured) and Lucas di Grassi, in the driving simulator at Audi’s motorsport headquarters in Neuburg an der Donau. Both of them spend at least one full day in the simulator cockpit for this purpose.
The day before the race
09.00–10.30: For all teams, the day before a Formula E event starts with a track walk. In addition to the racing drivers and their race engineers, this includes the team principals, chief technicians and all engineers. After the official briefing of all the engineers and drivers, the track walk is the next important item on the agenda.
“This is when we take a very close look at the details of a race track metre by metre,” says Markus Michelberger. In other words bumps on the track and changing surfaces because Formula E near-exclusively races on normal streets of metropolises such as Hong Kong, Berlin, New York or, most recently, Zurich. To what extent can I include the kerbs in my racing line? Which of them can I fully cut? Where should I run over them just slightly? Michelberger and di Grassi discuss all of these questions.
15.00–15.30: Every Formula E driver has only six laps for performing the shakedown. The most important items to be checked are the electric drive system and the suspension setup. The entire procedure for Lucas di Grassi’s car is based on race engineer Michelberger’s plan. Following the shakedown, the mechanical and aerodynamic setup is fine-tuned according to these initial on-track experiences.
17.45–18.15: The pit stops are another unique aspect of Formula E. Instead of mechanics changing the wheels every driver changes cars. The second car is necessary because the batteries currently used in Formula E do not last for a full race distance. “We keep practising the car change until Lucas’ knees start hurting,” Markus Michelberger says with a smile.
8.00–8.45: The tight schedule on race day starts at 6.00 in the morning for Markus Michelberger and the rest of the Audi squad. Before the first practice session all systems have to be booted and checked in the pits. If it rains the cars will be provided with a special setup for driving on a wet track.
Michelberger describes the main job in the first free practice session like this: “During these 45 minutes we try to come up with a lot of information: Does the energy management fit our fully-electric powertrain? How do we need to modify our setup to suit the track that tends to become increasingly fast?”
In addition, Lucas di Grassi and his teammate, Daniel Abt, usually do a lap in so-called qualifying mode during this practice session. This means that the qualifying practice is simulated on the race track, so the Formula E drivers are allowed to use more power from their motor-generator unit than in race mode. Specifically: 200 kW (272 hp) instead of 180 kW (245 hp).
8.45–11.30: The findings from the first free practice session are used to optimise the entire setup of the Audi e-tron FE04. The task list becomes longer if technical defects or accident damage occurred in practice session 1.
11.30–12.00: During these 30 minutes Markus Michelberger and the crew of mechanics for Lucas di Grassi’s car are mainly focused on qualifying preparations. Another lap in 200-kW mode is completed.
12.00–13.00: Now the time has come for Lucas di Grassi and all other drivers to battle for the best possible grid position – which means setting absolute best times. With maximum generator output (200 kW/272 PS) and on the fastest line the track offers. Between qualifying and super pole – the shootout for the top five qualifiers on a one-by-one flying lap – only the brakes of the Formula E racing cars reaching temperatures of up to 800 degrees Celsius may be cooled in the pits. Any other work on the cars is prohibited.
In this most hectic stage of a Formula E race day Markus Michelberger is the calm anchor. Above all, he has to keep an eye on the clock. Everything happens in quick succession. “If Lucas qualifies for super pole he’ll climb out of the cockpit in spite of the short break. In that case the mechanics and I make sure that he climbs in and goes out again in time,” the race engineer explains.
13.00–16.00: The car Lucas di Grassi used for qualifying will subsequently remain untouched for about half an hour due to scrutineering by the stewards – parc fermé. In the meantime Markus Michelberger and the mechanics prepare the second number one Audi e-tron FE04 for the race. The battery is fully charged and the mechanical setup fine-tuned for the last time. As soon as the crew is allowed to work on the qualifying car again it is subjected to the same pre-race procedure.
Markus Michelberger will also check all car data logged during qualifying. By that time Lucas di Grassi has long returned to take care of his press and PR commitments. Plus, in between, the title defender has to decide in which of his two cars he wants to start the race.
40 minutes before the start the Formula E cars leave their pits to line up on the starting grid. There Markus Michelberger and Lucas di Grassi, who climbs out of the cockpit once more, take a careful look at the other cars. “That will show us who might be quicker in terms of top speed and who is going to drive with more downforce allowing them to brake later,” Michelberger reveals.
16.00–16.55: Lucas di Grassi and Markus Michelberger contest the Formula E races together – one of them behind the wheel and the other one in front of the monitor because they are in constant contact on team radio during the 50 minutes or some 100 kilometres of the race. “On nearly every lap I tell Lucas what’s going on: how he needs to adjust brake balance, how to actually handle his planned energy management, how much energy he has left himself and how much energy his immediate rivals have left, what setup changes he’d like to have made to his second car, when exactly he’s going to pit for the car change,” says Michelberger. No other team member except him – not even Allan McNish, Audi’s Formula E Team Principal – will now contact him on the radio. Plus, because radio communications are often broadcast live on television, Michelberger and di Grassi use their very own secret language for some of the information.
16.55–22.00: When Lucas di Grassi clinches one of the spots on the podium Markus Michelberger congratulates his driver and briefly celebrates with him as well. There is also enough time for beaming on the team’s celebration picture. After that, though, the race engineer and his colleagues have to go back to work.
For final scrutineering by the stewards of the meeting and subsequent shipping, the Formula E cars have to be partially dismantled and safely packaged. Plus, there are plenty of data to analyse. Only when all this has been done the race will be over for the man behind the champion.