Formula E: “We learn something new every day”

Formula E is the world’s first all-electric racing series. It has seen a steady increase in popularity since its debut season in 2014. Even movie star Leonardo DiCaprio has a team competing. It is not just the futuristic-looking cars that make Formula E such a novelty, but the circuits, too, as they’re located in the heart of major cities. BMW works driver António Félix da Costa has been part of the action since the start.

Miguel Domingos
Marc Deckert

Formula E is a racing series that is still in its formative phase. Does the sense of being pioneers hold a special appeal for the drivers?
Absolutely. There’s so much we’re working on at the moment. With an open-minded approach and a smart team to support them, drivers can gain a considerable advantage. We learn something new every day. That makes Formula E even more attractive for me.

What are the cars like to drive, compared to other racing cars?
The electric motors are fast - surprisingly so - which we drivers love. The battery packs in the rear are still very heavy, though, so the handling takes a bit of getting used to.

A heavy tail must mean the cars have a tendency to oversteer.
Exactly. And as we’re driving on narrow city-center street circuits, that’s tricky.

Do drivers have to keep an eye on the battery’s charge level while racing?
Definitely. The batteries are always an integral part of the race strategy, which makes it all the more intriguing. For example, driver and team have to figure out how much energy they can afford to use to complete the next 15 laps as quickly as possible. I then try to adapt my driving style accordingly.

Right now, the batteries don’t have enough power for a full race, so the drivers have to switch cars.
That’s right. All drivers switch over the course of two laps. In a 31-lap race, that happens on lap 15 or 16.

What about the acceleration? Electric vehicles are, after all, renowned for being able to pick up speed very quickly.
We get from 0 – 200 km/h (124 mph) about as fast as a DTM touring car. And on straights we get up to around 220 km/h (137 mph). I’m sure that in the coming years the advances will be nothing short of remarkable.

“You need to concentrate really hard; otherwise you don’t stand a chance in the race.”

António Félix da Costa

You drive at 136 mph in city centers – I’m sure that feels a little different than at the Hockenheimring.
You can say that again. We drive through the heart of Hong Kong. And Paris. In New York we go right through Brooklyn, along the shore of Upper Bay! Not to mention Montreal, Mexico City and Berlin. It’s fantastic and it’s something that can’t be experienced in any other racing series at the moment. As a driver, you try to do your best on every track, just like at the Hockenheimring. But a purely city-based racing series has introduced a brand-new aspect of racing to us drivers, as well.

The cars have a very distinctive appearance, too, and right now they look like something from the science fiction film Tron – which technophiles are sure to appreciate.
[Laughs.] Yes, this year we’re driving with a crazy-looking front wing. But the fans like the cars, and that’s what matters. Whenever I meet someone who’s watching a race live for the first time, they always say, “Wow, it’s so much better than on television.”

Are the racing cars the real stars?
There are definitely some aficionados who only come because of the technology. But there are also fans of the drivers. And then there’s FanBoost, where fans can vote for their favorite driver and give them an extra boost of power to help them during the race. This creates a whole new affinity between the drivers and the spectators.

BMW intends to enter its own works team in the series in 2018.
BMW already provides the safety car, an i8, as well as having a tie-in with the Andretti team that I race for. That’s perfect for me, as I’m a BMW driver. It would be great if BMW joined Formula E with its own team.

Do you sometimes miss the sound of the engine?
I wouldn’t say miss, but it is a bit weird. I’ve always worked with engines – V12s, V10s, that’s my sort of thing. And now I’m driving in a series where you hear nothing but the flow of air! I had to get used to it at first. The good thing is, though, that you don’t actually have time to think about it, because the driving is so demanding. You need to concentrate really hard; otherwise you don’t stand a chance in the race.

António Félix da Costa
The Portuguese racing driver’s last competitive season was in the German Touring Car Championship (DTM), where he won the 2015 Zandvoort race in a BMW. Now that he has left the DTM, the BMW works driver is focusing all his attention on the electric Formula E series. The day after the interview, though, the 25-year-old took the wheel of a Formula Three car again for a single race – and promptly stormed to victory at the Macao Grand Prix.