Sébastien Buemi will be behind the wheel for the Shell-sponsored Team Nissan e.dams when the lights go green on November 22nd, kicking off the at the 6th season of the ABB FIA Formula E Championship series at the track in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia. We have no doubt that when the action begins, his eyes will be fixed straight ahead, his heart set on winning.
Swiss-born Buemi has been with the series since its start and is its winningest driver with 13 victories overall. He was season two champion and has been in the top three for every other season aside from the fourth, when he finished fourth. Last season saw him in pole position at the beginning of six races, as well as on the podium following six contests. He finished 2nd overall after a hard charge through the standings during the second half of the season.
While at the official Season 6 launch of Nissan e.dams Formula E car – it features a "kimono-themed" livery and a new drivetrain with only one motor in place of last year's two-motor setup – we had the great pleasure to talk with the 31-year-old electric racing veteran. Check out our conversation below.
IEVs: Nice to meet you. I've been watching the Formula E Championship series from the start, basically, and you've been there from the start, and with a lot of success. So, how do you feel about this season?
SB: Season six? I'm kind of looking forward to it because he had a really tough start to season five. It was kind of difficult. We were quick, but we could not really convert it into good points. Then, somehow in the middle part of the second part of the season it started to all come together.
I had, like, four podiums in a row and pole position and a win, and then I finished 2nd in the Championship. So, I'd love to build upon that end of the season and start season six like we finished season five.
We had the test in Valencia last week. We had all the teams together...
IEVs: How do you feel about the car? Has it changed much?
SB: Yes. We updated the powertrain as much as we could, just to fit into the regulation of the FIA that banned the twin motor. We had to basically change lots of things. And I'm happy, the race team seems to be strong and in the qualifying simulation...I was P5 in the end but it was 2/10ths [off the leader's time]. It's really tight so it's going to be important to make sure you don't make any mistakes in your lap because qualifying is really tricky. You only have one lap and that's...Formula E style.
So, no, I'm looking forward to Riyadh. It's our first race in less than a month's time, so hopefully, we'll be good.
IEVs: How do you like Formula E...with the format of the races where you have to hit that certain part of the track to get that Attack Mode? What do you think about it? Because it's very different from any traditional sort of racing. It's almost like a video game.
SB: I'm quite supportive of Formula E because I think they want to be a bit different. So, some of the things I really love, some of the things I think, ok, it's not really good but it's part of what Formula E wants to achieve. They want to attract young people, the young generation, and somehow I think today one of the best ways to attract them is to involve them. So we have the Fan Boost -- you know, if you get the most votes you get then an extra bit of boost.
And the Attack Mode, you have basically three loops in the tarmac and you need to hit them three in a row and then you get the extra power. And most of the time you have it for four minutes. Two times four minutes in the race. So, you basically decide when you want to activate them.
So, to activate them you lose quite a bit of time because, in general...
IEVs: You have to leave the line...
SB: Exactly. So, you may lose a position, but then you get much more power and you can pass it back. So, there is lots of strategy...when you want to use it and everything. Normally, I know how much time I'm going to lose so I'm only activating it when I have enough gap to the guy behind, to make sure I don't lose [a position].
But it's kind of different and I like the format of the racing that happens within one day. Only in the city centers. I think all those things together makes it really unpredictable. And somehow... that's why we had, like, eight or nine different [race] winners over the season.
Today, you know, people, they get bored very quickly so they don't want a two-hour race. They don't like that, so it's 45-minutes. And also, they don't want to see always the same winner. They don't want to know, ok, this guy is going to win the race. I know already beforehand. And somehow, Formula E so far has been able to be good on those things. So far it's going well.
IEVs: So, you're going to win this year? Number one?
SB: It's difficult to aim for less than last year and last year we finished 2nd. So the objective is to, you know, do a bit better than last year.
IEVs: Is there any part of the format that you'd like to see changed? Like the tires, for instance. You know the tires have a street tread...
SB: So yes, the tires. They are basically not slick tires. They are kind of road-relevant tires.
SB: Michelin, yeah. They are good tires but they don't have the same grip that you would have with slick tires, so I'm from the point of view that as long as everyone has the same, I don't really mind.
But, I agree that if we wanted to make the car quicker, we would make them a lot quicker if we would go to slicks. But it's not really the idea...the philosophy...the philosophy is to, for Michelin, to develop the lightest tire possible with the least friction. And they've been improving massively. Since season one, I think each tire is something like two kilos lighter than the initial one we had in season one. And it has even more grip and it has something like 10 percent less friction.
We don't really speak about that, but it's kind of a good achievement...
IEVs: Should I keep that off the record?
SB: No, no, you can say because I think it's pretty known. But I find it quite cool to develop something that's going to be road relevant. But, where, if we would open it to slick tires, anyway, you'd never see a road car with slick tires. Never see a road car with big wings everywhere, that's why we cannot develop that in Formula E, so I feel like the base, let's say, is very healthy in Formula E. Of course, we'll see if it continues to develop well.
IEVs: I didn't realize they were making those kinds of gains. That's pretty good.
SB: It's good to know. I kind of like it. And also, there is more grip than we used to have. The cars are much more powerful now.
IEVs: Are they lighter now?
SB: The cars are the same weight but we have double the size of the battery.
IEVs: Right. That's kind of crazy.
SB: It's pretty impressive because we used to have two cars to do the whole race and now we have one car and it's only 10 kilos heavier.
IEVs: I kind of liked the switching cars because it was quirky, kind of neat, but it's more normal to stay in the same car.
SB: I just think it was kind of bad for the image because it shows the electric cars were not good enough to do the whole race, but on the other hand what is good is to show the improvement. You know, we couldn't do it and now we do it, plus we go faster. It's a good message but initially to see the two cars...it was a bit difficult, you know.
IEVs: So, you drive an EV yourself?
IEVs: Can I ask what year? What size battery?
SB: It's a size 42 kWh, I think.
SB: 40, sorry, yup. And I've driven it, I've done, like, maybe 4,000 kilometers right now.
IEVs: Cool. Is there one that you'd like to drive? I mean, is there another electric vehicle that you like?
SB: Obviously, I would love to test, you know, the other cars too. To compare. I'd like to compare it to my LEAF, a Tesla, or the Taycan. Because I heard, for example, the Taycan is not so impressive.
IEVs: Really? Just range-wise some handling...
SB: But I heard the Tesla was quicker on the Nordschliefe...
IEVs: That was a prototype. The Tesla had the Roadster prototype drivetrain..they put that in a Model S.
SB: Ah. I thought it was a Model S.
IEVs: It was a Model S on the outside, but Tesla always changes everything...
SB: So, it wasn't a fair fight.
IEVs: No, it wasn't a fair fight, no.
SB: Oh, ok. That's why I don't know enough to judge, but to be honest...
IEVs: But the Taycan, I got to sit in it at the...
SB: I know, I think the inside is amazing and even the outside. But I was just speaking about the performances, I heard it's not so good compared to a Model S. I'm not good enough to know all the details but I heard it wasn't so impressive compared to the Model S.
IEVs: Well, I hope you get a chance to drive it.
IEVs: I have a couple of questions from some people on Twitter.
So, weight characteristics...usually electric vehicles have a lower center of gravity and they're heavier. How does this affect handling versus other cart-style cars you have driven?
SB: So, what is quite crazy is when you have an electric car and they tell you the weight of the car, you think it's going to be really bad to drive, but actually it's not. Just because the center of gravity is very low so you don't feel the weight as much.
But, of course, in terms of braking and acceleration, you lose a lot of performance if the car is, like, 500 kilos heavier than what a normal car would be. So that's why in the future they need to continue improving the technology of the cells to get closer to the weight of the normal petrol car. Because then, the handling would be much better. Just because you would have similar weight with a much lower center of gravity.
IEVs: Right. It's happening...
SB: It's happening slowly, but it does happen, yeah.
So, for me, it's clear that it's going to be straightforward and better to have an electric car.
IEVs: In what way have you had to change your driving technique because of no transmission...if Formula E had a manual transmission, do you think that would improve racing?
SB: No, I don't think so because, anyway, we used to have a gearbox and we used to have to shift but it was just, like, using paddle shifters. And to be honest, it didn't make such a big difference. It's just much more efficient to have a single gear.
It used to be difficult because the gearbox used to be much bigger, just to cope with the torque and have enough torque. The fact of having a gearbox allows you to use a smaller motor just because you have gears you can...
IEVs: Multiply the torque...
SB: Yeah. But clearly now it's much more efficient and quicker not to have any gears to change.
IEVs: What tech from Formula E do you think could be implemented in a production car?
SB: I think, first off, the normal software handling the energy that you use. And, basically, the efficiency of the motors. Because you can clearly take a motor from Formula E and tomorrow put it into a LEAF, it's no problem at all. Where Formula 1 is more complex. You're never going to see the powertrain of a Formula 1 car in a normal road car...the Project One that Mercedes is developing is really not sustainable.
But basically, we are improving efficiency year after year and now we are close to something like 97 percent of efficiency. Ok, at some point it's going to be very difficult to get better but this is easy to get it there. And, the way we recover the energy...we are improving it, we are making it...the batteries are also making it easier because they can cope with more power.
So at the moment, for example, the LEAF, you still need the normal brake disc if you brake hard. The electric motor's not going to be enough to slow the car down. But in the future, you might have very tiny brake discs, just because the electric motor will be so much stronger.
IEVs:...using the regenerative braking
SB: Yes. So, there are lots of things we are developing in Formula E that you could easily transfer into the normal road car.
But to be honest, the LEAF is quite advanced compared to what I was expecting. It has what they call the e-Pedal...basically what we do on the steering wheel with the Formula E car. Everything is probably less advanced, but it is quite impressive that they thought about those things pretty much a long time ago.
We have it slightly differently in Formula E car, but it's the same kind of thing. The idea is to use less and less brake disc because everything that goes into the brake disc is basically lost. Where you could get it back in the battery so you can improve the range.
IEVs: Right. Well, thank you very much for your time. That was great.