From racetrack to road: driving electric performance
Inside Energy

From racetrack to road: driving electric performance

Through its partnership with Nissan in Formula E, Shell is developing new products to make electric vehicles more efficient.

By Marcus George on Jul 15, 2021

On most summer weekends, the Red Hook neighbourhood of Brooklyn emits a steady hum of life. Ferries come and go from Pier 12 to Manhattan and visitors frequent hip shops and diners that flank its streets.

But the weekend of July 10th and 11th was different. On Saturday and Sunday, the air filled with the high-pitched whine of electric cars competing in Formula E’s New York E-prix and the bustle of the sport’s 12 competing teams.

Formula E car in New York
Races often take place on the streets of Rome, London and New York (above)

Against the sweeping backdrop of New York harbour, the Brooklyn street circuit snakes around the wharfs of Red Hook, a track on which the sport’s most successful driver, Sebastian Buemi, has seen success.

But winning Formula E races, isn’t just about being the fastest, Buemi says. You also have to be the most energy efficient. As a driver for Nissan e.dams, he knows about how important energy management is during racing.

“It’s the biggest challenge for drivers. It’s about being fast in a very different way. Much of the energy management is down to the driver and it is a constant learning process.”

This energy challenge lies at the heart of Formula E. Race regulations limit the battery power of the cars so that if drivers go flat out, they will fail to finish.

They have to manage their energy supply by following a tactical plan to balance speed with conserving enough energy, which teams simulate for hours ahead of each race. Regenerative braking, which recovers power to the battery, plays a crucial role.

Street racing

Since its launch in 2014, Formula E has attracted car manufacturers and their technical partners, keen to develop and test technology they can then apply to new electric vehicles and products. Nissan formed a partnership with the championship-winning French e.dams team from the 2018/2019 season.

Formula E is a championship aimed at attracting younger audiences. Races often take place on the streets of cities such as Rome, London and New York, demonstrating emissions-free performance vehicles.

Before races, fans can vote for their favourite driver. The most popular receive an extra boost of power to their car lasting a few seconds, potentially enough to gain positions. “Attack mode” gives drivers an additional 35 kW of power if they drive through an activation zone. Drivers can use the extra power to defend or attack for the next few laps.

Sebastian Buemi is a driver for Nissan
“It’s about being fast in a very different way,” says Sebastian Buemi

Nissan has been instrumental in establishing the electric car market since the launch of the Nissan LEAF in 2010, the world’s first mainstream electric vehicle. In 2020 it launched the Ariya, a compact electric SUV, and is aiming for all its passenger vehicles to be electrified by the early 2030s in key markets.

“Nissan is focused on electrification and has built up expertise in recent years as the popularity of electric vehicles has grown,” says Tommaso Volpe, Nissan’s global head of motorsport. “With Formula E being such a pioneering competition, it’s a really exciting and important motorsport for us to be involved in.”

Formula E cars share the same chassis and battery. Teams can develop their own powertrain, gearbox and software to run the car. And Nissan was able to apply its learnings from its LEAF model to improve software updates.

Software plays a crucial role in maximising efficiency through controlling the electric motor, inverter and other electrical components, to deliver the maximum performance with the minimum power. “In a nutshell, we are always looking for better lap time with the same amount of energy,” says Volpe.

Performance upgrade

Nissan formed a partnership with Shell since its debut season to develop a customised e-transmission fluid and other ways to improve performance. Shell gathers data and learnings to help develop products for electric road cars, just as it develops better fuels and lubricants for petrol-driven cars through its Formula 1 partnership with Scuderia Ferrari.

Shell’s E-Fluids business has already developed products engineered specifically for electric powertrains, such as an e-transmission fluid, an e-grease and an e-thermal fluid.

“Formula E helps us to understand how fluids perform under what are extreme conditions,” says Chris Dobrowolski, project manager for Shell’s E-Fluids. “Racing generates data we can use to develop on-the-road products for electric vehicles.”

Since 2019, technicians at the Shell technology centre in Hamburg have worked with Nissan to develop and test a new e-fluid specifically for the team’s latest powertrain upgrade, which was introduced for the Monaco E-prix in May. An effective fluid reduces the friction between mechanical parts, making the gearbox more efficient in transferring electrical energy to the wheels. It also protects parts from wear and corrosion.

The powertrains used in Formula E operate at efficiency levels of 95%, compared to a maximum of 40% for vehicles with an internal combustion engine. Even an incremental improvement can lead to gains.

“The efficiency gains may look minimal but they allow cars to go faster with the same energy consumption and shave seconds off a race,” says Dobrowolski.

“Ultimately, our partnership with Nissan is about e-mobility as a whole,” he adds. “As powertrains in electric vehicles become more compact and efficient in the coming years, customised fluids will be even more vital, whether on the road or the Brooklyn street circuit.”

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