Experiencing the Renault-Spark

With Formula E‘s Renault-Spark, or SRT_01E, yet to race in anger and testing only just under way, Spark Racing Technology‘s fully electric racer is becoming more of a known quantity after the Formula E grid tested the car.

Prior to the Donington Park tests, car insight was limited. However, it was known a consortium of major racing brands were involved in development.

Dallara,  provider of the chassis for many single-seaters, contributed the Renault-Spark’s carbon fibre and aluminium chassis. McLaren then provided the electric powertrain and other electrics, while fellow Formula 1 experts Williams provided the 200kw, or 270bhp, batteries. The power is then linked to Hewland‘s paddle shift sequential gearbox.

Current Formula E driver and team owner, Jarno Trulli,was one of the first drivers to get the experience of driving the car. Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E, when speaking at the global launch recalled a moment of fear when Trulli returned the car on his first attempt.

Disappointed with the car, Trulli and his team made setup changes before returning to the track as the car got a second chance from the ex-Formula 1 driver.

“We made setup changes to the car, and the car then responded to it,” explained the veteran. “The changes made a difference and made me happy.”

With the Renault-Spark then ready for delivery, the teams received their first car and learnt as much as they could from a dissemble and rebuilding session.

Now with two cars, two days testing followed for the teams and drivers as many got their first taste of the car’s abilities and character.

The Renault-Spark’s specifications and components have created a car that made e.dams-Renault‘s Sebastian Buemi evaluate weight.

“It’s a heavy car,” said Buemi. “You feel the weight, but with the eighteen inch wheels, the car does behave like a conventional single seater.”

Mahindra Racing‘s Bruno Senna however, praised the car’s ability to handle the weight

“It is an interesting car to drive,” said the nephew of Ayrton Senna. “It feels agile considering the weight of the car.”

The comparisons to other single-seaters made by Buemi was a common theme of the Formula E grid, natural considering the career paths of the drivers.

Veteran drivers such as Trulli and Nick Heidfeld  have experienced Formula 1, while others such as Daniel Abt and Michela Cerutti enjoy careers in other single-seater classes, with the pair racing in GP2 and AutoGP respectively.

For the first two test days, the majority of drivers played with the lower settings of the power and they had mixed opinions on their experiences of the electric power.

Andretti Autosport‘s Franck Montagny felt that the power made the fan boost concept all the more important.

“The acceleration is okay but when on low settings the car is slow,” said the Frenchman. “Fan boost will be very important, in fact, the most important thing. The drivers who get the extra boost have a bigger chance of winning.”

A couple of drivers who experienced higher power, such as Buemi and Amlin Aguri‘s Antonio Felix Da Costa also weighed in with their views.

“The car doesn’t feel very powerful even on a higher mapping,” said Buemi. “That’s not to say the car is bad for power though.”

Aguri’s Da Costa however was more impressed by the car’s maximum settings.

“There’s six different power maps to run,” explained the Red Bull youngster. “The top setting is surprisingly fast, but I don’t think you could use it for long. We need to learn when to maximise and use the power.”

While drivers feel the experience of driving is much the same as other cars, the most notable difference is the Renault-Spark’s sound that emulates the noise of a jet taking off.

While the sound may be strange and unique, it certainly did not faze Virgin Racing‘s Sam Bird.

“You faze out the sound,” said the racer. “I’m used to it now. It’s not necessarily a loud sound, but it does get louder up the rev ranges. That makes it a fairly normal sound.”

Bird became accustomed to the sound quickly, but there was certainly a learning curve for Senna, who described the tests as being like ‘your first day at school.’

“The sound will take a while to get used to,” added the Brazilian. “When you upshift and downshift, you’re relying on two lights instead of the sound. It is very easy to be in the wrong gear on the downshifts, so we need to practice that.”

Senna’s description of the tests was accurate for the cars. Most teams enjoyed reliable running, but teething issues were common. Perhaps most frustrating, Nicolas Prost was unable to take part in most of the morning session of the first day.

“We had battery problems after two laps,” said the frustrated driver. “I think this is important for the championship though. The cars running before the season means you get issues like this now, but hopefully it’ll get better.”

Donington Park’s testing not only allowed the teams to overcome issues but also provided the grid’s teams and drivers to collect their first data and experience, but with more testing ahead of the season opener, the Renault-Spark will soon become a known quantity.