BMW i8 Formula E Safety Car: Hands on with the wirelessly charged, 380hp hybrid

Formula E may be one of the most sophisticated racing series in the world, and the cutting-edge tech extends beyond the racing cars. Based on the already futuristic-looking BMW i8, the 2016 Formula E Safety Car is a moving laboratory of futuristic transport technology – and last week I got to drive it.

Although the Formula E Safety Car uses a petrol and electric powertrain, along with Qualcomm’s wireless charging technology, on the outside it’s a thoroughbred sports car. Featuring the same swooping lines as the original i8, with a pair of flashing lights on top, the i8 Safety Car really does look like something from the future.

Driving the Formula E Safety Car

Get inside, though, and this i8 is far from stock. The left-hand drive dashboard might look similar, but the rear of the car’s interior has been ripped out, replaced with a roll cage for lightness and better handling. Parts of the car’s stiff carbon frame are exposed, and after hopping into the i8 it really feels like I’m sitting in a DTM or sports car. That’s down to the new seats, too: the i8’s standard seats are gone, replaced with racing bucket seats that aggressively pin you in place – useful when you’re really flinging the car around.

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After being buckled in with the seat’s five-point belts and closing the car’s vertical doors, I get a thumbs-up and it’s time to lap the London ePrix circuit in Battersea Park. The i8 sets off silently, just like any other hybrid – but of course, this isn’t any other hybrid. The BMW i8 uses a 1.5-litre, three-cylinder petrol engine and a 96kW (131hp) electric motor, and that means there’s a combined 380hp and 570 newton metres of torque underneath my right foot. The power is split between the front and rear axles, and although I can’t use it as much as I’d like – this is the official Safety Car after all – I can feel it’s there every time I touch the accelerator pedal.

With great power… comes the need for great brakes, and after just a few metres it’s time for me to use the BMW i8’s upgraded racing calipers. I’ve been warned about these beforehand, but using them is another thing entirely. The first 5% of braking is fine, but add any pressure after that and it feels like the car is slamming into a brick wall: they’re basically on or off. That kind of stopping power is very useful when you’re shedding off something like 100mph before hitting an apex, but at the speeds I’m going at it’s overkill, and they really have to be treated with caution.

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It’s also amazing just how rigid and stiff this car is. I’ve been driven around Donington Park in this car before, and the first thing I realise is just how hard this car’s suspension is – and how bumpy the Battersea Park ePrix track can be.

The i8 Safety Car makes you feel every bump in the road, and transmits them straight into your lower back. That’s fine on purpose-built tracks like Donington, where you need to feel plugged into the car’s every nuanced movement, but at this track it’s pretty uncomfortable.

You feel every bump in the road

I’m following an i3 that has a photographer hanging out the back taking pictures, and after my drive he tells me that this is by far one of the bumpiest circuits he’s ever taken pictures on. Oh, and the camber of Battersea Park seems even more pronounced in the low cockpit of the i8 Safety Car, too.  If this track isn’t ideal in an i8, it must be hellish in a Formula E car.

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After a lap or so, my time in the car is over – but it’s by far one of the most intricate, precise cars I’ve ever driven. Sure, I never get to test the car’s 4.4-second 0-60mph time, or drive it how I’d like to, but even at slow speeds you can feel the modified i8’s latent performance.

A cutting-edge racing machine

It’s the little things that make it so enjoyable: loud cooling fans come on to keep the i8’s lithium-ion battery and other component temperatures in check, and that noise along with the rattling chassis and roar of the engine reminds you that you’re in a cutting-edge racing machine. Combine that with the car’s agile handling, sparse interior and racing brakes, and this is the closest I’ve ever come to driving a racing car.

Qualcomm Halo wireless charging tech

Of course, this car is special for more than its performance, and part of that comes from the components you can’t see or experience when driving. The i8 I’ve taken for a spin also uses wireless charging, thanks to Qualcomm Halo technology.

Simply put, Qualcomm Halo is an inductive-charging system that allows the i8’s battery to be charged wirelessly. Last year’s car was fitted with an off-the-shelf version of the system; this year’s car benefits from an all-new, bespoke design.

“Last year, when we put it on the i8, it was a interesting timescale, because we had Beijing in September and the cars were delivered by BMW and Formula E at the beginning of August,” Graeme Davison, Qualcomm’s vice president of technology, told Alphr. “When we went to this system, we had the benefit of this i8 [and] another year or 18 months of research. We’ve been able to bring a newer design and a much more efficient packaging design to this car.”

Qualcomm has also changed the coil layout on the charging pad and improved the usability of Halo. Last year’s simple layout produced a doughnut-shaped electromagnetic field, while this year’s system uses a Double-D layout, which produces a transverse field. The result? The new design is more stable, powerful and consistent – and around half the size and weight of the original.

The new Halo system can charge at 7.2kW (at the wall; 6.6kW at the pad), compared to last year’s 3kW, and it can fill up the i8’s battery in less than an hour – making the BMW i8 I just drove the first vehicle in the world capable of 7.2kW wireless charging.

Charging the i8

Although I’m not allowed to do it, I’m shown how easy it is to charge the i8, too. An app helps you line up the car’s receiver to a ground-based charging pad, and after things are in alignment, you’re pretty much sorted. The app, which is only a work in progress at the moment, displays a graphic to show how close the car is to the charger, and shows you the amount of power being transferred.

This year’s Safety Car makes the process even easier: the new pad design means the Halo system benefits from an even bigger charging sweet spot than the last.

What’s next?

After chatting the man responsible for the i8 Safety Car, I’m told there are even more upgrades planned for the 2017 Safety Car – thankfully, that includes some slightly gentler brakes and possibly a rear wing for extra downforce. You can expect Qualcomm will continue to improve its wireless Halo technology, too.

Earlier this year, Davison told me the Halo system would become available as an option on road cars by 2018 at the latest, and Qualcomm has already begun working with automotive companies such as BMW and Mercedes.

Although it hasn’t been confirmed by either party, it’s likely we’ll first see the technology on higher-end cars, such as the BMW 7 Series and the Mercedes S-Class.

BMW i8 at a glance

  • Range on electric power: up to 37km (23 miles)

  • Overall range: more than 600km (373 miles)

  • System output of FIA Formula E Safety Car: approximately 380hp

  • Maximum system torque: 570 newton metres (420 pound-feet)

  • Top speed: 250 km/h (155mph); electric-only: 120km (75mph)

  • 0-100km/h (62mph): less than 4.4 seconds; 80-120km/h (50-75mph): 2.6 seconds

Read our sister site Auto Express’ review of the i8 here

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