What it’s like to drive a Gen3 Formula E car

15th January 2024
Simon Ostler

Contemporary racing cars aren't often driven by anyone outside of the line-up tasked with racing them. Even more infrequently do outsiders get a go before the drivers themselves have the chance. So you can imagine the feeling of privilege when I was invited to spend a couple of days with the DS Penske Formula E team.


I arrived to find the Autodromo Ricardo Paletti in Varano de’ Melegari bathed in October sunshine, set in the stunning valleys of Emilia-Romagna. It’s a relatively unheard-of race track, but its location barely a stone’s throw from the headquarters of Dallara underlines its significance.

It’s also been highlighted by teams as a suitable venue for testing Formula E cars, given its narrow and twisty nature mirrors the kind of circuits the series races on. So it served as the perfect backdrop to what would be my first experience behind the wheel of a modern racing car.

The car I was preparing to climb into was the brand-new DS Penske E-Tense FE23, an early test chassis of the car being prepped to race in the 2024 Formula E World Championship in the hands Jean-Eric Vergne and Stoffel Vandoorne, resplendent in its new even golder livery for the upcoming season.


I’d spent the morning waiting patiently, having a taste of some of the road cars DS has built using the hybrid technology pioneered in its Formula E machinery. To say I was tense was something of an understatement and listening to the sound of tyres squealing as other drivers made mistakes of varying severity only served to heighten my apprehension.

Sitting in the seat of a Formula E world champion

It's a car quite unlike any I've driven before, and despite the relatively relaxed nature of the day, there was an innate sense of pressure. Firstly, not to damage the work of art that DS Performance had so trustingly placed under my care. Secondly, not to make a complete donkey of myself in front of several esteemed peers from around the globe.

My mind wandered into a zone of focus I’m not sure I’d ever reached before. I floated through the briefing, the sighter laps and my preparation in the changing room in a strange autopilot as my mind was fixed on the experience that was to come. My engineer talked me through the controls on the steering wheel, the pit limiter, warning lights to look out for, and a small paddle on the bottom left-hand side that was the launch control switch.


Climbing into the cockpit was an odd form of yoga. A step up onto the edge of the cockpit and then lower myself into the tub itself. Had the seat been my own, I'd have fit like a hand to a glove. Happily, at 182cm, I stand at exactly the same height as the driver whose seat I was occupying, so I wasn't too far from a near perfect experience of how Jean-Eric Vergne must feel, even though my added mass was unflatteringly highlighted by the ill-fitting seat.

The cockpit sides were sculpted perfectly to provide just enough elbow room, the tunnel for my legs held me firmly in position, and the headrest came down to sit just perfectly on my shoulders. I couldn’t move, but I didn’t need to. I wouldn't have said no to sitting there all day.

The steering wheel was clipped into place and suddenly everything was ready to go. I couldn’t see what was happening around me, mainly because I couldn’t actually turn my head but the car was brought to life and the signal was given by the lead mechanic to make my way out of the garage. This was my moment. For the next hour or so, I was a Formula E driver.

And good god what a feeling.


What’s it like to drive a Formula E car?

There are very few things I can compare this experience to. The thrill of driving a single seater racing car is unique. Even as I ventured forth for my preliminary out lap running a meagre 136PS (100kW) on horribly cold tyres, I got a sense that this car’s capability was vastly beyond my own.

What struck me first was the feel of the controls. The throttle was so compliant to my input, the tension on the pedal ensured it was glued to my foot at all times, which made for an instant symbiosis between my thoughts and the behaviour of the electric motor.

Likewise, the steering, which I can only hope hasn’t ruined my experience of driving for the rest of my life, was just so sweet. It wasn’t particularly heavy, no more so than the power-assisted steering in your Golf GTI, but the turn of the wheel was smoother than anything I’d ever felt before. And that was echoed in the turn in from the tyres on the road, which was utterly predictable and near-instant in response.


The brakes on the other hand were decidedly less smooth. Think of the first time you ever tried left foot braking in your road car and consider how close your head came to slamming into the steering wheel. I had a similar feeling as I first thought about testing out the brake pedal. Then I hit it hard and found that I could no longer see where I was going as my head was flung forwards. In an instant, I had a new level of respect for these drivers and their physiology. There is a physicality to these cars that simply needs to be felt to be understood.

For what should have been an entirely alien environment, that one lap was enough for me to feel entirely at home is probably the highest praise I could ever give to a car. I’ve never felt so confident behind the wheel. What I was expecting to be a nerve-wracking, challenging and terrifying experience was instead filled with the most stunning feeling of exhilaration and overwhelming confidence.

A quick return to the pits gave me the chance to calm down as the car was powered up.


Not as easy as it looks…

The next step was to bump up to 340PS (250kW), equivalent to the performance of the Gen2 cars that raced from 2018-2022. And now we were starting to unlock some serious straight-line performance. In a car that, with me sat in it, weighs just 840kg, we’re approaching supercar power-to-weight with some way to climb

Heading out for a second time I brought the speed up far quicker and began to get a sense of how a Formula E driver can begin to build temperature into the tyres and the brakes. It’s a curve that you can sense through the behaviour of the car as the level of grip rises. Turn in becomes that much more direct and the car, even at relatively low speeds, feels utterly connected to the race track. It generated such a level of confidence that I found myself pushing the envelope further with every corner, playing more with the throttle and carrying more speed through each and every apex. For a handful of moments, I was living the dream. Then it all came crashing down.

Before I knew it, I was backwards in the gravel on the outside of turn one. I’d pushed my luck, and the car had bitten back. Hard.


All of the elation, all of the confidence, drained out of me as I came to rest in the gravel trap, dust settling around me. As the whirr of the motors dies down, the quietness of that moment as the realisation dawns is one of loneliness, embarrassment and heartache. I had this one chance to experience something I’d never imagined would be possible, one of just a handful of people who will ever get the chance to drive something like this and I’d stuffed it. The one thing I’d dreaded in the build-up, the one thing I’d focused all of my attention on ensuring that, despite the excitement and the thrill, I’d maintain a level head and keep the thing pointing in the right direction. I’d failed, not only myself but the team who had entrusted me with this unicorn prototype of the car it would be testing in just a couple of weeks’ time in Valencia. Gutting.

I put it in neutral and waited as the team came out to recover the car. Fortunately, I hadn’t hit anything, so I was able to limp the car back to the pits once I’d been pushed out of the gravel. As I arrived back in the garage I was half expecting to be told that was the end of my chance, that I’d pushed too hard and I’d be climbing out of the car.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.


Gen3 Formula E cars are ridiculously fast

After a brief moment to gather my thoughts as the team checked the tyres and had a general clean-up of the bodywork – I’d no doubt made a bit of a mess – I together with the engineer tried to analyse what had happened.

The speed that the car snapped meant I had very little time to react, or indeed understand what had happened. It essentially boiled down to carrying too much speed into a corner on what were still relatively cold tyres. Whether I’d realised my error mid-corner and subconsciously reached for the brake pedal or if the car had snapped all on its own, I’ll ever know, but I did it was a mistake I very much intended to not repeat.

Above all of the mental preparation, managing the nerves, driving a Formula E car, these moments were the biggest challenge of the day. The reset after a mistake like that, blocking out the disappointment and driving back out of the garage with a calm head, ready for one more run, one more opportunity to redeem myself and do the car justice.


Knowing I was about to head out with the power output turned up to the maximum 408PS (300kW) was hardly comforting. Nevertheless, this was the moment to experience exactly how it feels to be a Formula E driver.

There’s no preparation for the sensation of speed you get when you properly put your foot down. The sound of the wind beating against your crash helmet is one thing but the extent to which the g-force pins you into the seat is literally breathtaking. It’s relentless.

And that was before I pulled up on the grid to test the launch control.

Foot on the brake, hold down a paddle behind the steering wheel to engage the launch mode, foot off the brake, and put the throttle to the floor. Then sit in that odd silence and wait for your own body to pluck up the courage to release the launch paddle. I remember giving myself a countdown of three… two… one…


Remember that scene in Star Wars when the Millenium Falcon goes into lightspeed? The stars blur, blackness turns to bright light: the world around me went backwards and the first braking zone arrived up ahead as if life were on fast-forward.

It's mind-bending acceleration, 0-62mph in this car takes less than 2.8 seconds, but it kept on going far beyond that threshold. Looking back at the footage I think I kept my foot planted for about four seconds and I’m fairly sure I’d have reached somewhere very close to 100mph by then.

A dream experience

When it comes to the experience of driving I’ve never felt anything like it and, in all likelihood, I never will again.


This experience will probably never sink in. I’ve spent most of my life imagining, dreaming of what it would be like to be a racing driver. Now I’ve had just a very small taste.

If nothing else, my chance to drive a Formula E car will certainly add an extra layer of insight to my future as a spectator. Even on the most basic level, the feeling of being utterly immobile within the confines of the cockpit, the smoothness of the steering, the harshness of the brakes. These cars are synaptic in their response. If you have the talent to dance them on and around the limit, if you can keep up with them, I imagine there is no other thrill like it.

Formula E is still battling with establishing itself within a tough and hostile motorsport fanbase but there is not a doubt in my mind that the cars themselves are spectacular pieces of engineering. I will be watching the 2024 season unfold, if only so I can say to myself and anyone who will listen: “I’ve driven one of them”.

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