Electric cars have a bad reputation as ugly, expensive, slow cars with limited range. Cars like the Tesla Model S have gone a long way towards reversing public opinion, but what if there was a Formula 1 for electric cars? Come this September, there will be: it's called Formula E, and we've just seen the series' very first race car here at CES. It's called the Spark-Renault SRT_01E, and it has been made in conjunction with legendary motorsport companies like McLaren, Williams, and Dallara.
There's nothing slow about this electric car: it maxes out at roughly 140mph and accelerates from 0 - 62mph in just 3 seconds. But unlike its motorsport cousins powered by combustion engines, it sounds nothing like a race car. Former F1 driver Lucas di Grassi piloted the Spark-Renault around a small Las Vegas parking lot, and as he burned out and punched the accelerator the engine emitted a high-pitch buzzing sound. In truth, it sounds like a souped-up RC car, and compared to the deafening notes produced by traditional race cars, it's downright underwhelming. Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E Holdings, told The Verge that they're not considering adding artificial sounds to the vehicles during races — the only time cars will make fake sounds is while they're driving down pit row, for safety reasons.
Despite the sound, this race car is very real: di Grassi told reporters that "you can feel it's something completely different from everything else," adding that "the torque ... is much more precise, so you have to be very very precise on applying throttle." Even though racers won't have to contend with gear shifts while racing Formula E cars, di Grassi expects the extremely sensitive throttle response will pose a challenge. But battery life will likely be the primary concern: the 440-pound packs used by Formula E cars will last just about 20 minutes, and racers will have to pit and change cars when power is low. Like Formula 1, drivers will be able to use a boost to assist with passing, but there's also a new trick: fans who vote online during races will be able to directly speed up cars as well.
The Spark-Renault is the first and only Formula E car for now, but ten teams are onboard for the inaugural 2014 - 2015 season, and each will have their own cars. For the first season, each car will be the same, but the series is designed as an open competition, unlike Formula 1. That means manufacturers will be largely free to push the boundaries with new technologies. In the process they'll hopefully invent tech that will make it to future street-legal electric cars. We hope it works — everyone knows we could use more efficient batteries. In the meantime, the first Formula E grand prix is set for this September in Beijing. We'll be watching.