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All-electric racing: Formula E's thrilling debut

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A great race and a frightening wreck usher in the new series

Kevin Frayer

Plenty of expert passing, some extremely close calls, and one spectacular crash in the final turn. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the very first Formula E race is how much it looked like the new sport belongs in the world of auto racing. The evenly-matched electric cars put on a mostly dazzling show around a very tight course on the streets of Beijing, and Formula 1 test driver Lucas Di Grassi became the first ever winner in the series.

The new sport is as much about innovation as it is about racing

The brand new series is, aside from being electric, designed very similarly to F1, from the look of the cars to being run by the same governing body (the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, or FIA). But the twenty skilled drivers who filled out the field in this first-of-its-kind, all-electric race were very obviously hungry to get a place in history as the series' first winner. The result was white-knuckle racing from the first lap until the final turn when Nico Prost, son of F1 legend Alain Prost (and a reserve driver in that sport) attempted to block former F1 driver Nick Heidfeld and sent his opponent careening into a barrier where he went airborne and flipped multiple times. It was a hot-headed moment that could have seriously marred an otherwise good first day for the new sport, but that Heidfeld walked away unscathed meant it was also the first successful test of the cars’ overall safety.

What FIA is trying to accomplish with Formula E differs from the agenda of most other major motorsports. They are adamant that Formula E’s main purpose is rooted in the general promotion and proliferation of all electric vehicles. The Formula E website states that the series "represents a vision for the future of the motor industry over the coming decades, serving as a framework for R&D around the electric vehicle, accelerating general interest in these cars and promoting sustainability." It’s why this entire first championship season will see teams run the same exact cars set up according to factory specifications; FIA wants the focus of the technical side of the series to be on electrical engine and battery innovation.

This made the competition very close for most of the debut race, and created far more passing than an F1 race would feature. The absence of roaring combustion engines was jarring, but it meant you could hear so much more of the stress that’s constantly put on the cars, like the rattle that the one-ton machines made when they’d hit a bump, or the squelch of the tires as the drivers piloted through the turns. Motorsport die-hards will still complain about how "quiet" the racing is, but that’s a battle that FIA can’t win, and is part of why their attention is on attracting new fans.

Quieter racing is jarring, but not a deal-breaker

There were hiccups in the debut, though. The cars still show their power limits on long straightaways, there was at least one electrical issue when a driver lost power on the track, and things like the on-site DJ and the Benny Hill-ish way that the teams have to swap cars mid-race need be refined. Elsewhere, the widely criticized FanBoost feature (where fans can vote pre-race to give three drivers a 5-second power increase) was mostly absent from the overall picture. Two of the drivers to win the vote had early troubles, and race winner Di Grassi was the third armed with the boost but the broadcast did little to inform about when, where, and if he ever even used the extra power. In fact, Fox Sports 1 — which has the broadcast rights for Formula E in the United States — had more glaring problems. The young network cut to commercial without warning multiple times, displayed incorrect graphics, and although FIA announcers Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti did an admirable job, the insertion of their commentary into the Fox's broadcast was rough.

But based on this first race, existing motorsport fans who have doubted the success of Formula E should give it a chance. And if FIA has its way, those fans' interest would just be icing on the cake. Their focus remains making new fans of this new breed of an old sport, and the debut race in Beijing was as good a first step as they could have hoped for.