The first all-electric open wheel racing series, Formula E, makes its stateside debut tomorrow in Miami. It's the fifth race of the series' inaugural season, and if you haven't heard of it yet, you're probably not alone.
The Miami eprix is just the fifth race in Formula E's young existence
Formula E is a lot like Formula One — they're both run by the same governing body, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) — but there are some key differences. The biggest is that the cars are completely battery powered; there are no combustion engines here in Miami except for the ones driven by the fans. The cars emit a high-pitched whir instead of the roar typically heard in auto racing. There are also no pit stops during the race. Instead of running out of gas, the Formula E cars will run out of battery about halfway through the 39-lap event. Before that happens the drivers must make it to the pit area where, instead of swapping batteries, they will hop into an entirely different car.
There are 10 teams competing this weekend, each made up of two drivers. That means each team is here with four cars each, which has made for a busy day in the garage area while the cars are being assembled (they were shipped here in pieces in giant DHL packages) and preparations are made for tomorrow's action. The drivers come from all disciplines, but many have backgrounds in the major racing series like Formula One, NASCAR, IndyCar, and WRC.
Driver Karun Chandhok runs through car-swapping drills with his team on Friday afternoon.
The first four races took place in Beijing, Punta del Este, Uruguay, and Buenos Aires. Some of those races, like the Beijing debut, saw strange start times here in the United States. Fox Sports 1 handles the US broadcasts and has experimented with tape-delayed broadcasts, but those had to compete with tail end of the football season. Tomorrow's race in Miami and next month's in Long Beach will be the best shot for Americans to familiarize themselves with series without ruining their circadian rhythms.
The same unfamiliarity seems to apply to the residents of Miami, despite the numerous billboards and radio ads in English and Spanish. Many locals are accidentally stumbling onto the track as they go through their normal Friday routines. Cyclists are whirring down the streets where the race will take place, and pets are being walked across the finish line to the park adjacent to the American Airlines Arena. This is because the track, the fan experience center, and just about everything else is still under construction. There's much work to be done before the real show kicks off early tomorrow morning.
A family skateboards on a street that the Formula E cars will speed down tomorrow.
Formula E's events are, by design, one-day affairs for both drivers and fans. Instead of the long weekends that NASCAR and IndyCar races demand of race teams and fans, all of the Formula E races (and the preceding practices and qualifying sessions) take place on one day. That makes it challenging for the teams, but the series directors see it as a way to make the experience easy for the fans. If Formula E is ever going to find a foothold in the racing world, it needs to think this way.
Whatever the FIA is doing with Formula E, it's worked so far. A different driver has won each of the first four races, all of which have been packed with drama. The mix of heavy, difficult-to-manage cars and tight street courses has produced some heart-pounding, if at times messy, racing action. Nothing less should be expected from tomorrow's race.