Lightning on wheels: the insane electric racing of Formula E
Pro EV racing is here, and it's already really good39
With just hours before a live, global, contractually required television broadcast, Formula E organizers raced to assemble a track in downtown Miami. With the hot sun beating down on an anxious crowd, workers filed down bumpy manhole covers and used forklifts to put the last few concrete safety barriers in place.
The event had drawn tens of thousands of fans to a stretch of Biscayne Boulevard, creating a scene that evoked a time when the major open-wheel Grand Prix series occupied major American cities on a yearly basis. Away from the packed grandstands, some Miamians watched from a more bird's-eye view — residents hung flags over the balcony railings of their apartments 20 stories above the street, others watched from rooftops or from a massive yacht docked in the water next to the American Airlines Arena. The interest in the brand new series was obvious.
But the series wasn’t ready. A morning practice session had to be canceled, and even the race officials who worked for FIA — the sport’s governing body — were unclear when the track would be ready. It was, like the event itself, a race to the finish.
The action eventually got underway, but it underscored Formula E’s present reality: this is an experiment. It’s young, weird, crazy, brash. It might be described as a little confused (and a little confusing).
It’s also completely electric.
The race cars of Formula E call heavily on recent designs found in Formula One, which is to say they are gorgeous works of high technology. The bodies have been carefully shaped out of carbon fiber and aluminum by Dallara, the same company that supplies IndyCar with its current chassis. The powerful, ornate machines bring to mind an old racing adage: "They look fast standing still."
But beneath their taut skins, the cars of Formula E are much different from those that make up the world’s most popular motorsport: they top out at just 140mph, run on treaded tires instead of racing slicks, and have fewer aerodynamic aids. They also weigh more — Formula E cars must run at a minimum of around 1,800 pounds including the driver, some 350 pounds heavier than an F1 car.
Still, the biggest difference between Formula E and Formula One is also the most obvious, according to Virgin team driver Jaime Alguersuari.
"The main limitation is the same as we have in our iPhones: the battery," says Alguersuari, who has driven in both series. "We have to try to keep the battery as cool as we can, and try to preserve it by using some driving techniques."
Much of the drama comes from battery management
In fact, a major source of drama in each Formula E race is how well each driver manages their car’s battery. Even though the races last about an hour, the battery technology is still only good enough to let the drivers race for 25–30 minutes at a time. So halfway through each race, every driver has to stop in the pits and hop into a new car with a freshly charged battery.
That means each half of the race is as much about energy efficiency as it is about the actual racing. If a driver goes all-out at the start in an effort to grab the lead, they risk running the battery down too low and too soon. If they race too conservatively, on the other hand, they could lose so much ground that they end up at the back of the 20-car pack.
Overall, the battery limits may actually help Formula E. The shorter races are much more approachable to casual fans watching at the track or from the couch. An hour-long feature event is practically unheard of in motorsports; while IndyCar has tried to limit its own races to about two hours in recent years, NASCAR has morphed its broadcasts into NFL-style marathons. Both of those series are seeing major dips in television ratings and especially in attendance — NASCAR’s popularity problem is so bad that it’s stopped reporting attendance estimates, even as images of empty seats make it in to each broadcast.
Like Alguersuari, most drivers in Formula E come from multidisciplinary backgrounds, and almost all of them concurrently compete in other series. During any given Formula E race you’re watching drivers who’ve raced in Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR, WRC, Global Rallycross, LeMans, and just about every other major motorsport imaginable. They’re not outcasts of these other series; this circulation is considered normal these days. Some Formula One drivers move to IndyCar, some IndyCar drivers move to NASCAR, and so on. Because of this, the drivers of Formula E’s inaugural season say the competition is already pretty stiff.
"You look up and down the grid, especially for this race, and there is not a single driver that you would say is slow," says Sam Bird, Alguersuari’s teammate at Virgin. He’s competed in the World Endurance Championship and a handful of series that serve as stepping stones to Formula One. "It’s a staggering grid. In my opinion it’s as strong, if not stronger, than Formula One in terms of depth. All the drivers have achieved something great in their career."
The intensity of the competition is further enhanced by two big factors, the first of which is the decision only to race the cars on street circuits. These courses are typically full of sharp turns and are laid out in tight confines, often in the heart of a city. It also helps hide the cars’ limited top speed, while allowing the batteries to last longer: Formula E cars have regenerative braking, which partially recharges the battery by storing the energy created during deceleration. It’s how the cars are able to last about a half-hour before the battery completely drains, but it’s also why we won’t see them on an oval course any time soon, where braking is minimal.
The other thing that fosters such rich competition is that all the cars are identically configured. Every team currently runs the same chassis, and only next season will certain parts of the car (like suspension) be opened up to customization.
That slow-drip progress is intentional. Ever since he announced the series three years ago, Formula E’s CEO Alejandro Agag has had three clearly stated goals for the series: create exciting and competitive racing, to improve research and development around electric vehicles, and to eliminate the resistance that people have to the technology.
"People still don’t believe in electric cars."
"People still don’t believe in electric cars," Agag told Bloomberg back in 2012. "They don’t see them as a real option for their lives."
Not much has changed since then. Tesla, the EV market’s biggest cheerleader, just sold 10,000 cars in a calendar quarter — a drop in the bucket compared to traditional automakers. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson — one of Formula E’s most high-profile supporters — spoke about these challenges at the pre-race press conference in Miami. "A lot of members of the public do not realize that electric cars can go 140mph," he said. "A lot of members of the public don’t realize that electric cars can be sexy. And these cars are all of that."
But for fans and curious onlookers to experience any of this, there needs to be a race. Agag has compressed the entire Formula E race experience into just one day, which necessitates a harried symphony of activity simply to get these high-tech marvels underneath a green flag.
Practice, qualifying, and the actual Formula E race start and end in a span of about 10 hours. The experience is a bargain: a general-admission ticket in Miami only cost about $25 (some seats went for higher), while the most recent US race in Long Beach, California, was completely free. In that respect, Formula E more closely resembles the way local short tracks around the US operate — get the fans in for cheap on a Saturday while making money on concessions, give them a ton of action in a short amount of time, and get them out.
That's a stark contrast to other major motorsports, which spread practice and qualifying sessions across the days before the actual race, each of which can cost an extra fee to attend. The worst offender, NASCAR, spreads its action out so much that it practically demands its fans to spend a long weekend or more at a track. A full weekend at a NASCAR track can cost a family hundreds of dollars before the race even starts.
The compressed schedule adds tremendous pressure on the drivers, which Bird says is by design. "It’s important for Formula E as a brand to have wild, wacky, crazy races," he says. "We sort of need that at the moment to get people interested."
Formula E needs to be "wild, wacky, and crazy" right now — and it is
To his point, almost everything about the experience is "wild, wacky, crazy." There’s the FanBoost competition, which uses online voting to give three drivers in every race the ability to briefly increase their horsepower limit. The series has ramped up an aggressive social media presence throughout the season, especially on Facebook where full race highlights and clips of spectacular moments are natively posted. There’s even a live DJ during each race — or "EJ," as he’s called — who pumps music into speakers around the venue to help make up for the lack of engine noise.
If that’s what Agag and the people behind Formula E really want — a day of insanity for drivers, teams, and a new generation of race fans — then they must be happy with the results so far. The tamest race of the season was the series’ premiere race in Beijing last September. It was a decent debut, but nothing terribly noteworthy happened until a terrifying crash in the final turn of the race when driver Nico Prost tried to block a charging Nick Heidfeld.
"Since that moment, the racing has been frantic," says Bird.
He’s right. The rest of the races have been excellent, with tons of side-by-side action that's been equal parts messy and thrilling. The manic racing has spawned six different winners in each of the first six races. And even though open-wheel racing series typically thrive in close competition that demands a lack of contact — the danger of exposed wheels is too great to allow the door-slamming action found in stock car series like NASCAR — Formula E drivers have not been shy about muscling their way around these street circuits.
While the racing has been great, the most common complaint about Formula E was lodged well before the series even debuted: its sound, or the perceived lack of it. Traditional race fans love (or love to hate) the sound of combustion engines, and a series that lacks the rumbles and roars usually found in other motorsports is fighting an uphill battle.
Let's talk about the sound
"There’s always going to be standard combustion [engine] series out there, and we’re not trying to get rid of them," Bird says. "There’s no reason why a fan can’t appreciate and love the so-called ‘normal’ concept of racing but at the same time appreciate and love what we’re doing here with our machines."
But let’s be clear: these cars aren’t silent. The electric motors produce a sound that is somewhere between that of a giant RC car and something out of The Jetsons. They might be whisper-quiet from few hundred yards away, but they register about 80 decibels when they zip by. That’s plenty of noise to get your heart pounding.
The tamer sound even offers a few advantages. You can actually hear the chirps and squeals of the tires as the cars fly around each corner, a stark reminder that the drivers’ lives hang in the balance at every turn. The reduced track noise means you don’t need to yell yourself hoarse while talking to your friends and family. There’s also no fussing around with earplugs, a common annoyance at any other race track. (Though, if you’re really close to the action, ear protection is still a good idea.)
The biggest advantage might be that local governments are more likely to embrace a series that won’t fill their cities with noise and air pollution. In Miami, for example, you could hardly make out that anything special was happening from a few blocks away. Because of this, the young series is attracting a lot of attention — just last week, Agag told Autosport.com that over 180 cities have requested to hold a race, and the mayor of Montreal flew to the Miami race to stump for the series to come to his town next year. These cities have good reason to be interested, too. A report from Ernst & Young from 2013 regarding the race in Miami estimated that the event could generate $10 million in revenue for the city from 25,000 unique visitors.
But if Formula E wants to maintain that intense interest, the organizers need to streamline how it all works. In Miami, the one-day turnaround nearly spelled disaster — major pieces of the course were still being assembled at 11AM on race day, three hours after the first practice was supposed to start. That delay meant a practice session had to be cut in order to keep with the 4PM start time, which was contractually tied to a live broadcast with Fox Sports. A heavy air of uncertainty hung all throughout the day from the paddock to the grandstands, with tensions amplified by the incessant soundtrack from the EJ.
Fans watch a construction crew lift the last bits of fence into place on the morning of the race.
The series also needs to increase the fans’ access to the drivers and cars. Kids and their parents in Miami were turned away from the paddock even well after the checkered flags waved, and that kind of up-close interaction is an enormous part of the experience offered by NASCAR and other American racing series. (At the race in Long Beach, FIA sold passes to the paddock but only for 30 or 40 minutes at a time.) The power of that kind of access shouldn't be ignored — even the Red Bull Air Race realized this, which is why the series started holding events at American speedways last year in order to improve its own fan outreach.
There’s also just a general dearth of advertising for Formula E, and many people still don’t even know it exists. Even in Miami on the night before the race, locals were stumbling onto the unfinished course and wondering what they were looking at.
But for the moment, the sport’s immediate future looks secure. Just last month, organizers secured a round of funding from cable mogul John Malone and his companies Liberty Global and Discovery Communications. While the amount wasn’t disclosed, it was apparently big enough to make them the largest shareholder in Formula E Holdings, the series’ parent company. Last year, Qualcomm was part of an investment round that raised €50 million (about $53 million). And a separate sustainability report from Ernst & Young estimated that the series could help drive almost 100 million EV sales by 2040.
"We’re at the ground floor of this technology," team owner Michael Andretti says. "I believe in five years we’re going to be going twice as far twice as fast, and it’s all going to be because of the competition that you have on the race track."
Roger Penske, Michael Andretti, and Dario Franchitti chat in the paddock on race day. The involvement of famous motorsport names like these involved with Formula E is important in the early going.
Once those kinds of milestones have been reached, Andretti says, consumers will see the benefits. "That’s what auto racing did in the beginning with the automobile, and I think it’s going to happen here with the electric side of it," he says.
With just a few races behind them, teams are already looking forward to improvements in technology, underscoring just how quickly the EV industry is moving. "Some of the technologists that are working on our program believe that we can accelerate [energy density] about 8 percent a year, and that’s really phenomenal," says Alex Tai, team principal for Virgin Racing.
Important technological advances are already being made
Lucas di Grassi, who won the very first Formula E race in Beijing and currently sits atop the points standings, likes the series’ chances of shaping the way young people think about the automobile.
"When they think about buying their first car, they think about buying an electric car," di Grassi says. "To change old minds that [think] V8s and V10s are the cars to get, it’s actually very difficult. But if the first car that you buy is electric, the chance of you staying with electric cars for the future is actually very high."
Ask other drivers about the big picture, however, and you get a much different answer. "Where it’s going? What’s right? Is it going to be successful? Is it not? Psh, I’m just a dumb racing driver," says Scott Speed, who finished second in Miami. "Steer the wheel and push the pedals."