clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A trackside look at Formula E's historic weekend in New York City

All-electric racing has come a long way in three years

This month, professional motor racing came to New York City for the first time ever. Not a race in New Jersey, or four hours north at Watkins Glen. And it wasn't F1, or IndyCar, or NASCAR that finally made this happen. It was Formula E, a young, all-electric racing series that had less than 30 races to its name when it rolled into town.

Formula E has endured low, steady criticism from racing fans in its early years, mostly about how the cars aren’t fast enough, but also that they don’t make much noise. But it's because of those traits, not in spite of them, that the series was able to pull off this historic feat.

The lack of aggressive engine noise from the electric motors (and the lack of emissions as well) are a huge reason why Formula E is able to race in the hearts of cities around the world. And the series works around the limited top speed — the cars have a ceiling of about 150–160 miles per hour — by building out tracks that are much shorter than the ones found in a series like F1.

For both of these reasons, Formula E was able to plug two races into the Brooklyn waterfront without much neighborhood disruption. Hundreds of concrete barriers were dropped down to construct the 1.21-mile track, which existed completely on the private property of the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. Just a few small side streets were closed off by police to direct foot traffic.

As for the event itself, the racing was great, and the grandstands were full. And unlike the first American Formula E race — way back during season 1 in Miami — there were no major mishaps with the assembly of the track or the organization of the event.

NYC has a tendency to swallow events whole. A few blocks away from the track in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, you could hardly tell that anything was going on. But for two days, the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal was an oasis in what is normally a Sahara-sized desert of racing action.

The NYC ePrix, as it was called, offered racing fans a rare chance to see the series — and the sport — up close, probably even for the first time. It also drew in a healthy minority of non-fans, Brooklyners who were looking for something to see and do on a pair of perfectly warm summer days. The measure of whether or not the first big race(s) in New York City was truly a success will be how many people come back next year. But, for now, Formula E pulled off what was previously unthinkable: pit fantastic racecars against each other in New York City. Here’s what it looked like to see it all shake down on the ground.

A warm New York City welcome

Mahindra Racing drivers Felix Rosenqvist (L) and Nick Heidfeld (R) walk the track to get a sense of the layout.
The reflection of Lucas di Grassi’s car in a puddle in the pits.
The track was tucked around the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, which opened in 2006 and is the nexus point for about 600,000 tourists per year.

The series was greeted with its first truly wet day ever on the Friday of race weekend. Rain came, went, and came back again all the way up until the early evening “shakedown” session, which is when drivers get a handful of laps to see what the track looks like, and the series organizers get a chance to make sure everything — from the track to the assembly of the cars — is in race shape.

Formula E cars don’t use race “slicks” like other series. Instead they use specially designed, treaded, 18-inch tires from Michelin called the Pilot Sport EV2. They’re meant to work in all conditions, and in turn, have more relevance for consumers.

Other than a few sprinkles at last year’s race in London, Formula E had never put these tires to the test in rainy conditions. Since every bit of time on the tight and tricky track mattered, though, drivers ran the shakedown session anyway.

One of the first out was António Félix Da Costa, a Portuguese driver who races for the BMW Andretti team. Da Costa, like many other drivers in Formula E, competes in multiple series throughout the year, and he has a contract with BMW’s motorsports program. Earlier this year, at CES, he told me why he thinks Formula E has been so successful in attracting big-name manufacturers like BMW, Audi, and Jaguar.

“First of all, all of these manufacturers are being pressured from their board members to be in electric. The world is going in this direction. Like it or not, they have to be here. And now we need to make them fall in love with this. Because when you do something with love and passion, the work becomes nicer, better, you have fun. So that's the next step, to make them love this as well. I don't know if they do or not yet, but that's what needs to happen.”

António Félix Da Costa slides around one of the 10 corners that made up the 1.21-mile track at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal.
German driver Maro Engel dodges puddles during shakedown.
One of the NextEV drivers heads past the Snapple distribution plant into turn 7, which cut across one of the crosswalks typically used to access the parking lot from the main building of the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal.
Mahindra Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist — who came to Formula E after racing in everything from F3 to Indy Lights — puts the Michelin tires to the test.

Meanwhile, everyone else involved prepped for the two days of racing that laid ahead. Pit crew members readied the garages, broadcast crews installed and linked cameras, and the concession workers were brought in to get a sense of what they were in for.

Members of the DS Virgin team lay tape that they use as a reference for timing out the drivers’ pit stops.
A Fox Sports camera operator braves the rain to shoot the shakedown session.
Rookie Alex Lynn, filling in for DS Virgin’s José María López, was quickest in his first Formula E practice. He wound up qualifying first for Saturday’s race, too.

A damp morning starts a long day

Things hadn’t totally dried out by the time the first of two scheduled practice sessions kicked off at 8AM. Where NASCAR, IndyCar, or F1 might spread practice and qualifying sessions across a few days, Formula E does it all in one. This helps limit the disruption of the host cities, and it also makes it an easier commitment for fans.

But it’s hell on the teams and drivers. Each Formula E race day typically consists of two practices, an hour of qualifying, and a short break before the race, which usually starts at about 4PM local time. “You’ve basically just got a couple hours to get it right,” Mitch Evans, a driver for the Jaguar Formula E team, said over the phone back in June. “That just takes its toll on us, and at the end of the day, we're destroyed.” The double-header weekends, which the series holds at the ends of each season, add to that toll. “I'm still tired from [the double-header in] Berlin,” he added.

A view of the pit area, or “paddock,” with the southern tip of Manhattan shrouded in clouds in the background.
Sam Bird of DS Virgin Racing was fastest in the first practice. He would go on to win both races in NYC.
Jaguar’s Mitch Evans takes a tight right-handed turn set up near the main building of the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. “I'm quite just blown away that they've pulled it off,” Evans told The Verge during an interview in June.

The garages of Formula E offer the same kind of theater found in other types of racing. Team members crank wrenches, haul tires, and prop the cars up on jacks to make the minor adjustments that could help their driver win. Sure, there are more laptops than you might expect in a race pit, but only the occasional cloud of dry ice (which helps keep the cars’ batteries cool) gives away the futuristic work at play. That and the high voltage signs.

Crew members for Nick Heidfeld’s #23 Mahindra Racing car go to work on the front suspension in between practice sessions.
A member of the Faraday Future Dragon Racing team helps set up the cockpit for the driver.
Another person from the Faraday Future Dragon Racing crew changes out the dry ice being used to keep the car’s battery cool.
The Renault e.dams team jacks up the #8 car of driver Nico Prost. Renault far and away has the best chance of winning the team championship this season.
Faraday Future Dragon Racing crew members work on one of the team’s cars. The Silicon Valley startup joined up with the Dragon Racing team ahead of the start of the third season.
A view of the massive 28kW lithium-ion battery that powers the Formula E cars. A new battery is on the way for season 5 that will let the cars run faster, but twice as long.

Drivers don’t get much of a chance to relax in between sessions. When they’re not studying the data that gets pulled from the car’s numerous sensors, they’re either giving the team information that will inform the way the car is set up for the race, or greeting the fans who have been allowed in the pit area. These short breaks are also used to give the media a chance to catch up with the teams’ progress throughout the day.

Mahindra Racing’s Nick Heidfeld takes a moment after practice to think about the rest of the day ahead.
Before long, he’s spotted by a line of fans who each want a picture.

It’s not just drivers — mechanics, engineers, and team managers often spend some of this time speaking to the media. Typically it’s all about the race, or about the location that the race is being held in that weekend. For the Faraday Future Dragon Racing team, though, that was a bit different in New York.

The Silicon Valley electric car startup joined up with the Dragon Racing team at the beginning of season 3, and is one of nine manufacturers to take part in the sport. But it’s also one of the more troubled. Its main investor, Chinese conglomerate LeEco — the name of which is emblazoned on the team’s uniforms and cars — has suffered a number of setbacks in recent months. In turn, Faraday Future has scaled back its ambitions, canceled factory plans, and lost executives.

Jay Penske, the son of legendary racing team owner Roger Penske, manages the Faraday Future Dragon Racing team.

I asked Jay Penske — who runs the racing team, and is the son of legendary motorsport team owner Roger Penske — if that’s affected the relationship between Dragon Racing and Faraday Future.

“The response that we’ve had from the team and the Faraday engineering side has been very good. You know, they’ve been active every week with us since really London of last year. So we haven’t seen any change. We’ve had a great working relationship with their team. You know, people don’t remember probably two years ago when Tesla’s stock hit the bottom and everyone was scrambling, [thinking] ‘was this even going to come out of the bottom there?’ So I think these are businesses that have incredible promise. They’re risk takers. But there’s incredible rewards. And I think we believe long term that companies like Faraday will not only succeed, but will continue to build marketshare in EV. But they’ve been a great partner with us in racing.”

The view of Manhattan’s financial district became clear once the rain and clouds moved out of the area. Race organizers had made it clear that, if they couldn’t race in Manhattan, they wanted to run somewhere with a view of the island.
Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag speaks with reporters before the race. “The whole purpose of Formula E is to get the fans closer to these new technologies, especially the kids,” he said. “When they come to Formula E, they visit the future. They imagine their future. They say, ‘when I’m older, I want to have an electric car.’”
A track official and paramedics take a moment to appreciate the view between practice and qualifying.
Photographers train their cameras on Lucas di Grassi during qualifying for the race.

Race 1

Almost 10 months to the day after the New York City races were announced, the 20 cars were lined up and ready to go. Taking cues from other legacy motorsports, Formula E allows a healthy number of VIP fans and media to walk the starting grid the hour before the race.

The starting grid buzzes with action before the race.
A local band plays some New Orleans second line standards while the fans walk the starting grid.
Season 1 champion Nelson Piquet, Jr. uses a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones to muffle the noise on the starting grid.
Virgin team principal Alex Tai speaks with Virgin founder Richard Branson before the race.
Driver Robin Frijns talks with his boss, Michael Andretti, before the race. Andretti has been involved with Formula E since the start, and both he and his father — Mario Andretti — raced in New Jersey with IndyCar. Still, he says it’s hard to believe Formula E landed a race in New York. “If you would’ve asked me [if this would happen], I dont’ know, seven years ago, I would have thought you were nuts.”
Renault driver Nico Prost stands next to his father, Alain, a four-time F1 champion. Nico Prost had extra pressure on his shoulders in NYC, because his teammate, Sebastien Buemi, was absent.
Nelson Piquet, Jr. ditches the Bose headphones to take a picture with some fans. Previous stints in NASCAR and F1 make him the most well-known driver in the field in the United States.
DS Virgin driver Sam Bird speaks with his wife before the race.
Audi driver Lucas di Grassi gets a high five before hopping into his car. He came into the weekend second in the championship hunt.
Fans filtered in slowly throughout the day, but the grandstands were packed by the 4PM start time.
A full front grandstand awaits the start of the race. Both races were sold out, according to Formula E officials. That accounted for around 6,500 seats and about 1,500 standing room tickets.
Faraday Future Dragon Racing’s Jerome D'Ambrosio gets around NextEV’s Oliver Turvey in the first few laps of the race.
A young fan watches from the grandstands.
Oliver Turvey, who drives for NextEV, leads a few other drivers through one of the track’s tightest sequences of corners.
Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge
Formula E tracks often feature lots of hairpins and chicanes, or back to back turns, for two reasons: one, it helps mask the cars’ limited top speed of around 155 miles per hour. Two, it creates more braking zones, which gives drivers lots of opportunity to use regenerative braking to keep their batteries alive.
DS Virgin driver Sam Bird jumped into the lead early, and kept it that way, on the way to his fourth ever Formula E win.
Fans at the edge of the Fan Village area — which there was no charge to enter — try to nab a photo of the racing action.
The general admission grandstands were laid out along the highest-speed sections of the track. One of the only consistent complaints on either day was that there were no non-VIP grandstands near turns 5-9, which was a more technical section.
Richard Branson before the champagne celebration.
Richard Branson after the champagne celebration.

Day 2

The second day of the Formula E race weekend started even earlier with practice kicking off at 7AM. Drivers who finished poorly in the first race were eager to get back on the track and try something new. Others that did well were looking to build on their momentum.

One thing Formula E likes to do with double-headers, though, is extend the length of the second race. The reason for this is it forces the teams to try and get more out of the battery, electric motor, and other components, better exposing them to the limits of the technology. The series’s founder Alejandro Agag has spoken often since the earliest days that he means for Formula E to not just be a promotional tool for EVs, but a technological proving ground.

Not all drivers love this particular way of testing out the limits of their cars, though. Jean-Eric Vergne, who finished second in the race on Saturday, said he was “extremely worried” that the lengthier race would cause the drivers to be too careful in how they used the battery’s energy. “We’re here to give the fans a lot of excitement,” he said, but “the amount of laps that it’s supposed to be, 49 laps, I think we’re going to give a very boring spectacle.”

Race one winner Sam Bird said he was voicing the same concerns with his boss, Virgin team manager Alex Tai, even while he was walking away from the podium celebration soaked in champagne. “At the end of the day, our sport is entertainment, and we are entertainers, and we want to entertain. And this form of motorsport has been extremely successful because it is entertaining,” Bird said.

“Now if we create races that are just a little bit too long, we lose some of that spectacle. And we don’t want that as the entertainers. We want to be able to go out there and put on a great show so that the fans go home in the evening and think, ‘wow, that was really good, I really want to come back next year,’ because there was thrills, spills, overtaking, different pit stops — that’s what people come back for, and I think we need to remember that.”

Here’s to that.

Techeetah, which is the only team that isn’t aligned with a manufacturer, took home 2nd and 3rd place finishes on Saturday.
Sam Bird was quickest in practice on Sunday, and wound up winning the second race by a margin of 11 seconds.
Lucas di Grassi on the track in Sunday’s morning practice.
Faraday Future Dragon Racing’s Jerome D’Ambrosio hangs a left at Turn 10, which many drivers were calling one of the most difficult on the schedule.
D’Ambrosio was fast throughout the weekend, but only finished 10th in the first race, and didn’t finish the second.
Tom Dillman crashed his Venturi car early in Sunday’s practice. The narrow confines of the New York City track meant his team had to wait until the session was over before they could tend to the car.
The cars of Formula E might only register about 80–90 decibels when they scream by, but that’s still loud enough for some fans to cover their ears.
After qualifying and before Sunday’s race, actor Chris Hemsworth got a chance to take one of the series’s spare cars out for a drive on the track.
Hemsworth made it just a lap into his time on the track before he spun the car and tapped the wall. He was okay. (He’s Thor.)
Peter Rawlinson, the chief technological officer for Lucid Motors (and the man who helped Elon Musk develop the Model S), speaks with the head of Faraday Future’s R&D department, Nick Sampson.
Fans line up for autographs during one of the meet and greet sessions with the drivers.
BMW Andretti driver Robin Frijns takes and signs a hat from a fan.
The fan zone area is usually free to access, thanks to a sponsorship with insurance company Allianz. Formula E announced a 5-year extension of the contract with Allianz at the race.
Lucas di Grassi high fives a fan at the start of the autograph line.
The fan village is full of car displays, games, food, and other brand activations that keep people occupied during down time between track action.
The fan village was also one of the only places to dodge the sun — there was no cover on any of the grandstands.
Jerome D’Ambrosio takes a moment before the start of the second race.
Mahindra driver Felix Rosenqvist rests while his team makes final preparations for the race. Rosenqvist and his teammate Nick Heidfeled finished second and third in Sunday’s race, respectively.
Presenter Nicki Shields interviews Trevor Noah before the race. A handful of celebrities showed up to the event, including Noah, Michael Douglas, and Leonardo DiCaprio — who was a founding partner of the Venturi team.
Four-time IndyCar champion and three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, who is one of the main broadcasters for Formula E, interviews Sam Bird before the race.
Techeetah driver Jean-Eric Vergne had some strong words about the length of Sunday’s race. He worried the teams would be too focused saving battery over putting on a good show.
BMW Andretti driver Robin Frijns talks to season 1 champion Nelson Piquet, Jr.
The second race in New York got underway much quicker, with a start time of 1PM ET. Both races were relatively clean, with only a few bits of body work scattered around the track.
A track worker peers out at the cars flying by.
Sam Bird started first, but lost the position to Felix Rosenqvist for a few laps before taking it back.
Bird said the car was the “best car [DS Virgin Racing] had ever given to me” after sweeping the weekend. This was the first time Bird and a few other drivers had ever visited NYC. “I will be writing a letter to [Formula E CEO] Alejandro Agag asking if we can have the whole championship here,” he joked after the race.
Photo: Sean O’Kane / The Verge
Mitch Evans and Panasonic Jaguar had a rough weekend, slipping to last in the team championship standings. “We're not fools and think we're going to come in and just wipe the floor just because Jaguar's back in,” Evans said over the phone last month. “We know where the level's at, and we gotta respect that.”
Pierre Gasly, who was filling in for championship leader Sebastien Buemi, crashed on the final lap trying to take third from Nick Heidfeld. He crossed the finish line with a broken front axle.
Felix Rosenqvist, Sam Bird, and Nick Heidfeld stand on the podium after Sunday’s race.
Sam Bird hoists the trophy after winning the second Formula E race in New York City.
Bird splashes Mahindra driver Nick Heidfeld with champagne.
This Week in Elon

Elon Musk’s Twitter chaos is consuming SpaceX too


Cadillac’s ‘ultra-luxury’ Celestiq EV will reportedly cost around $300,000


Polestar goes public amid uncertainty around EV stocks

View all stories in Transportation