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.
Formula E did something F1 never could, and it’s because of things like the lack of noise and lower speeds
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
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“At the end of the day, we're destroyed.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.”
“Our sport is entertainment, and we are entertainers, and we want to entertain.”
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.