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A wild ride through the electric vehicle boom

Racing in a Tesla that wasn’t ready for the track

Illustration by Micha Huigen

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Illustration by Micha Huigen

In November 2017, I was in the South of France, strapped into a bucket seat and sitting behind the wheel of a race-modified Tesla Model S. I was trying to make a video about an audacious startup racing series called Electric GT, which had ambitions of becoming the first motorsport focused on race-ready versions of all the automakers’ flagship EVs. Much like the series itself, the video didn’t work out. 

At the last minute, the organizers changed how much time the press would get to drive the Tesla, partly because of what they said was a bigger-than-expected turnout but also because this was the first test day for the few drivers who would compete in the series. But there was a bigger problem: the car didn’t work.

A big problem that somehow hadn’t materialized until that November day

Well, it worked, but only up until a point. By this time, the people behind Electric GT had done most of the really hard problems in starting a racing series: finding funding, getting support from a governing body (in this case, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, or FIA), signing up a few teams. But it never got buy-in from Tesla, which created a big problem that somehow hadn’t materialized until that November day.

All electric vehicles have software that manages how the battery pack disperses energy to (and recovers energy from) the electric motors. And it’s written with the understanding that these cars will be used like most cars: as daily drivers and over a series of years. Driving really fast, repeatedly, can wear on these systems, and so the software discourages this kind of driving. In fact, it will limit the power output if things get too hot. 

That software is one of Tesla’s most closely guarded secrets, and the Electric GT organizers just… didn’t have an answer for that. As I and other journalists pressed them repeatedly, it became clear that their best solution to the black box of Tesla’s battery management software was not to crack it, but to try to live with it. 

Back in the car, here’s what that looked like: one lap in the Electric GT Tesla was a lot of fun. It was fast, and a big rear spoiler plus grippy race slicks made it so that cornering wasn’t too big a chore despite the car’s weight. But as soon as I lined up the car on the main straightaway and began to press the accelerator for lap two, all the fun evaporated. A message popped up on the screen warning about the battery temperature, and the power cut roughly in half. 

Electric GT’s racing Tesla.
Electric GT’s racing Tesla.

Electric GT said it planned to handle this by making its races short — perhaps just seven laps or so — and it would be up to the drivers to push hard enough to win but not so hard that they tripped the battery management software. It may not have been a very popular idea, as the professional drivers who were at the event spent a lot of the time speaking in hushed tones about this problem.

If you squinted hard enough, you could almost see a parallel to how the pioneering all-electric racing series, Formula E, works in contrast to Electric GT’s Teslas. In that series, the cars have a certain amount of energy they can use per race, and drivers have to be careful not to push too hard on any given lap or else run the risk of depleting their battery before the race is done. But in Formula E, the battery packs are designed for racing, software and all, so that balance is well struck and the tolerances more forgiving. And, of course, it’s not working with a battery pack that uses software that’s controlled and kept secret by a private company.

Fast, fun, and a bit terrifying to drive

I experienced Formula E’s execution first-hand earlier in 2017, months before the Electric GT event, when I got a chance to drive the series’ original car in Mexico City. While the race-modified Tesla couldn’t get through two laps, Formula E had created an electric racecar that was so capable that I accidentally stayed out an extra lap with no problem whatsoever. And this was on a professional race track, no less: the same Autódromo Hermanos Rodriguez where Formula One competes (albeit with a different layout).

The Formula E car was fast, fun, and a bit terrifying to drive, and proof that — done right — electric racing was possible at the time. The series only cemented that idea when it rolled out a second-generation car that was far more capable. I drove that one in 2019, and aside from a few more thrills, I walked away knowing that I didn’t even come close to the kind of performance it can really dole out. It’s no wonder, then, that Formula E recently wrapped up its seventh season and has more participating manufacturers than any other major motorsport.

Despite its failure, Electric GT came along at a pretty big pivot point in the 10 years that The Verge has been around. It arrived just in time to try to capitalize on the rising popularity of Tesla. But, like many of the world’s biggest automakers, it hadn’t yet cracked the technology side of things. 

Pretty much the only competent electric vehicle not made by Tesla during Electric GT’s flare of an existence was the Chevy Bolt. I once got a chance to run the Bolt at a small autocross setup in a parking lot, and while it was unquestionably not designed for that application, the instant torque of its electric motor made for a fun little afternoon.

These automakers were starting to make big, if vague, promises about going electric

Everything else was compromised, though. BMW offered futuristic looks with the i3 but needed to sell a version with a two-cylinder gas engine just to be able to offer around 200 miles of range. Ford, Toyota, Honda, and Fiat struggled to find buyers for their own initial short-range electric vehicles that were derisively referred to as “compliance cars” — the implication being that they were only created to appease regulators and not to push the technology forward in a significant way. These EVs were never truly widely available, and crucially, they had nowhere near the kind of performance that would inspire competition. 

Electric GT’s brief existence also coincided with the moment when these automakers were starting to make big, if vague, promises about going electric. Billions of dollars started flying, full lineups of EVs were being teased — looking back, it’s easy to imagine how the organizers may have gotten swept up in it all. If you didn’t think too critically, it seemed like a pack of flagship-level electric vehicles were on the horizon, ones that would look great zooming around picturesque race tracks in competition trim.

Forumla E’s NYC ePrix in 2017.
Forumla E’s NYC ePrix in 2017.

Those promises have ultimately started to come true, as evidenced by EVs like the Mustang Mach-E, the Mercedes-Benz EQS, the Porsche Taycan, and others that are about to hit the market. But they came true too late for Electric GT. 

That doesn’t mean we won’t ever see this first real run of flagship EVs compete against each other. There’s obviously desire to see which ones are faster — a simple search on YouTube pulls up result after result of people pitting Teslas against Taycans or some other combination. Elon Musk has Tesla staff spending time running Model S sedans around the Nürburgring to prove how capable his cars are. And Electric GT wasn’t the only series to try to follow in Formula E’s footsteps of all-electric racing. There’s an electric motorcycle series, one based entirely around electric Smart cars, and an “electric touring car racing” series that, in many ways, is trying to do what Electric GT failed to accomplish — though the biggest global automaker it has attracted so far is Hyundai.

Motorsports was borne out of a desire to prove what automobiles could do back when they were still new and unfamiliar. A little more than a century later, we’re in a similar position with EVs. The more automakers who switch to electric and roll out high-powered EVs, the easier it will be for someone to pit them against each other on a race track. When that happens, they’ll undoubtedly learn from Electric GT’s mistakes.

Photography by Sean O’Kane / The Verge