It's Electric

Formula E—a bold new attempt to electrify auto racing—makes its American debut (with a little help from Richard Branson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Andretti)
In many ways, it was a race like any other. The crowd roared. The cars whooshed as they sped by. The checkered flag was at the ready. Except for one thing: The unmistakable banshee scream of finely tuned V-8s pushed to their limits of performance had been replaced by the civilized whirring of electric motors. It was the sound of the future—at least, that’s the hope of the race’s organizers. The event? The first-ever Formula E race, the new all-electric racing circuit from the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body for motor sports worldwide. This scene transpired last September in Beijing, and was replicated when the circuit made its stateside debut last month in Miami.

Formula E has a lot going for it. The racing action is exciting and filled with drama. The impressive driver lineup includes former Formula One stars like Bruno Senna (nephew of three-time F1 world champ Ayrton Senna), Alain Prost, Jarno Trulli and Aguri Suzuki. And Formula E is backed by some heavy hitters: sponsors like Audi and the massive India-based conglomerate Mahindra, and famous owners like Richard Branson (Virgin Racing), Leonardo DiCaprio (Venturi team) and Michael Andretti (Andretti Formula E).

The all-electric Spark-Renault SRT_01E rockets from standstill to 60 mph in less than three seconds

Formula E’s stateside debut comes at a time when motor sports are at a crossroads. Attendance at events—Formula One, NASCAR, Rally, whatever the series—has been either stagnant or in decline. The new series was conceived to reverse that trend by drawing in the video game generation: “millennials, urban 20- and 30-somethings,” says Alejandro Agag, Formula E’s CEO, “those who are more likely than older people to buy electric cars.” For this reason, FE events have a more festival-like atmosphere with concerts and glitzy parties, as well as social media components not found in every other form of racing, to help make the fan feel like they are part of the action, not just a spectator.

Take FanBoost, for example. Fans vote online to determine which driver gets a five-second boost of power during the race. Sounds benign, but the extra juice provides enough power to pass or extend a lead, and could be the difference between winning and coming in second. Organizers have also discussed capturing live data from races that would allow fans to compete online with drivers on the track, making a video game out of a live race.

The unmistakable banshee scream of finely tuned V-8s pushed to their limits of performance had been replaced by the civilized whirring of electric motors.

Of course, that’s not the only difference between Formula One and Formula E. FE is designed to complement F1, not compete with it, and the experience is familiar but different—intended for the shorter attention spans of the Instagram crowd. Practice, qualifying and the actual race take place on the same day. Races are only one-hour long, with a single pit stop in the middle of the race—but not to change tires, mind you. In fact, tire changing isn’t allowed, except to repair a flat. The stop allows drivers to change cars. Each battery pack holds a charge of about 25 to 30 minutes, half as long as the race, and takes too long to recharge on the fly. Hence, the jump from one car into a freshly charged duplicate.

Races also aren’t held at traditional tracks. Instead, the circuits are carved out of city streets—which doesn’t make them any less treacherous or technical. “Street circuits are narrower, dirtier and much bumpier, but they create extremely testing driving challenges for even the most experienced racing drivers,” says Jim Wright, head of commercial for Venturi. “Most conventional race tracks have wide run-off areas so that driver mistakes are only punished by the loss of a few tenths of a second, whilst a driver error on a street circuit will likely result in race-ending car damage.”

A preview—in a faster, wilder form—of what automakers hope to bring to everyday vehicles
Formula E also promises to serve as a preview—in a faster, wilder form—of what automakers hope to bring to vehicles you can someday drive and own (just like NASCAR’s experiments with vehicle aerodynamics not only helped cars exceed 200 mph on the track but also helped change the shape of American cars; more recently, Formula One pioneered advanced hybrid systems, double-clutch gearboxes and the development of evolved, lightweight composite materials). As Venturi’s Wright puts it: “The adage that one season of racing competition equates to three years of laboratory development holds as true here as it does in other racing circuits.”

This season, they'll all be driving a version of the same car: the Spark-Renault SRT_01E built by Renault and Spark Racing Technology using systems from several storied automotive firms. Italian firm Dallara engineered the chassis, which is made of a strong, lightweight carbon-fiber composite, and an aluminum tub that protects the driver in a crash. British supercar builder McLaren supplied the powertrain and controls, including the same motor McLaren uses in its $1.5 million P1 hybrid (not to mention McLaren’s new track-only GTR version of the same). Although the P1 is faster (it has a 217 mph top speed as opposed to the Spark-Renault’s 140 mph), both the SRT_01E and the P1 rocket from standstill to 60 mph in less than three seconds, thanks to the motor’s prodigious amount of low-end torque.

And the heart of the system is the power pack designed by Williams F1. It has a capacity of 30 kilowatt-hours—enough for the aforementioned 20 to 30 minutes of hard driving—and is equipped with up of 164 lithium-ion batteries. All battery packs are the same this season, but to encourage innovation, this restriction will be removed next season, allowing teams to experiment with different suppliers and battery technologies to gain an edge.
  • Carved out of rough, uneven city streets, FE circuits are the ultimate driving challenge
  • Each battery pack holds a charge of about 25 to 30 minutes, half as long as the race
  • Leave the earplugs at home; at top speed, FE cars are only 10 decibels louder than a car running in your driveway

And now about that civilized whirring. Contrary to previous reports, the motor is not silent; it has a unique whirring sound like that of a remote-controlled car. At top speed, it hums along at 80 decibels—50 dB softer than a screaming gas-fueled F1 racer and 10 dB louder than a car running in your driveway.  

Which isn’t to say all is perfect. The cars need more power, and that muted exhaust note just feels wrong. But this is just the start, and the technology—and, thus, the racing—will only get better as Formula E finds its wheels.

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CHUCK TANNERT is a writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in Cargo and Wired and on CNET, among other print and online outlets.
  • Photographs by VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images
  • Photographs by Brent Lewin
  • Photographs by [e]Martin Zabala