Formula E leads the charge

The 2014 Formula E championship will unleash the potential of all-electric racing. Simon de Burton sees the future of motorsport – and it’s nearly carbon neutral and considerably more spectator-friendly

The Spark-Renault SRT 01E Formula E prototype electric racing car is capable of 140mph, with a 0-62mph time of less than three seconds
The Spark-Renault SRT 01E Formula E prototype electric racing car is capable of 140mph, with a 0-62mph time of less than three seconds

When the Formula One pack sprints off the line at Monza every September, the engines scream at 130 dB and convert fossil fuel into carbon-heavy exhaust gases like it’s going out of fashion – which, as we all know, it is.

But at the same time in 2014, a grid of 20 cutting-edge, single-seater cars will line up for a race that promises to be quieter, nearly carbon neutral and considerably more spectator-friendly. And if predictions are accurate, it will prove every bit as exciting as the Italian Grand Prix.

Furthermore, it won’t be run on a dedicated racetrack but in the heart of London – and, if video-game technology allows, fans could participate by controlling a virtual “ghost car” from their computer.

This is Formula E, the new championship for electric-powered cars that promises to bring Grand Prix thrills to the people, while welcoming the future alternative to the internal combustion engine.

If you think it sounds like a kooky one-off, you’d be wrong: the Formula E series is backed by motorsport’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), and is committed to staging city-centre races in London, Rome, Berlin, Miami, Los Angeles, Putrajaya, Beijing, Bangkok, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro during its maiden season.

Formula E Holdings CEO Alejandro Agag (on left) and official Formula E test driver Lucas di Grassi with the Spark-Renault SRT 01E
Formula E Holdings CEO Alejandro Agag (on left) and official Formula E test driver Lucas di Grassi with the Spark-Renault SRT 01E

The man behind Formula E Holdings, which will run the series, is the highly successful 42-year-old Spanish businessman Alejandro Agag. A former politician who became Spain’s youngest MEP at the age of 28, Agag subsequently founded AAL Investments and, together with Flavio Briatore (then team principal for Renault F1), purchased the F1 television rights for Spain for a six-year period in 2002.

Agag was also among the group of investors who bought London football club Queens Park Rangers in 2007 and returned it to Premier League status before selling it to Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes. In the same year as buying QPR, Agag also acquired the once-ailing Campos Racing GP2 team, which, going under the name Barwa Addax, won the GP2 series in both 2008 and 2011, and has since seen six of its former drivers graduate to Formula One, including Sergio Pérez and Romain Grosjean.

Importantly, Formula E has attracted the backing and input of several extremely serious players in the motorsport world: the cars’ electronics, transmission and powertrain will come from McLaren; the chassis from Italian firm Dallara; the batteries from Williams F1; and Michelin will be providing the tyres. Meanwhile, the firm responsible for building the new Formula E cars will be Spark Racing Technology (headed by ART GP2 boss Frédéric Vasseur), with technical input from Renault.

During the first season – which will run from September 2014 until May or June 2015 in order to reduce the likelihood of clashes with other major motorsport fixtures – the teams will field identical cars. Subsequently, they will be permitted to modify and develop them in accordance with the rules of the series.

But even in their basic state, the cars should provide plenty of excitement with prototype models proving capable of achieving 140mph in testing and a 0-62mph time of less than three seconds, thanks to the instant torque of the electric powertrain. There is a drawback, however, in that current technology means battery life will be limited to around 20 minutes.

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To overcome this, each team will field four cars and two drivers. The 45-minutes race will involve two pit stops, at which point drivers will run 100m to a recharged car in a crowd-pleasing, Le Mans-style dash.

“We intend to play on the driver changes to add an extra element to the competition,” explains Formula E spokesperson Tom Phillips. “The idea is for us to disassociate ourselves with conventional car racing and to create a completely new form of motorsport that will be much more involving for spectators.

“Additionally, it will target generations of car buyers who are not going to be petrolheads in the traditional sense. This is all about promoting the electric-vehicle industry in the very places for which electric cars are intended to be used – cities. It’s a championship that is relevant to the future.”

Indeed, it is precisely these urban locations that promise to provide much of Formula E’s excitement. Not only will spectators be able to watch the racing at close range, but the circuits will all be 2-3km in length, meaning that laps will probably last 45-50 seconds, ensuring regular action at all points. And the logistics of closing down major city centres means that driving practice, qualifying and racing will all take place on the same day. Drivers, therefore, will have an extremely short amount of time in which to learn each circuit.

“The driving challenges and techniques involved in this tournament are very different to those used in more conventional motor racing,” says Phillips. “The cars are highly technical and there is a great deal to learn about the systems and all the particular methods of controlling them. It’s going to take a very special sort of driver to win, one who has the ability to get the best out of the cars, while also being able to learn the different circuits in such a short space of time.”

The Spark Racing Technology vehicles will have a battery life of about 20 minutes
The Spark Racing Technology vehicles will have a battery life of about 20 minutes

Formula E presents the opportunity for a whole new range of teams to enter a motorsport arena that could potentially attain the same global reach as Formula One. At the time of going to press, four teams had already committed to the series, leaving a further six spaces available for interested parties that have the funds to compete. And as the cars are being made available on a lease basis during the first season, this is a realistic prospect; an investment of as little as £2m could have a team up and running.

First to enter a team was Lord Paul Drayson, former Minister of State for Strategic Defence Acquisition Reform under Labour, whose Oxfordshire-based company, Drayson Racing Technology, has worked on a number of green developments in the automotive world, including carbon-capture technology and the use of second-generation bioethanol fuel.

At the end of June, the firm demonstrated its achievements by capturing the world land-speed record for an electric vehicle weighing less than 1,000kg, using a converted Lola LMP1 car that achieved an average of 204.185mph over two timed runs at the RAF Elvington racing track in Yorkshire.

“We turned our attention to electric-drive trains a couple of years ago, so we were obviously delighted when the FIA decided to introduce the Formula E championship,” explains Drayson, who has enjoyed a degree of personal success as a racing driver in the Le Mans championship, despite having only taken up the sport in 2004 at the age of 44.

“Cities are the places where the internal-combustion engine is most challenged,” he says. “So being able to stage glamorous and exciting events within capitals around the world will inspire people about electric cars, and represents a superb opportunity.

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“Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that racing is brilliant at accelerating technology. It was racing that brought us the rear-view mirror and disc brakes – Formula E could very well result in some equally significant advances in the electric cars that many of us will be driving in the near future.”

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