Officially, Formula E is simply a new category of car racing, like Formula 1 but with electric cars. But a little delving behind the headlines reveals that the detailed plans of FE are more like a science fiction fantasy than the often staid world of F1.
For example, viewers will be able to vote, during an FE race, for their favourite driver. He will then receive an extra power boost in his car to help him overtake a rival. Meanwhile, console games players at home will be competing in the race too – via an on-screen ‘ghost car’ that tries to beat the real drivers.
Like a video game, the races will take place around famous landmarks in the narrow, closed-off streets of major cities. Competitors will include top drivers such as Bruno Senna, Marco Andretti, Lucas di Grassi and Ben Collins, the former ‘Stig’ from BBC Top Gear. Add in drivers running 100 yards along the track to leap into their cars and a glamorous music concert at the end of the race, and Formula E could seem like the dream of a rather nerdy teenager.
Yet it’s real – and the 150mph electric cars begin racing this autumn. The FE series has the full backing of the FIA (the sport’s leading governing body the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) and sponsors like US technology group Qualcomm, transport giant DHL, and luxury watchmaker Tag Heuer.
Leading motor racing teams have jumped aboard too. Indianapolis-based Indy Car legend Michael Andretti says he is looking forward to ‘helping to build the future’ and Virgin team principal Alex Tai is ‘absolutely sold on the concept’. Audi’s Hans-Jürgen Abt says he is ‘proud to have the opportunity to take part’.
And the Venturi team has the backing of their founder, Leonardo DiCaprio. ‘The future of our planet depends on our ability to embrace fuel-efficient, clean-energy vehicles,’ says the Hollywood star. ‘Venturi Grand Prix has shown tremendous foresight in their decision to create an environmentally friendly racing team, and I am happy to be a part of this effort.’
Other big names involved behind-the-scenes include ex-Formula 1 champion Alain Prost and Lord Drayson, former science and innovation minister. The circuits are booked and the first race is in Beijing on 13 September this year. Races soon follow in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, Miami and Monte Carlo, and the series ends in London in June 2015.
For the inaugural season, 10 teams, each with two drivers and four cars, will compete for the title. It’s a unique and exciting event designed to appeal to a new younger generation of motorsport fans. It’s certainly a brave, forward-thinking move by the FIA. Formula E’s modern youthful format will upset some die-hard Grand Prix aficionados, but it could be the most spectator-friendly racing ever devised.
It should also provide a massive boost to the technical development and public perception of electric motoring. Any idea that electric cars have to be trundling milk floats will soon be dispelled by racing cars that can accelerate from 0-60mph in less than three seconds. ‘We expect this championship to become the framework for research and development around the electric car, a key element for the future of our cities,’ says Formula E’s CEO Alejandro Agag, a Spanish businessman and former politician.
And Formula E could be a scintillating way of reviving circuit racing – a sport that increasingly relies on its thrilling history rather than its current offering. ‘The FIA is definitely looking to the future,’ says Jean Todt, president of the FIA.
Sir Richard Branson knows a good idea when he sees it. ‘The need to create fast, dependable and durable race cars will help to accelerate the sector and showcase electric cars to a large global audience,’ he says, as his Virgin team prepares to move into the new Formula E base at Donington Park circuit in Leicestershire, England.
The teams will be based there and will work separately on developing cars although the FIA is eager to avoid the mega-spending of Formula 1 teams. In FE each team will have an annual budget cap of €2.5m (£2m).
The heart of Formula E will be the single-seater, open-wheeled racing cars the teams produce for that money. The ‘Open Championship’ rules means teams will be allowed to develop the mechanical side of their car any way they like, innovating within certain parameters set by the organisers. Initially, however, all the cars will be very similar. To get the series rolling, the teams are all starting with the same car: the Spark-Renault SRT-01E.
This pioneering Formula E car made its public debut in Las Vegas in February. It features a 270bhp (200kW) McLaren electric motor, batteries by Williams and Michelin tyres. Renault is the technical partner blending all the technologies together.
Sophisticated mechanical systems such as brake regeneration, paddle-shift sequential transmission and carbon-fibre and aluminium construction have been transferred from Formula 1. The Spark-Renault even passes the same crash safety tests as an F1 car.
One part of the car is very different to Formula 1 however: the sound. The electric racer is very quiet – which is how Formula E has negotiated its way into so many city centres. When accelerating hard the noise is certainly less thrilling than a petrol car. Far from FE’s claim that it’s ‘a modern, futuristic sound’, the electric motor emits a piercing whine, more like a washing machine at the height of its spin-drier sequence.
Race authorities say they will also add a fake noise to the car for driving in the pit lane where an almost silent approach could be dangerous to crew members. There’s no word yet as to what that noise might be. Suggestions that it might involve the rattling of milk bottles in crates are entirely mischievous.