With only hours earlier a alive, global, contractually required television broadcast, Formula E organizers raced to assemble a runway in downtown Miami. With the hot sun beating down on an anxious crowd, workers filed down bumpy manhole covers and used forklifts to put the last few physical safety barriers in place.
The event had drawn tens of thousands of fans to a stretch of Biscayne Boulevard, creating a scene that evoked a time when the major open-bike Grand Prix series occupied major American cities on a yearly basis. Away from the packed grandstands, some Miamians watched from a more than bird’s-eye view — residents hung flags over the balustrade railings of their apartments 20 stories above the street, others watched from rooftops or from a massive yacht docked in the water next to the American Airlines Arena. The interest in the brand new series was obvious.
But the series wasn’t ready. A morning exercise session had to be canceled, and even the race officials who worked for FIA — the sport’s governing torso — were unclear when the track would exist set. It was, like the upshot itself, a race to the finish.
The action eventually got underway, but information technology underscored Formula Eastward’southward present reality: this is an experiment. It’due south young, weird, crazy, brash. It might exist described as a little confused (and a little confusing).
It’south also completely electric.
The race cars of Formula E call heavily on contempo designs constitute in Formula One, which is to say they are gorgeous works of loftier technology. The bodies accept been carefully shaped out of carbon fiber and aluminum by Dallara, the same company that supplies IndyCar with its current chassis. The powerful, ornate machines bring to mind an one-time racing adage: “They look fast continuing still.”
Simply beneath their taut skins, the cars of Formula Eastward are much different from those that make upwardly the world’s virtually popular motorsport: they top out at just 140mph, run on treaded tires instead of racing slicks, and have fewer aerodynamic aids. They likewise weigh more — Formula Eastward cars must run at a minimum of around ane,800 pounds including the driver, some 350 pounds heavier than an F1 car.
Still, the biggest difference betwixt Formula E and Formula 1 is likewise the most obvious, co-ordinate to Virgin team driver Jaime Alguersuari.
“The principal limitation is the same as we accept in our iPhones: the battery,” says Alguersuari, who has driven in both serial. “We accept to effort to proceed the battery as cool as we can, and try to preserve it by using some driving techniques.”
Much of the drama comes from battery management
In fact, a major source of drama in each Formula Due east race is how well each driver manages their auto’s bombardment. Even though the races last about an hr, the bombardment engineering is still only good enough to let the drivers race for 25–30 minutes at a time. So halfway through each race, every commuter has to stop in the pits and hop into a new car with a freshly charged bombardment.
That ways each half of the race is as much about free energy efficiency as it is about the actual racing. If a commuter goes all-out at the start in an attempt to grab the lead, they risk running the bombardment down likewise low and as well soon. If they race besides conservatively, on the other hand, they could lose so much ground that they finish upwardly at the back of the 20-motorcar pack.
Overall, the battery limits may actually help Formula East. The shorter races are much more than outgoing to casual fans watching at the rails or from the couch. An hour-long feature event is practically unheard of in motorsports; while IndyCar has tried to limit its own races to about ii hours in recent years, NASCAR has morphed its broadcasts into NFL-style marathons. Both of those serial are seeing major dips in television ratings and especially in attendance — NASCAR’s popularity trouble is so bad that it’s stopped reporting attendance estimates, even as images of empty seats make information technology in to each broadcast.
Like Alguersuari, most drivers in Formula E come from multidisciplinary backgrounds, and about all of them meantime compete in other series. During whatever given Formula E race you’re watching drivers who’ve raced in Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR, WRC, Global Rallycross, LeMans, and only about every other major motorsport imaginable. They’re not outcasts of these other series; this circulation is considered normal these days. Some Formula One drivers move to IndyCar, some IndyCar drivers move to NASCAR, and so on. Because of this, the drivers of Formula E’s countdown season say the competition is already pretty potent.
“You wait upwardly and down the grid, particularly for this race, and there is not a single driver that you would say is tiresome,” says Sam Bird, Alguersuari’s teammate at Virgin. He’s competed in the Globe Endurance Championship and a handful of series that serve as stepping stones to Formula Ane. “Information technology’due south a staggering grid. In my opinion it’s every bit strong, if not stronger, than Formula Ane in terms of depth. All the drivers accept achieved something great in their career.”
The intensity of the competition is further enhanced by two big factors, the first of which is the decision merely to race the cars on street circuits. These courses are typically full of sharp turns and are laid out in tight confines, oft in the heart of a city. It too helps hibernate the cars’ limited top speed, while allowing the batteries to last longer: Formula Eastward cars have regenerative braking, which partially recharges the bombardment past storing the energy created during deceleration. It’s how the cars are able to last about a half-hr before the battery completely drains, but it’s besides why we won’t see them on an oval course any fourth dimension soon, where braking is minimal.
The other thing that fosters such rich competition is that all the cars are identically configured. Every team currently runs the same chassis, and only next season will sure parts of the car (like suspension) be opened up to customization.
That slow-drip progress is intentional. Always since he announced the serial three years ago, Formula E’s CEO Alejandro Agag has had three clearly stated goals for the series: create heady and competitive racing, to ameliorate inquiry and development around electric vehicles, and to eliminate the resistance that people take to the technology.
“People still don’t believe in electric cars.”
“People still don’t believe in electric cars,” Agag told
back in 2012. “They don’t see them as a real option for their lives.”
Not much has changed since and so. Tesla, the EV marketplace’due south biggest cheerleader, simply sold x,000 cars in a calendar quarter — a drop in the saucepan compared to traditional automakers. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson — 1 of Formula E’s most high-profile supporters — spoke near these challenges at the pre-race printing conference in Miami. “A lot of members of the public practise non realize that electric cars can get 140mph,” he said. “A lot of members of the public don’t realize that electric cars can exist sexy. And these cars are all of that.”
But for fans and curious onlookers to experience whatsoever of this, there needs to be a race. Agag has compressed the unabridged Formula E race experience into just one day, which necessitates a harried symphony of action merely to get these loftier-tech marvels underneath a green flag.
Practice, qualifying, and the bodily Formula E race start and finish in a span of about 10 hours. The experience is a bargain: a general-admission ticket in Miami only price about $25 (some seats went for higher), while the near contempo Usa race in Long Beach, California, was completely free. In that respect, Formula East more closely resembles the way local curt tracks around the U.s.a. operate — get the fans in for cheap on a Saturday while making coin on concessions, give them a ton of action in a short amount of time, and get them out.
That’s a stark dissimilarity to other major motorsports, which spread practice and qualifying sessions across the days before the actual race, each of which tin can cost an extra fee to attend. The worst offender, NASCAR, spreads its action out then much that information technology practically demands its fans to spend a long weekend or more at a track. A total weekend at a NASCAR track can cost a family hundreds of dollars earlier the race even starts.
The compressed schedule adds tremendous pressure on the drivers, which Bird says is by blueprint. “It’s important for Formula E as a brand to take wild, wacky, crazy races,” he says. “We sort of need that at the moment to get people interested.”
Formula Eastward needs to be “wild, wacky, and crazy” right now — and it is
To his point, most everything well-nigh the experience is “wild, wacky, crazy.” There’southward the FanBoost competition, which uses online voting to give three drivers in every race the ability to briefly increase their horsepower limit. The serial has ramped up an aggressive social media presence throughout the season, especially on Facebook where full race highlights and clips of spectacular moments are natively posted. At that place’due south even a live DJ during each race — or “EJ,” as he’south called — who pumps music into speakers around the venue to help make up for the lack of engine noise.
If that’south what Agag and the people behind Formula Due east really want — a day of insanity for drivers, teams, and a new generation of race fans — then they must be happy with the results so far. The tamest race of the season was the serial’ premiere race in Beijing terminal September. Information technology was a decent debut, but nothing terribly noteworthy happened until a terrifying crash in the final plow of the race when commuter Nico Prost tried to cake a charging Nick Heidfeld.
“Since that moment, the racing has been frantic,” says Bird.
He’south right. The residuum of the races take been excellent, with tons of side-by-side action that’s been equal parts messy and thrilling. The manic racing has spawned six dissimilar winners in each of the get-go half dozen races. And fifty-fifty though open-wheel racing series typically thrive in close competition that demands a lack of contact — the danger of exposed wheels is too great to allow the door-slamming action found in stock auto series like NASCAR — Formula E drivers take not been shy about muscling their way around these street circuits.
While the racing has been bang-up, the most common complaint about Formula East was lodged well before the series even debuted: its sound, or the perceived lack of it. Traditional race fans love (or love to hate) the sound of combustion engines, and a series that lacks the rumbles and roars usually institute in other motorsports is fighting an uphill battle.
Let’s talk about the sound
“There’s always going to be standard combustion [engine] series out in that location, and we’re non trying to get rid of them,” Bird says. “There’due south no reason why a fan tin’t appreciate and beloved the so-called ‘normal’ concept of racing merely at the same fourth dimension capeesh and dearest what we’re doing hither with our machines.”
But let’due south exist clear: these cars aren’t silent. The electric motors produce a sound that is somewhere between that of a giant RC car and something out of
The Jetsons. They might be whisper-quiet from few hundred yards away, but they register about eighty decibels when they zip by. That’s plenty of noise to become your heart pounding.
The tamer audio even offers a few advantages. Y’all can actually hear the chirps and squeals of the tires as the cars wing around each corner, a stark reminder that the drivers’ lives hang in the balance at every plow. The reduced track noise means you don’t demand to yell yourself hoarse while talking to your friends and family. There’s too no fussing effectually with earplugs, a common annoyance at any other race track. (Though, if y’all’re really close to the activeness, ear protection is still a adept idea.)
The biggest advantage might be that local governments are more than likely to embrace a series that won’t fill their cities with noise and air pollution. In Miami, for example, you could hardly make out that anything special was happening from a few blocks away. Because of this, the immature serial is attracting a lot of attention — merely last week, Agag told Autosport.com that over 180 cities accept requested to hold a race, and the mayor of Montreal flew to the Miami race to stump for the serial to come to his town side by side year. These cities have good reason to exist interested, too. A report from Ernst & Young from 2013 regarding the race in Miami estimated that the event could generate $10 million in revenue for the city from 25,000 unique visitors.
But if Formula E wants to maintain that intense interest, the organizers need to streamline how it all works. In Miami, the one-day turnaround nearly spelled disaster — major pieces of the course were nevertheless existence assembled at 11AM on race day, three hours subsequently the first practice was supposed to start. That filibuster meant a practice session had to be cut in gild to keep with the 4PM start time, which was contractually tied to a live broadcast with Play tricks Sports. A heavy air of uncertainty hung all throughout the mean solar day from the paddock to the grandstands, with tensions amplified past the incessant soundtrack from the EJ.
Fans lookout man a structure crew elevator the last bits of contend into place on the morning of the race.
The series too needs to increase the fans’ access to the drivers and cars. Kids and their parents in Miami were turned away from the paddock even well later the checky flags waved, and that kind of upwards-close interaction is an enormous role of the experience offered by NASCAR and other American racing series. (At the race in Long Beach, FIA sold passes to the paddock merely merely for 30 or 40 minutes at a fourth dimension.) The ability of that kind of access shouldn’t be ignored — even the Red Bull Air Race realized this, which is why the series started property events at American speedways last yr in order to improve its ain fan outreach.
There’s besides but a general dearth of advert for Formula E, and many people still don’t even know it exists. Even in Miami on the night before the race, locals were stumbling onto the unfinished course and wondering what they were looking at.
But for the moment, the sport’southward immediate future looks secure. Only last calendar month, organizers secured a circular of funding from cable mogul John Malone and his companies Liberty Global and Discovery Communications. While the corporeality wasn’t disclosed, it was apparently big enough to make them the largest shareholder in Formula East Holdings, the series’ parent company. Last yr, Qualcomm was part of an investment round that raised €fifty million (about $53 million). And a separate sustainability report from Ernst & Young estimated that the series could help drive most 100 one thousand thousand EV sales by 2040.
“Nosotros’re at the basis flooring of this applied science,” squad owner Michael Andretti says. “I believe in five years we’re going to exist going twice as far twice equally fast, and it’s all going to be because of the competition that y’all accept on the race track.”
Roger Penske, Michael Andretti, and Dario Franchitti chat in the paddock on race day. The involvement of famous motorsport names like these involved with Formula Due east is of import in the early going.
Once those kinds of milestones take been reached, Andretti says, consumers volition come across the benefits. “That’due south what auto racing did in the commencement with the automobile, and I think it’s going to happen hither with the electric side of it,” he says.
With just a few races behind them, teams are already looking forrard to improvements in technology, underscoring just how speedily the EV industry is moving. “Some of the technologists that are working on our program believe that we can accelerate [free energy density] about eight percent a yr, and that’s actually phenomenal,” says Alex Tai, team principal for Virgin Racing.
Of import technological advances are already beingness made
Lucas di Grassi, who won the very outset Formula East race in Beijing and currently sits atop the points standings, likes the series’ chances of shaping the way young people think about the automobile.
“When they think about buying their first auto, they retrieve nigh ownership an electric automobile,” di Grassi says. “To alter erstwhile minds that [remember] V8s and V10s are the cars to get, information technology’s really very difficult. But if the first car that you buy is electric, the take a chance of you staying with electric cars for the future is actually very high.”
Inquire other drivers nigh the big flick, nevertheless, and y’all get a much different reply. “Where it’s going? What’s right? Is it going to be successful? Is information technology not? Psh, I’m just a dumb racing driver,” says Scott Speed, who finished second in Miami. “Steer the bike and push the pedals.”
Run into more photos from race mean solar day hither!