Racing cars with a conscience

TANYA THOMAS | Updated on July 09, 2014

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Is Lewis Hamilton giving to charity again?

Not quite. This is about a new motorsport that has been gaining traction since it was first announced in 2012. Formula E – racing electric cars – will begin this September.

A marketing gimmick by the EV industry?

The zero-emission races are meant to make electric cars appealing to customers and help its manufacturers, like how F1 helps sell gas-guzzlers by the million. The 10-race series, which will be flagged off in Beijing, will proceed to Berlin, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro , Los Angeles, Monte Carlo and London, among others.

That’s a confident launch.

Yes, and it’s meant to prove that Formula E isn’t going to be a single-season wonder. The race has received huge backing, right from motorsport’s governing body, the FIA, carmakers like Renault and Audi to teams from the Virgin Group and Mahindra & Mahindra.

What’s a typical race like?

The hour-long races on street circuits will feature ten two-car teams. Instead of drivers changing batteries mid-race, they will change cars during two pit stops. The charging generators will be powered by renewable fuel. The first test drive was held last week.

And top speeds?

To F1’s adrenaline junkies, Formula E’s speeds will be disappointingly slow, at 225kph (against the 350kph F1 reaches). The races have been planned for congested global cities, which are not only natural environments for electric cars but are also home to young potential car buyers. Also, and quite importantly, at 80 decibels, these e-cars are far quieter than their F1 counterparts, which reach top noise levels of 130dB. There’s also a social media element called “fan boost”, where the three drivers with the most social media votes get a 2.5-second burst that increases the power of their car by 50 per cent.

What about car specs?

Drivers in the inaugural season of Formula E all have the same car, created by Spark, McLaren, Williams and Renault, unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year. Teams can make their own engineering improvements later, but the rules focus these improvements on the battery and drivetrain. These are features that are most relevant for regular cars, unlike F1’s obsession with aerodynamics.

Also, according to The Guardian, the cost of running a Formula E team is likely to be about £3 million, far short of the £200 million needed for F1.

Still, isn’t the lure of motorsports in the deafeningly loud, aggressive driving…

Which has been customised and perfected for TV viewing, something Forumla E’s founders are aware of. The lower buzz of electric cars zipping through host cities will have techno music accompaniments for key events, like at start and finish, fan boosts and overtaking. Which makes the whole event sound more like Gran Turismo on your Playstation than a Grand Prix…

Why isn’t Tesla in the picture?

Tesla Motors and its founder Elon Musk, otherwise prominent in the EV scene, are conspicuously missing from the Formula E action. The electric car company hasn’t said anything yet about building cars for the races or of forming a race team.

Still, Musk’s announcement last month about making Tesla’s patents open source is bound to help teams racing in Formula E in their improvements. All for a greater, smog-free good.

Published on July 09, 2014

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