The E in Formula E Stands for "Excitement"

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 19, 2018

RED HOOK, BROOKLYN—It was sometimes hard to see the screen—showing the Fast and Furious end-of-season Formula E electric car race outside at Red Hook’s Brooklyn Cruise Terminal—because the Qatar Airways servers on roller skates got in the way.

Electric racing allows you to hear yourself think, but it's still very pulse-quickening. Yes, they crash. (Havas Formula)

Formula E, once an interloper on the all-conquering Formula 1, has now arrived. Jaguar fields a team (with Panasonic), as does Renault/Nissan and Audi. Next year, BMW signs on, as will Mercedes and Porsche. The races take place all over the world (Mexico City, Rome, Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin), with this Brooklyn event the only U.S. race this year (season four). But it decided the championship for Audi Sport ABT.

Formula E pit action with the Venturi team before Sunday's race. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The cars are identical in all but the way they handle power, which makes it all about the driving—with passing skill particularly prized. For 2018, they have 200 kilowatts of power, which is the equivalent of 270 horsepower.  Zero to 62 mph takes three seconds, and the stop speed is 140 mph.

The Panasonic Jaguar car on the grid. Synergy with a new form of racing. (Havas Formula)

Later this year, when season five launches in ad-Dir’iyah, Saudi Arabia on December 15, the racing should get more exciting, because battery capacity is doubling, the bodies have a new design, and the batteries (from McLaren) will be big enough (about twice this season's 28 kilowatt-hours) to double the range and last through the race. Top speed will be 174 mph.

Until now, the racers had a mandatory pit stop that included changing cars for one with fresh batteries. The new car “represents the future of racing,” said Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag, who used a robot arm from sponsor ABB to remove the covers.

The cars are identical--this is the Dragon team--but how they're maintained and supplied power yields advantages. (Jim Motavalli photo)

On the day, rain and the threat of lightning striking the metal grandstands led to an evacuation, but it all cleared up by race time.  People complain about the lack of noise from the electric motors, but they produce a buzzy whine that seems in keeping with their spidery bodywork. Changes in position happen suddenly, as trailing racers see their opportunity on the corners and dart ahead.

Electric racing is different. As explained to me by racing veteran (and my former New York Times editor) Norman Mayersohn, drivers are trying to get ahead, but they’re also conserving power. If they can delay their pit stop, then they’ll climb into a car that can go all-out without running out of juice. When the batteries are full, they can’t benefit from regenerative braking, but it comes dramatically into play later in the race.

Green light means go. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The series, formally known as the ABB FIA Formula E Championship, seems to be attracting significant corporate support. The Swedish-Swiss electric power giant ABB (EV charging, subway trains, energy storage, renewables) had a big suite overlooking the track. U.S. President Greg Scheu told me that current trends favor a switch to electric vehicles. “The cars will be easier to build and to maintain,” he said. “We’ll be watching consumer adoption rates.”

Scheu said today’s drivers will have to get used to charging rather than fueling up, but ABB is making that easier with a new 350-kilowatt charger that can give an EV 130 miles of range in just eight minutes. A full charge should take 18 to 20 minutes. This is a big leap forward from even Tesla’s Superchargers, which are rated at 145 kilowatts.

It’s not hard to understand why Jaguar and Panasonic might want to team up to go racing, since the first is fielding an impressive electric car—the I-Pace—and the latter has become a major battery supplier, to Tesla, Toyota and others. The team is now sixth in the standings, which isn’t bad for the second season on the track.

The cars are tweaked until race time. This is the Chinese Nio team. There's one mandatory pit stop, which includes a car change. (Jim Motavalli photo)

There aren’t many (OK, there aren’t any) cars that can take on electricity that fast right now, but things are moving quickly with cars such as Porsche’s Mission E.  ABB’s U.S. chargers are installed in Chicopee, Massachusetts and Fremont, California.

This is the new car that will debut in Saudi Arabia this December. (Formula E photo)

The results in Red Hook were no great surprise. Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne of the Chinese Techeetah team had already clinched the driver’s championship the day before, and his fourth season win was in Brooklyn—on Bastille Day, yet.

“It was a thriller in that the competition was tight all the way to the end,” Mayersohn said. “Several drivers could have won, so Vergne did not walk away with it—he started third.” Vergne won, but Audi took the team trophy, and that may well encourage other automakers to get involved in this fast-growing zero-emission sport.

Here's some action from Sunday's race:


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