RED HOOK, BROOKLYN—Beyond the barriers and bright blue Formula E signs you could see old-school Brooklyn: warehouses, stacked containers, working boats in the port, and the Statue of Liberty in the distance. Partly because subway access is lacking, Red Hook has been until recently mostly missed by the gentrification wave in Brooklyn, but Formula E is helping put it on the map internationally.
Formula E is an electric car race taking place in big cities around the world—Berlin, Hong Kong, Marrakech, Mexico City included on this round, the third year. It’s building a fan base—the Red Hook race was the first in New York, and sold out despite the difficulties of getting to the site (long lines for the shuttle buses to the subway).
The Sunday race was great, a one-hour event with drivers, closely linked, fighting to break out of the pack on a tight course carved out of the waterfront. (Some derelict buildings had to come down, prompting the comment, “The Port Authority got the best deal out of this.”) The cars are all very similar, but some modifications are possible. The priority, though, would be having the best drivers.
Rich Devenport, research manager for Formula E technology at Jaguar Land Rover (competing for the first time this year), told me that drivers have to think about energy management—the same kind of range preservation that challenges “hypermiler” electric car owners.
The cars have proper regenerative braking, which charges the batteries when car is de-accelerating, and the winner’s circle will be occupied by drivers who master it. There’s a lot to take in: For instance, the more regen braking the drivers use, the hotter the packs get, and keeping them cool then becomes a big challenge. “The cars are not easy to drive,” said Jaguar pilot Mitch Evans, the 2012 GP2 champion. “It’s super-competitive. The energy management is unique, and handling the braking is the hardest part.”
And, of course, one of the features of Formula E because of range limitations is a mid-race car change, necessitating a Le Mans-type quick sprint from one car to the other—agility must be prized! Better batteries will soon make that change unnecessary.
The drivers handled 49 laps of the winding circuit, and nobody got hurt—though a spectacular crash by Pierre Gasly right at the finish line took out part of the wall. Sam Bird of Virgin was the winner (of Saturday’s race, too), with second and third places on the podium taken by Nick Heidfeld and Felix Rosenqvist of Mahindra. More on them later.
Jaguar Racing, my hosts for the event, managed a 10th place on Saturday but finished out of the money on Sunday. For a company like Jaguar, which has been out of racing for a while, getting back in with electric vehicles and Panasonic as a partner makes sense—the company has just introduced its I-Pace electric SUV. What better way to publicize it than with I-Type electric racers?
“What we’re learning here will apply to road cars in the future,” said James Barclay, team director for Panasonic/Jaguar Racing. “It’s a real-world testing platform. At Jaguar, we’re playing catch-up because this is our first season—we have no expectations of podium finishes.”
Barclay was speaking on the starting grid, a mob scene (it looked like a street fair) with cacophonous accompaniment by the Hudson Horns marching band. But in 15 minutes the track was cleared and the action started on time. The stands were packed with 20,000 people. Despite many predictions that electric car racing wouldn’t work because the cars don’t make enough noise, the fans don’t seem to be bothered. Anyway, the cars do make noise at speed—a cool whooshing sound. No ear protection needed.
I think the fans who came out for the first New York race will be back. “Formula 1 just blows your socks off,” said fan Tamara. “This is great, but different—your ears aren’t killed. It’s all good.”
Mahindra had a press conference the next day, showing off both GenZe electric scooters and bikes to demonstrate the corporate commitment to electrification. Anand Mahindra, executive chairman and managing director of the Mahindra Group, pointed out that “this unknown Indian upstart got second and third. We are holding our heads high.”
Brand recognition is a big bonus if the team does well. And with Formula E having a higher profile, big manufacturers like Jaguar, Mercedes and Audi are jumping in. Mahindra, both the man and the company, are convinced that electrification is inevitable, added one big reason: “Battery prices are plummeting faster than anyone can believe.” India plans to sell only electric cars by 2032.
Mahindra is a big player selling SUVs in India, and now owns a majority share in the legendary Italian design firm Pininfarina. It could eventually enter the U.S. car market through a subsidiary company, but for now the scooters are leading.
The 30-mile-range GenZes, designed in Silicon Valley and manufactured in Ann Arbor, Michigan, are partnering with Postmates for delivery deployments in New York and San Francisco. There are 60 GenZes in New York, but there will soon be 200, said Tom Valasek, chief marketing officer. Electric bikes are also part of the equation.
Postmates is like Uber for deliveries, and drivers can make their rounds 20 percent faster with an electric motor. Postmates is in 200 cities, and the company is also partnered with Scoot Networks in sharing services, so the Mahindra scooters (indeed, now-scarce electric vehicles of all kinds) could become familiar sights in the world’s cities. The racers are likely to come back to Brooklyn, too.
Here's an impressionistic look at the Formula E grid just before the race started in Red Hook: