MIAMI, FLORIDA—The sound is a kind of high-pitched whine with a garnish of tire rumble. This isn’t Formula 1, but Formula E, the first open-wheeled electric race car series, and it’s on an international tour that just hit the U.S. after four other stops, in China, Argentina, Uruguay and Malaysia.
Miami last weekend was won by Frenchman Nicolas Prost of e.dams-Renault, son of Formula 1 champion Alain Prost. He’s now heading the series on points, but the lead has seesawed back and forth—nobody’s won more than one race.
This is something new in the fast-paced world of global motorsport, a series dedicated to saving the world. Formula E is headed by CEO Alejandro Agag, a very well-connected Spaniard who sees the competition accomplishing two goals: introducing cutting-edge battery technology that will make mass-market electric cars more affordable with greater range, and increasing public awareness that cars with plugs can be exciting and viable.
“Technology is key,” Agag said. “After four races we’ve learned so much about energy recovery.” In response to my question, he said no, governments aren’t doing enough to encourage more widespread adoption of electric cars, and he praised the idea of center cites that are no-go zones for internal combustion. The concept is gaining traction in Europe; Paris, for instance, is planning to phase in a diesel ban.
For the first Formula E series, there are 10 teams with two drivers each and two cars each, because range issues dictate a vehicle switch half way through the 45-minute race on city streets (in this case oceanside Biscayne Bay Boulevard). The cars ain’t the neighborhood Nissan Leaf. They max out at 270 horsepower (during qualifying rounds), and with lightweight carbon fiber Dallara chassis, connecting to the ground via custom-made wet/dry Michelin tires, are capable of 2.9-second zero to 62 mph times.
According to Virgin team sponsor Sir Richard Branson, much in evidence on race day, the races “prove that electric cars can be sexy.” Branson’s goal is carbon neutrality by 2050, and he said “we’ll never get there without efforts like this one.”
Asked if Virgin was going to compete with Tesla and build a car, as upstarts like Google and Apple seem intent on doing, Branson said, “We already compete with Tesla in space, so maybe at some point with electric cars as well.” But no, nothing’s in the works. And would Branson like to try driving? “As long as people stay well clear I’d give it a go,” he said, adding that his perennial multitasking inevitably leads to disaster at the wheel.
Batteries are critical, and the Formula E cars sport 727-pound, 28-kilowatt-hour Williams packs that are recharged sustainably via sea algae-derived glycerin. To prove how cool and benign that stuff is, both Agag and Branson took sips of the stuff. Branson predicted that battery advances (averaging eight percent improvement annually) would soon make it unnecessary for the drivers to switch cars.
Tires are important too; Michelin’s Scott Clark and Chris Baker told us that low rolling resistance rubber is the cheapest way to gain fuel economy (or in the case of an electric car, range) and can lead to five to 10 percent improvement. The race cars’ 18-inchers (which carry RIFD tags for instant feedback) manage the difficult task of both maximizing grip and minimizing that crucial rolling resistance.
Race day was quite a spectacle, including hordes of international playboys, disco dancers grooving to sounds from a DJ in full race gear (see video below) and gourmet food in the Emotion Club. Our vantage point and home base was the Miami Heat’s AmericanAirlines Arena, itself a zero waste sustainability leader. People watched the action not only from bleachers set up in the streets, but also from yachts in the bay and high-rise balconies. Security was perhaps too tight, since it prevented some very capable journalists from getting credentials on race day. Here's a close-up of the disco doings:
The action was fast and furious on a somewhat bumpy street course, equaling a recent Indy 500 I attended. There have been walk-away collisions in previous races, but Miami was accident-free. Winning involves a fair amount of strategy: pouring on the power early in the race means none left over for the finish. One novel innovation is FanBoost, which allows online fans to vote for their favorite drivers, with winners getting the benefit of a five-second overtaking burst with 40 extra horsepower.
American X Games veteran Scott Speed (could a name be more appropriate?) finished in second place. “At the end I had plenty of battery left, but had to deal with overheating,” he said. “I was going into the corners at full speed, which made for some close calls but also for great racing. The big difference between this and other series is noise—there is none. I could hear the tires squealing, and even the crowd applauding.”
Prost was modest about being king of the hill. “I take every race one by one,” he said, brushing away comparisons with his famous father. “I race for me, not my dad,” he said.
The next Formula E race, also on American soil, is in Long Beach, California on April 4, followed by events in Monaco (May 9), Berlin (May 23), Moscow’s Red Square (June 6) and two races in London (June 27 and 28). It seems quite likely that this first go-round for Formula E won’t be the last. In Miami, the stands were packed.
Here’s some racing action on video: