Jaguar charges into future with first-ever electric-SUV race

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

New York — The times they are a-changin'.

Earlier this month, the first-ever electric-SUV race — the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy Challenge — took place on American soil, bringing together the two hottest trends in autodom: sport utility vehicles and electrification.

At the same time that car shoppers’ thirst for gas-guzzling SUVs appears unquenchable, governments are also forcing automakers to make battery-powered vehicles. Manufacturers like Jaguar are determined to show the public that the two disparate trends can co-exist. So the eTrophy series was born.

Jaguar eTrophy follows a rich tradition of single-make series (Porsche IROC, BMW ProCar) meant to market a brand. But this international series comes with a significant technology investment as well.

Manufacturers are using e-racing to push the limits of battery tech performance that is far behind its gasoline counterpart.

Featuring 10 4,400-pound crossovers speeding quietly around a fence-lined Brooklyn street course, the eTrophy crowned its first champion on July 14. Brazil’s Andres Jimenez beat out American Bryan Sellars and Team RLL. Team RLL is owned by Indy 500 star Bobby Rahal, comedian David Letterman and businessman Michael Lanigan.

For Jaguar, the season has proved a victory showing that a two-ton-plus bowling ball on wheels can be flogged around a track for 25 minutes in 90-degree heat and survive. That’s a long way from the 24-hour Le Mans marathons that made famous Jaguar’s gas-powered cars over the years, but it’s a start.

“For Jaguar this is a setting you would not normally ascribe to electrified cars especially of the (SUV) variety,” Rahal said trackside. “This highlights the performance of the I-Pace as compared to a Tesla that clearly doesn’t have the performance the I-Pace does. Jaguar is a sport brand. Tesla is about getting you from point A to point B.”

Jaguar hopes racing will help it catch up to Tesla’s dominant e-brand. But eTrophy is also indicative of how far electric cars have to go to catch up with their gas-powered peers.

The Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy races took place in Brooklyn in the shadow of the Manhattan skyline. The quiet race cars are a good fit for the inner city.

The eTrophy parallels the open-wheel Formula E race series that showcases the world’s cutting edge of battery technology. For the first time, Formula E in 2019 raced wire-to-wire with a single car after years of switching horses mid-race because the battery could not last 50 minutes.

“In a championship that is trying to promote electric technology, that’s a very difficult message to give when range anxiety is one of the biggest concerns of any electric-car user,” said Jaguar Formula E chief engineer Gary Ekerold. “So there was a real big rush to try and make sure battery technology allowed us to use just one car.”

McLaren Racing developed a new 52-kWh battery that more than doubled the capacity of the last-generation car. But the upgrade came at significant cost and exposed the Achilles' heel of battery power: It nearly doubled the price of a Formula E racer from $500,000 to $900,000.

“The cost of the car has gone up partly due to the battery,” said Ekerold. “Because of the extra weight of the battery, they needed to find other ways of saving weight."

He said chassis supplier Dallara saved weight with advanced Formula One-spec’d composite materials.

Jaguar hopes the Formula E technology will trickle down to production cars like the I-Pace. Tech transfer is a key reason manufacturers go racing, whether it’s a Honda Civic in IMSA’s Michelin Pilot series or Corvette at the 24 Hours of Daytona.

“The challenge in any tech transfer from the racing environment to production is cost,” says Ekerold. “The cost of the battery in our Formula E cars in a production environment is not realistic. Therefore any hardware tech has to be re-engineered to get cost out of it. So most significant learnings they transfer between racing and is concept and know-how on how to achieve something.”

Porsche will enter Formula E racing in 2020. They were a major sponsor of the 2019 race in Brooklyn.

That reengineering is formidable in the case of a Jaguar I-Pace. Where gasoline counterparts can run like trains for hours with quick fill-ups, the I-Pace targets a 25-minute race.

Like other production-car-turned-race-cars, the I-Pace has been modified for the brutal stresses of racing: Interior stripped and replaced with a roll cage. Brakes upgraded. Removable, racing steering wheel. Lightweight, carbon-fiber body panels. Rear wing.

Of biggest concern is thermal management of the battery. Rather than one cooling system as on the production car, the racing I-Pace has been outfitted with separate chill systems for the battery and electric motor.

Driver Sellars says that the team only runs the battery down to 25-30% of capacity in order to preserve its life over a full season. The more expensive Formula E battery, in contrast, is run to the limit every race.

Then there is the issue of racing an SUV.

The US team - run by Team Rahal-Letterman-Lanian - of Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy SUV EVs charges up in the paddock.

NASCAR race cars are notoriously heavy at 3,500 pounds, but they are bespoke race cars engineered from the ground up to do nothing but. A 4-cylinder front-wheel-drive Toyota Camry, for example, shares nothing with a V-8 powered rear-wheel drive Camry NASCAR.

Even when lowered 40mm and outfitted with carbon-fiber panels, the I-Pace is a high-riding 4,409-pound stagecoach. Around the tight Brooklyn circuit, it’s a handful for drivers.

“The weight of the car creates issues,” says Team RLL driver Sellars, who crashed in practice. “It’s hard to do a good lap in the confines of the walls.”

Before 12,000 spectators in Brooklyn, the Formula E and I-Pace racers put on a silent, competitive show. Racing on street tires with top speeds of just 135 mph, the electric cars aren’t nearly as quick as the IndyCars and sport GTs that defy physics around Detroit’s Belle Isle Grand Prix each year.

But IndyCar veteran Rahal loves the spectacle. After all, he’s a Jaguar dealer as well as a race team owner.

He says the race series increases the profile of the I-Pace and brings new people into his showroom. He sells every I-Pace the factory sends him.

“I have no doubt that there are lessons that are coming over the course of the year about the challenges that electrically-powered cars offer,” he says. “You’re driving the car hard in a pretty confined area, so I would to think the Jaguar engineers are getting insight into how the systems are performing and how they can be better.”

Porsche and Mercedes will join the Formula E show next year, while the Jaguar eTrophy series appears destined for a sophomore run. Manufacturer interest has so far come from Europe and China, where governments are mandating EVs. In England, gas-powered company cars are taxed at 30% of value while EVs are tax-exempt.

“Everyone is massively intrigued by it because it is new and exciting,” says Jaguar eTrophy driver Katherine Legge. “It’s the future of automobiles whether buses or cars. I don’t think we’re going to get rid of internal combustion engines, but battery-powered vehicles will be more prominent. It’s cool to be at the forefront.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.