Electric-car makers amped on Formula E racing
New York — Like the Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle, the New York City E-Prix's circuit is laid out on the public streets of Brooklyn, with Manhattan skyscrapers forming a majestic backdrop across the river. The world's top drivers come here to race state-the-of-art, open-wheel cars at the limit just inches from makeshift barriers and adoring fans.
The difference is the cars barely make a sound.
Formula E is the world's premier battery-powered auto racing series with 11 stops around the globe, including the streets of Hong Kong, Paris, Rome and New York.
As some governments consider outlawing the internal combustion engine, manufacturers from Audi to Jaguar to Nissan are rushing to the new race series to accelerate battery development and excite potential buyers about electric vehicles. Like other race series that have tried to capitalize on government trends — like ethanol in America (IndyCar) or diesel in Europe (LeMans) — Formula E is the new epicenter of alternative powertrain technology transfer.
“We, like a lot of other brands think that electrification is the key to the future,” said Jaguar racing manager James Barclay. Jaguar is using Formula E to promote its $70,000 I-Pace crossover EV. “Yes, regulation changes are driving it – in many city centers in the future you won’t be able to bring in internal-combustion engine cars. But also, there is a consumer that wants a car that is sustainable.”
The Formula E series — despite no major TV contract and relatively small spectator interest compared to louder, faster cars in NASCAR and Formula One — is attracting major corporate investment.
That investment comes not just from the usual suspects of European and U.S. auto racing, but from emerging economies like India and China, the latter having displaced the U.S. as the biggest global auto market and which is soon expected to severely restrict gas-powered automobiles.
Mahindra, a pioneer in Indian electric cars in the world’s fastest-growing car market, brought its Formula E team to New York.
"We are reaching a perfect storm as ... both regulation and technology see EVs as a viable option," says Dilbagh Gill, Mahindra's Formula E team manager. "Mahindra is headquartered in India, and India is looking at stopping the registration of gas-engine vehicles by 2030. That’s just 12 years from now, so we need to get on with development now."
The 10-team series — each with two entries — is a who's-who of manufacturers including Audi, Jaguar, Mahindra and Renault. BMW, Mercedes, Nissan and Porsche will join over the next two years. If they are not managing their own programs, then they are supported by some of the world's top race teams including Andretti (Mario's son Michael) and Penske (Roger's son Jay).
“France is banning the combustion engine by 2040, Germany is talking about 2030, and Norway has already announced 2025. It’s not just racing — you won’t be able to sell a car unless it's electric, hydrogen or some other alternative to fossil fuel,” Andretti told The News last year. “It’s coming whether you like it or not.”
Conspicuously missing from Formula E is an American manufacturer. Only Ford has expressed an interest. A Ford spokesperson said the company has been watching the series closely, but has no plans to join.
With EVs a small, expensive U.S. market niche — and no federal mandate to eliminate gas power — Detroit makers are avoiding the e-racing trend, just as they bypassed diesel development once pushed by global governments. Detroit racing dollars continue to go where the buyers are — to gas-burning NASCAR, IndyCar and drag racing.
Quiet riot: With only the whine of electric motors, Formula E racers negotiate the Brooklyn street course. Henry Payne, The Detroit News
The brainchild of Paris-based motorsports governing body Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA for short), Formula E began four years ago as a way to bring emerging EV technology to consumers and as a competitive platform for manufacturer development.
Where IndyCar and Formula run some of their events on street circuits, all Formula E races take place in cities. The commitment is part of the series' ethic to be greener by bringing racing to population centers (rather than fans burning gas to drive to remote road courses). No parking is offered, encouraging fans to take public transportation and walk.
“Formula E really throws out the racing rulebook,” says Jaguar’s Barclay. “We are racing in city centers like New York. It brings motorsports a new audience – it’s the most accessible motorsport in the world and brings EV technology to the masses.”
He is undeterred by the minuscule market for electric cars in the U.S.
“The U.S. has the potential to be the largest EV market in the world,” he says. “It was in many ways the first to adopt electric tech — they are ahead of the rest of the world with Tesla and other electric vehicles.”
The Fornula E ethic dovetails with city plans to ban gas-powered cars. Paris, which has hosted Formula E for four years on streets just east of the Eiffel Tower, occasionally bans vehicles on Sundays – with a total ban on gas-powered cars by 2030. Host Mexico City will ban diesel cars – which governments have encouraged with low taxes – by 2025.
On Brooklyn’s circuit along the East River, the pack of 20 cars whooshed by, with only the whine of their electric motors. Unlike the Detroit Grand Prix, fans converse easily in the grandstands without the 12,000-rpm wail of a V-6.
Though packing 200-kWh lithium-ion batteries — twice the capacity of a Tesla Model S P100D — FE cars are noticeably slower than IndyCars.
Around the New York City E-Prix’s narrow 1.4-mile course, the average lap speed for pole position-winner Jean-Eric Vergne was 68 mph compared to the 114-mph pole by Alexander Rossi at 2.4-mile Belle Isle. While some of that is attributed to the tight track layout, the Formula E cars also have significant handicaps. Chief among these is a requirement to use one set of hard, grooved Michelin tires — rain or shine.
The tire restriction conforms with the series' race culture to be sustainable compared to IndyCar, which uses sticky, slick tires and goes through multiple sets in a weekend (up to 13 at Belle Isle). The Michelins limit Formula E corner speeds to 1.5 g-loads compared to IndyCar’s 3.0-plus.
When the Formula E cars locked up in hairpins they made loud skidding sounds like a street car before a crash – not the brief “scrunch” of a soft-compound slick.
“You can’t look at Formula E as a replacement for (all) racing – but it exists in addition to it. It is very different.,” says Bobby Rahal, IndyCar racing legend-turned Jaguar dealer. He is race team manager of a Formula E support series that will feature the Jaguar I-Pace EVs next year.
“As a dealer,” continues Rahal, “we see more and more people thinking about electrified vehicles. The more they understand the benefits, the more interest there is. There is no doubt that hybrid-electric will take a bigger and bigger place in the marketplace.”
Energy-guzzling Formula E suffers from the same battery drawbacks as production EVs. Managing battery life over the NYC E-Prix’s 43-lap race is crucial (the Detroit GP is 70 laps). So inefficient were this year’s batteries that each driver had to change to a second car after about 20 laps.
But next season, when the series debuts its second-gen, 250-kWh battery, a single car will be able to go the distance.
It’s this kind of compressed, performance-driven technology advance that has attracted manufacturers.
“The relevance of Formula One is not really there anymore,” says Jaguar’s Barclay explaining why Jaguar ignored F1 for Formula E. “The technology transfer of Formula E is why you see so many manufacturers now. If you’re a manufacturer, you have to be here."
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.