Twenty racecars that sounded like giant electric knives sliced through the streets of downtown Miami, emitting exactly zero emissions. Despite the fact that the tropical sun was hot enough to steam empanadas, the bleachers were full. For a $20 admission price, standing-room-only fans lined three-deep along the track. Nearly every balcony of every high-rise along the route was equally stuffed. Several dozen people even lined up on highway overpasses until police chased them away. They wanted to see the first-ever North American running of Formula E, the all-electric racing series Sir Richard Branson and others believe to be the future.
Formula E differs from traditional auto racing in pretty much every way. All 20 drivers operate the exact same car, a toothpick-thin Spark-Renault SRT_01E. The cars go zero to 62 in three seconds, can reach 140 mph, run with a top-secret motor designed by McLaren, and balance on bespoke yet skinny 18-inch Michelin tires, designed to work in both wet and dry conditions.
From there, it gets strange. The cars of Formula E generate up to 270 hp, but must be operated in power-saving “race mode,” which barely generates 200hp. Formula E fans can vote with hashtags on social media to provide a “Fan Boost,” which allows favorite drivers to generate 30 extra kilowatts of power for five seconds sometime in the race. But even those drivers don’t win unless they properly conserve energy. It’s like high-speed hypermiling, with a battery that’s powered by sea-algae glycerin.
This unusual battery can only last for approximately half the 39-lap race, with each lap covering approximately 1.5 kilometers. It can’t be recharged quickly enough to get it back onto the track. So en lieu of a battery change (or, for that matter, a tire change, which is neither allowed nor necessary), drivers simply pit, get out of their car, get into a fresh car with exactly the same specs, and continue on.
Therefore, the race features ten teams, 20 drivers, and 40 completely identical cars. Next year, teams can fiddle with the gearbox, suspension, and motor, and in 2017 they will be able to use their own batteries. But for now, they’re all the same. Whizzing through the streets of Monte Carlo and Buenos Aires, among other Bond-movie locations, they represent the world’s most glamorous display of electric-car potential.
The racing community, though, remains skeptical over this alien form of motorsports. For many, the roar of a combustion engine is part of the allure, and while Formula E is fast for an electric car, its lap times are akin to lower-rung junior open wheel formulas. It’s not been easy to digest for the diehard racing fan.
But Formula E has more than a dash of glamour to it, with an extra E-boost provided by Sir Richard Branson, who’s fielding a competitive Virgin Racing Team. Sir Richard was on hand last weekend in Miami for the festivities. In a poorly attended press conference on the floor of American Airlines Arena, he sounded coolly messianic in his fervor for Formula E, which he says can be a major driver of social change, and not just in racing.
“We’re trying to work toward a world that’s carbon-neutral by 2050,” Sir Richard said. “Unless you have racing like this, we’ll never get there. Hopefully, 10 to 20 years from now, the smell of exhaust will be something as much a thing of the past as cigarette smoke. That’s what we’re trying to get to.”
Sir Richard was joined at the press conference by the head of Formula E, a dashing multilingual Spaniard named Alejandro Agag, who added, “this is our goal. To try and change the world.”
That’s not just how they talk to the press, either. This is a genuine transformation mission. Later, during a panel at an upstairs lounge where all the wealthy racing fans had gathered, Branson said, “It won’t be long before we can have batteries that will last the duration of the race. That technology is coming. A lot of members of the public don’t realize that electric cars can go 140 miles an hour, or that they can be sexy. These cars are that. It’s up to manufacturers to get out there and make more electric cars. The demand will be there. If dirty fuel has a real competitor, then the price of fuel will come down and the world will be a clean place.”
To prove their point, Branson and Agag then both drank a shot of sea-algae glycerin. It’s Soylent Green for racing cars. Though it’s not, as far as we know, made out of people.
It came time for the race, which was only an hour long but was quite exciting. The cars bolted down the street from a standing start as though they were launched from a slingshot, and proceeded to zip, in very close quarters, around the track, which was designed with deliberate nostalgia to resemble the old-school Miami Grand Prix, a route that hadn’t been run in more than a decade.
This was the fifth Formula E race of the season. Because of the uniformity of equipment, no clear favorite had yet been established. But as the race unfolded, Renault-backed Nicholas Prost, the son of Formula One legend Alain Prost, bolted to the front, just behind German Daniel Apt, who appeared under the Audi Sport banner. Surprisingly close behind them was the aptly-named American dude Scott Speed, best-known for winning the Global Rallycross Gold Medal in last summer’s X-Games, and a last-minute addition to Michael Andretti’s team.
The cars whizzed through the streets of Miami, making less noise than a single street cleaner, and emitting not one particle of pollution. As Speed later said. “I could hear the crowd noise. I could hear the tires squealing. I could hear everything.”
With four laps to go, Apt was in front, but also in trouble, because he was running out of power. He later said that if he’d pushed the car to its limits, it would have stopped suddenly on the track, which would have caused a major calamity. Instead, he did the sane and gentlemanly thing and retreated to third place. Prost took the lead, with Scott Speed speeding behind him.
As the final lap dawned, Speed was on Prost’s bumper, but he couldn’t quite catch him. Prost pulled across the finish line with only one percent of available energy left in his second car, meaning he’d pushed to the very limit of endurance and had run a basically perfect electric-car race. Speed still had several percent in reserve. If he’d made his move earlier, he would have won.
But that’s how it goes in Formula E. Everyone’s learning how to run these races together. “We’re all learning about the science of energy recovery together,” Agag said. “This is the beginning of new technology.”
After the champagne flowed and La Marseillaise played, the three podium drivers descended the stairs of the arena for their post-race press conference, bouncing like kids who’d just been given nifty new toys. They already were looking forward to the next U.S. Formula E race, on the streets of Long Beach this Saturday. “It was halfway through the race,” Scott Speed was saying, “And I got a whole new car! It was awesome!”