Nobody asked me, but . . .
If there were any lingering doubts about fan reaction to the first race of electric cars at Long Beach, they were all dispelled by the cheering, waving and applause of the 23,000 spectators as the drivers slowly traversed Shoreline Drive and turned right up Pine Avenue on their cool-off lap. For their first appearance on a shortened version of the usual Long Beach IndyCar race course, the 20 Formula E race cars had put on an exciting show.
That 23,000 figure is impressive, even if the seating was free. That would be a big number for a racing event in Southern California on a wonderful spring day when there would have to be 100 other outdoor activities to divert peoples’ attention. And there was no where near the publicity for Formula E that precedes a typical NASCAR, NHRA or IndyCar event here in Southern California.
The fans were different. Few were wearing racing apparel. Moms and dads with kids in tow or in strollers ruled the paddock area and the walkways. And this is the first event I’ve attended in Long Beach where I didn’t need ear plugs. The concern about lack of noise from the Formula E cars is, in my mind, much to do about nothing. I heard the same complaints in the 1970s when SCCA Showroom Stock became a highly popular class of racing. It was affordable because of minimal modifications, and the cars ran essentially stock exhaust systems, which reduced the cacophony of sounds typically associated with racing cars. Purists decried the lack of noise as the ruination of racing. It wasn’t. The cars were fun to drive and the lack of engine noise was replaced by the sounds of tortured tires careening through corners.
Formula E cars create a noticeable whine from their motors and gearboxes. It ain’t Formula 1 noise (and we’re all heard the complaints about the exhaust note of current F1 engines) or IndyCar noise or sports car noise. It’s the lack of noise of race cars of the future. So get used to it.
Formula E has attracted world-class racing talent. Driving these cars with minimal downforce and grooved tires demands great skill and total concentration. And because each of the ten teams is using identical Spark-Renault SRT_01Es, open wheel race cars built by Dallara, pure driving talent is the deciding factor, not cubic dollars. In the six races to date, six different drivers have occupied the top spot on the podium.
Thanks to an intro by Bob Koveleski to Jim Wright and Thierry Apparu, Head of Commercial, and Information and Communication Manager, respectively for the Venturi Formula E team, I was able to get an up close and personal tour of their race car. Word of the Day: Look but don’t touch. Failure to heed that caution could result in shocking consequences for the transgressor. A revolting development, to say the least.
The monocoque structure of each car is a combination of carbon fiber and aluminum. Behind the driver where a piston engine would normally reside is a 28 kWh lithium-ion battery pack supplied by the Williams F1 team. This sends up to 200 kW (equivalent to 270 bhp) to an electric motor and a 5-speed gearbox supplied by McLaren, resulting in a 0-100 kph time of 2.9 sec and a top speed limited to 225 kph. Because a decision was made to use the battery’s safety cell as part of the car’s structure, the battery pack can’t be swapped during a race, even though Williams had just such a system in development. For now the cars don’t have enough juice to last an entire race so the drivers make a pit stop around half distance and jump into a second car to complete the race.
Following the Miami race, Lucas di Grassi who races for the Audi Sport ABT Formula E team commented on this issue: “I completely believe in the message the series is sending. I might not completely agree with the message that you have to switch cars in the middle of the race — I would prefer to have a shorter race like rallycross and possibly have more races in the same day. But eventually it will be good to be able to go from two cars to one to be able to say, ‘Look, technology has evolved this much, and now we have one car that can do the same job it took two cars to do five years ago.’ That’s a good message that will be eventually displayed.”
One of the major sponsors of Formula E is DHL. And good on them. Formula E is a one–day show, and a racing version of Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, moving around the world by plane and ship as opposed to rails. Set up tents, cars, scrutineering, tire mounting on Friday. Race on Saturday. Tear down Saturday night. Ship on Sunday. Logistics is the order of the daze!
During a press conference on the Friday prior to the Long Beach event, Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E, talked about some of the initial skepticism surrounding Formula E. At the race in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for instance, Agag described how knowledgeable race fans and the media openly scoffed at the idea of racing electric cars. But the headline in the Buenos Aires newspaper the day after the race shouted: The Race Beats the Silence.
Agag then mentioned that 180 cities around the world are interested in holding a race. It doesn’t require exhaustive research to recognize that for Formula E, Silence is Golden.