This past weekend was the inaugural race of the FIA Formula E Championship made up of all electric open wheel race cars. All electric racing has its fair share of skeptics and the Formula E series has a variety of gimmicks. First, pit stops involve changing the whole car, not just tires and battery. As battery technology for high performance race cars is not quite "there" yet, the cars can go around 30 minutes before needing to be changed. Its an odd sight to see the driver hop from one car to the other, unless you watched F1 in the 90s when teams had spare cars. The gimmick that really inspires ire as a cheap way to attract fans is that fans get to vote via an online system on which drivers get a 5 second power boost they can use at any time during the race.
We're willing to overlook this kitsch if the series can live up to its hype. The result? Mixed. The action on track was frenetic as drivers fought for every position. The last lap provided closing drama for the race as the leaders crashed out. What does it say about a racing series when the last lap crash is the most talked about aspect of the whole weekend? Let's hope that Formula E doesn't have to pin its success on future incidents like this.
Even with the action, two things became clear. The cars sound dreadful. No, we're not going to complain that they don’t sound like screaming v8s or v10s. We didn’t expect the impossible. However the sound of a full field of electric motors racing down the track is akin to nails on a chalkboard. If you've ever been awakend on a Saturday morning at 7am to the sound of the neighbor's kids racing his RC car in the driveway whiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, you get the idea. Second, the sense of speed, at least viewing on tv, was almost non-existent. Perhaps it’s the lack of sound, but the cars just don’t look that fast. Lastly, the race was overdubbed with worthless "techno-dramatic" music, for reasons unknown to us. Sure, the cars sound ridiculous, but they don't need musical accompaniment.
The motivation to create better and faster hybrid systems, energy recovery systems, fuel savings, and 100% electric cars is not just good for the environment but pushes the envelope of what is technically possible. This drive to the edge of imagination in the automotive world has led to the creation of astounding automotive and energy saving technology. This technology hasn't just demonstrated new ways to be green but has also demonstrated massive gains in horsepower and torque out of smaller engines….looking at you McLaren P1, Porsche 918 Spyder and La Ferrari.
We are optimistic on the future of hybrid or electric technology in cars and in motorsports but we're not sure that Formula E is the answer. Perhaps as the series evolves, the creators and the teams might adopt a "less is more" philosophy. What we, the racing consumer, are looking for is racing that's high tech, not necessarily high technology that is racing. We want to watch fast machines and bravado, not video game gimmicks and incessant self promotion. What non-racing types don't know is that many race cars are already efficient to the nth degree. Those who build and promote the cars should highlight this fact, rather than reshape the sport to the extent that it's a distraction from what we racing types want to see.