THE RACE BEFORE THE RACE
FIA Formula E in Long Beach

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NOT EVERYTHING IS WHAT YOU THINK IT IS

Story and photographs by John Grafman

It’s easy enough to scoff at the thought of electric race cars. It’s easy to imagine some hayseed, backwoods-type, laughing his butt off at the prospect of electric vehicles (EVs), and half-jokingly asks if these are giant-sized slot cars? All the while, that good ole’ boy is looking humorously downwards for an elusive groove in the track.

Not surprisingly, many of us “normal” folk have our doubts as well, and for good reason.

Right from the start, these Formula E machines don’t have the howl we are so accustomed to bellowing from a typical IC engine. There’s no earth-shaking, loss of hearing, roar that turns heads and provides the aural sensation that goes hand-in-hand with typical racing events.

Also, where’s that waft of petrol in the air? The scent of fuel stimulates all of our other senses, and makes us thirsty for some action.

These are not small, insignificant changes, as those elements have been a part of racing for well-over a century.

THE POWER

And then there’s the other thing, range. As most of us are well aware of, with a battery-powered car you get power, or range, but not both.

Racing in slower cars is not exactly what fans find acceptable. As a matter of fact, the Formula E race cars are restricted to just over 200 horsepower (150Kw) during competition. Even the lowly Scions in the celebrity race have more ponies!

Shorter duration races are an option, as long as the racers and fans don’t feel short changed. Let’s face it, who wants to go through the time and trouble of going to a track for a ten-minute race? Even if it is longer, one or two yellow flags in a timed event can eliminate the competitive spirit that’s at the heart of motorsports.

The concerns over electric race cars are not too dissimilar than those of EVs for the street. As it turns out all the fears are unjustified, or at least most of them.

The FIA Formula E ten city circuit for this season is much like a spec series, with each team armed with similar race cars. French company Spark Racing Technology is charged with the build process. Renault oversees the suppliers, and some of the most respected names in racing are responsible for the various parts and systems.

Michelin to McLaren Electronics Systems have a hand in this at Long Beach, at least for this year. The carbon fiber and aluminum chassis are sourced from Dallara, and Williams Advanced Engineering is the supplier of the 200Kw batteries (270bhp). Hewland builds the 5-speed sequential paddle shift transmissions. Technical expertise comes from Renault Sport Technologies and Renault Sport F1.

Next season the teams will be able to use other suppliers or their own capabilities. Currently, the cars are more or less similar, which some might say is right up there with communism. However, we do get a true picture as to the skills of the drivers, as the cars are not a variable.

This isn’t the first race in the FIA Formula E circuit, and numerous cars have been damaged and repaired already, perhaps even several times apiece. Also, the teams are restricted in how many tires they have available, so that also has an impact on how the racers attack the track. These might be subtle factors, but racing these days can be won or lost by the slimmest of margins.

Many of the drivers in this series are familiar names to racing enthusiasts, like Marco Andretti, Takuma Sato, and Scott Speed. This season Formula E is fielding ten teams. FIA is sure to attract more to this circuit as time goes by.

The real trick is overcoming the natural deficiencies that EVs have. The Formula E racers only crack 80 decibels, or only about ten decibels more than a standard production car that your neighbor might drive. On the other hand, these have a very high-pitched tone. Take a Segway scooter and put it on massive amounts of steroids. The resulting sound is what we have here, almost like a colony of crazed African killer bees on a rampage.

Still, this isn’t really the same thing as the cars prowling the track at the Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend. But, to partially offset that, FIA is playing music all around the track. The place feels alive, even without the smell of petrol in the air. Lucky for us, we are enjoying the choice of tunes.

To combat the limited lifespan of the batteries, each team has two cars. So, somewhere along the line when the batteries are getting depleted the driver comes in for a pit stop, which in fact is a complete swap of cars. Can you imagine in the real world replacing an entire car just because a gas tank runs dry? Not really cost effective, and it’s not any bit better in racing.

The car swap allows the race to last for the 40 minute before the batteries drain out. Although the Formula E cars require relatively little time to recharge in the grand scheme of things, it’s totally impractical for a race. Maybe in future races they can implement wireless inductive charging on the course, but that could run more than just a few bucks, although it’s no longer in the realm of Buck Rogers.

The flip side to the battery issue is power. The more energy the motors use, the faster the batteries drain. Racers don’t want to run out of electricity anymore than they would want to run out of gasoline in a regular Formula car. The built-in advantage of electric vehicles is the capability of having gobs of power, and one hundred percent of the torque, available immediately. Sadly, the ones we are watching at the Long Beach race have been de-tuned to preserve longevity.

One of the other ways to expand the range of the cars is by simply reducing the track length, and that’s exactly what FIA did! The Formula E race at Long Beach snips about a third of the track we normally witness right off. So, the straight is clipped at Pine Street, avoiding the route around the fountain and Long Beach Aquarium. But, for the purposes of this race, and the fan experience, the shorter track is actually a benefit. It not only allows the drivers to push the cars hard, it also means shorter lap times, so the fans in the stands see more action. This also concentrates the fans in a few areas, and that intensifies the excitement.

A REAL TEAM SPORT

On the subject of fans, FIA has implemented a way for the rest of us to interact with the action on the track. FanBoost is a way for fans to vote on – via a mobile devices, the web, or onsite – their favorite racers. The driver with the most votes can get an extra dose of power to their cars for a period of five seconds (aside from the starting lap). This increase of 30kw / 40.5bhp can mean a world of difference in some cases.

While this is a brilliant way to engage those attending in person or on a PC, it does tend to favor well-known names. It’s sort of like Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush getting votes not based on their records and positions, but rather on their last names.

So, the implication is that Formula E will be a far cry from the IndyCar spectacle. Well, to all those preaching gloom and doom, or even those garden variety haters, all we can say is – nice try. When the green flag drops the bleachers are full, and the action is nearly as intense.

The low weight of 896kg / 1,975-pounds allows the Formula E cars to get up to speed in rapid fashion, regardless of horsepower, and the top speed is 140 MPH. Maybe the top end is a far cry from those of IndyCar, but the layout of this abbreviated track won’t allow for those 200MPH, IndyCar-like speeds anyway. It doesn’t appear that anyone is wanting for more speed.

THE SIDESHOW

Those attending have a bit of free time between the practice, qualifying, and the final race. Formula E offers the on-point diversion of the eVillage. This is an opportunity to enjoy a variety of activities that are in line with a new-age theme. At the top of those virtues are innovation, technology, sustainability, and well-being. Fans get to dive into the simulator competition, eKarting, gadget corner, demonstrations of the benefits of electric power, and ebike stunt performances.

In addition, there are a few other eye-catching displays like Dance Masters. The break-dancing team, for lack of a better term, is amazing. The dance troupe really shows what the human body is capable of. The Dance Masters team members are able to move in ways that typically only happens in a slip and fall accident.

There’s also a color guard, grid girls, a scholastic electric vehicle competition, and more. And if all else fails, there’s always food trucks!

THE VICTORS

Coming into the race several teams were vying for the series lead. E.Dams – Renault is on top with 110 points, Audi Sport ABT follows with 79, and close behind is Virgin Racing with 78.

Nicolas Prost came into Long Beach as the driver with the most points, 67. Lucas di Grassi was trailing by 8 points, and Nelson Piquet Jr. was within striking distance, albeit a bit further back in the standings, with 49 points.

Early into the race Scott Speed, a thoroughly experienced driver sitting in 11th place prior to the race, comes out of the straight along Shoreline Drive and momentarily becomes one with the inside wall. While disheartening as that is, he does have a back up car.

However, the damaged car was not able to recover. This effectively eliminates him, as his battery in the remaining car becomes exhausted further into the race. Perhaps the cars need to use Energizer batteries next race?

Despite a couple yellow flags, this still has all the action a car race supposed to have within the 40-minute duration.

The top three positions are all of a few seconds apart, evidence that this indeed is competitive. Nelson Piquet Jr. and the China Racing Formula E Team (car #99) came in first place just 1.705 seconds ahead of Jean-Eric Vergne and the Andretti Autosport team (27), earning a respectable second place. Di Grassi (11) is in third, keeping his Audi Sport ABT team strongly in the hunt for team championship title. More importantly, it pushes Lucas to the top of the leader board for this season in terms of points.

Somewhat telling about the sport and technology is the statement made by Piquet following the race. While he and two other racers did have FanBoost available, he opted not to use it. This was over concerns of overheating the batteries that can lead to a fire, or causing any other issues. Clearly, he didn’t need to use FanBoost. But, this does indicate that Formula E tech is still in its infancy.

On a positive note, FIA Formula E Series CEO Alejandro Agag did offer his perspective, “Formula E is the future – we not only want to be the future of motorsport but fundamentally change how the public sees electric vehicles.”

This might just be the wave of the future after-all. We think Elon Musk would agree!

Find out more about the race from FIA Formula E
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One Response to “THE RACE BEFORE THE RACE
FIA Formula E in Long Beach

  1. DOUG STOKES Says:

    PERSONAL OPINION

    … How would I do it if I wanted to really add to the public’s already fairly deep dread and sense of (pure) electric vehicle “range anxiety”?

    Hmmm … Perhaps if I were to hold a spec car* race series where in order to finish ONE race your need TWO complete racing cars … yeah, that’s a good start.

    And then, as the spokesman for the series, I’d explain that, “…perhaps in five or so years the technology will have advanced enough so that we’ll only be using one car for the full race.” That would be very cool.

    Yeah, that’s how I’d do it …

    -Stokes

    *where every car uses identical chassis, motors, wheels, tires, and batteries and the automotive manufacturers’ names and logos on the cars are simply greenwash.

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