Get ready for motorsport as you’ve never seen it.
From September 2014 a new breed of racers will take to the streets of great cities right around the world – including London, Beijing, Los Angeles, Rome Bangkok, Miami, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Putrajaya (in Malaysia, if you're wondering). It’s called Formula E, and the cars are powered exclusively by electricity.
So, a bunch of mobility scooters pootling around city centres?
Nope. These cars are deadly serious racers, with some of the biggest names in motorsport behind them. McLaren – yes, those Formula One guys – helped develop the electric motor, while Williams – those other F1 guys – worked on the battery technology.
The Formula E cars produce the equivalent of 270hp, enough to accelerate them to 62mph in just 2.5 seconds. To keep costs down, Michelin has designed just one durable tyre for both wet and dry conditions. The cars are capable of over 185mph, but in race trim, speeds will be more like a maximum of 135mph. Which, if you’re negotiating Hyde Park Corner, is plenty fast enough.
They’ll need an awfully long extension cord, no?
Amusing idea, but no. Each of the ten teams will have two drivers, who will have two cars each to complete the one-hour race, so flat batteries shouldn’t figure in the outcome. There will be a minimum two-stop strategy over the race distance, but the driver can make as many stops as he wants. To say that pitstop strategy will be ‘difficult’ is a bit of an understatement.
“The acceleration of these cars is unbelievable”
Alejandro Agag, boss of the Formula E series, says the racing will be "very exciting – the acceleration of these cars is unbelievable.” And it'll place huge demands on the drivers. "They’ll be running on hard tyres in slippery conditions with very little downforce,” says Agag. “The drivers will have to be very skilled indeed.”
They’ll also need quite a bit of courage, as there’s not much in the way of ‘runoff’ areas in your average city centre.
Who'll be behind the wheel?
Former F1 driver and LeMans veteran Luca Di Grassi has been development driver for the Formula E car – and he's adamant that it isn't a junior series for wannabe F1 drivers. “We’ve had a lot of interest from drivers like Bruno Senna, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Jaime Alguersuari, so a lot of ex Formula One drivers and even some current ones are looking at it,” says Di Grassi. “You could make a career out of it.”
Open source racing
Formula E’s technology partner is Qualcomm, whose microchips are in just about every smartphone on the planet. The organisers plan an ‘open source’ approach – meaning that you'll be able to download data about how fast your favourite driver is through a given corner, for example. “If a driver has an advantage it will be difficult to hide it,” says Di Grassi. “But it will be much more interactive for the public to understand what is going on.”