Over the weekend, I set my DVR to record what was billed as an historic moment – the debut of the Formula E Championship. In case you have been living under a rock and don’t know what I’m talking about, Formula E is a new form of open-wheel racing that utilizes cars that are purely electric. Their inaugural season debuted in Beijing over the weekend. I’ve never been good at figuring out the International Date Line; but in the Central Time Zone, the race took place at 2:00am Saturday morning – hence the setting of the DVR.
For some, this was a highly anticipated event. They touted this as the future of racing. For others, myself included – it was more of a novelty that I was sort of curious about.
From what I had seen or heard in the past few months, there were certainly things to be curious about. First of all, this series has very solid backing. There were also teams and drivers that we were aware of.
For instance, IndyCar fans will certainly recognize Andretti Autosport and Dragon Racing; both of which had two cars in Saturday’s race as required by the series. Andretti’s drivers were Franck Montagny and Charles Pic, while Dragon had Oriol Servia and Jerome d’Ambrosio. Other drivers of note were Takuma Sato, Katherine Legge, Ho-Pin Tung, Nelson Picquet, Jr., Nicolas Prost., Bruno Senna, Nick Heidfeld and Jarno Trulli. For the record; Saturday’s race was won by Brazilian Lucas di Grassi, driving for Audi Sport ABT.
The cars look good – probably better looking than the current DW12 IndyCar. There are several well-known names associated with construction of the chassis. It was designed by Dallara, but built by a group known as Spark racing Technology. The electric motor was developed by McLaren, while the battery system is a product of Williams F1. The gearbox was built by Hewland and the tires come from Michelin.
What goes beyond novelty and verges on downright odd is the pit stop; which is also what currently plagues the entire electric car industry. There is not enough battery life to complete a race of normal distance. Instead of changing out the battery – they change cars! That’s right, the driver jumps out of the car that started the race and climbs into an identical car and takes off. At best, that system just seems a bit clumsy and awkward. In fact, it comes across as downright comical. Beyond the laughter, however is the cost involved. Each team has two drivers, with a minimum of two cars apiece. I’m not sure what happens if a car is damaged beyond a weekend repair job.
As I awoke Saturday morning, I read tweets from several people that apparently stayed up and watched it live. They spoke of the great racing and how this was a great alternative for racing fans and this would drum up a lot of interest from current non-racing fans. I made a pot of coffee and eagerly turned on the DVR.
What I saw is not what I would describe as the future of racing. After the standing start, two things stood out – the cars were agonizingly slow and the sound was downright dreadful.
From what I’ve read, top speed along a straightaway is about 165 mph. I suppose that’s good for an electric powered car, but to an eye that is used to watching Formula One or even IndyCar – it looked as if they were in slow motion.
On top of that was the one factor that traditional racing fans will find unwatchable – the sound. Some had said the cars were silent. That’s not true. They make a high-pitched whirring sound. I was at IMS in 1967, when Parnelli Jones qualified the turbine-powered “Silent Sam”. It wasn’t silent either. It sounded exactly like what it was – a jet engine. But when it wooshed by, it inspired awe. In the race, you could hear the whine of the turbine as it went by, it was not obnoxious – it was a good way to tell it apart from the Fords and Offys in the field. It was the same the next year when the three Lotus turbines were on the grid.
The sound of the field taking the green flag in 1967-68 brought goose bumps. The thunderous roar, interspersed with the whine of the turbine was more magnificent than anything I’ve experienced in the forty-six years since then. I do not use this term often, because it is so overused in today’s world – but it was awesome.
That is not a word I can attach to the sound I heard on Saturday morning from Beijing. The word or phrase that came to mind most often as I watched was, “extremely irritating”. I felt as if I were sitting in the hallway of a large dental clinic while everyone around me was getting their teeth drilled. By the end of the first lap, it was grating on my nerves.
I will now throw out my disclaimer that I am no mechanical expert when it comes to cars – especially electric cars. I’ve never driven one or even ridden in one – not even a hybrid. But from what I know, the reason that electric cars have not caught on with the public is that there has been very little technological development in batteries over the years. I currently drive a ninety-mile round-trip commute every day. That is the advertised maximum that a Nissan Leaf can go on a single charge. I’ve read where the actual limit is about seventy miles. That simply could not work for me or a lot of other people. There are no charging stations at or near my work, and I can’t imagine that running an extension cord from our building to my car would be a popular option. The technology for electric cars has not yet reached the practical stage.
Zero-emissions is the strong selling point form those that support electric vehicles. Although I’ve never been labeled a “greenie”, I’m certainly not opposed to saving the planet. One favorite buzzword term used by those that are environmentally conscious is “carbon footprint”. Is there any data out there comparing the carbon footprint of a lithium ion battery to that of a standard internal combustion engine? I know the materials to make such a battery are not common and have to be mined from the earth. What about the extra energy it takes to charge up the battery every night? Then, when the battery will no longer hold a charge, it must be disposed of. What is the effect of the disposal on the environment? I have no idea, but my guess is that it is just as damaging or probably even far worse.
Those who are much more in the know than I am about such things tell me that the fuel of the future is not electricity or ethanol. It’s hydrogen. I’m told that the exhaust from a hydrogen-powered vehicle is essentially water. How it is converted into a safe manner of carrying it in a fuel cell is beyond me. I do know that Honda has been working on such a project for years. How such a car sounds or performs is anyone’s guess. I don’t know.
What I do know is that even though the Formula E cars looked good – they sounded terrible. It was bad enough that I couldn’t watch it to the end. I found it to be that irritating. Perhaps I completely misread the newest generation, but I like to think that they are attracted to racing for the same reasons my generation was in the sixties. One of those reasons was the sound. Cars were sexy and they sounded sexy – and powerful. To this day, the first IndyCar I hear at speed in the month of May gives me goosebumps.
It’s hard to market the sound of a Formula E car. Have you ever been near a turn in a railroad track and heard the ear-piercing screech of metal grinding against metal when a train went through? That describes the sound of Formula E. It’s pretty unbearable. Add that to the fact that the cars look slow, and you have a fairly unwatchable product.
So why my Twitter feed was filled with accolades about the historic race from Beijing was somewhat bewildering. I know some will label me as an out of touch curmudgeon, but I was not a fan. Although it sounded like Dario Franchitti was doing a good job in the broadcast booth (when you could actually hear him) and I knew a few of the names involved; Formula E left me cold. The future of racing? I think not.