The Future Of Racing?

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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.

George Phillips

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13 Responses to “The Future Of Racing?”

  1. Brian McKay in Florida Says:

    Today I’m fourth to vote and first to comment. Thanks for blogging, George. ASIDE from the last-lap, horrible crash that could have included a fatal injury, the event (on TV) was forgettable enough that when I read your headline, “The future of racing?” I first thought of proposed IndyCar cockpit canopies.
    Motor whine + lower speed + switching cars halfway through a race = not appealing, at least to television viewers.
    I was glad to see that Oriol Servia and Katherine Legge were racing again. But the field seems full of ‘refugees’ who may so desperate to prove themselves that they ram each other enough to endanger lives and anger their cars’ owners.

  2. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I can deal with the sound, however, cars are far too slow and trundle around the track like a pack of model A’s… Other than that and the fact that cars only last for 12-13 laps its going to be a great season. Disappointing but I do believe that eventually this might be an interesting series. As you noted the range of these and any commercially available electric only car is very limited. (Co-workers who live 35 miles from work must charge their cars for the entire work day in order to safely make it back home each day)… Note: I work for Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems and one of our sister companies produces the MEV electric vehicle and we have have formal charging stations at our work location in Orlando Florida)…

  3. There was nothing at all that I liked about Formula E. There was no E xcitement or anything else that I thought was interesting other than the series decided to use open wheel cars to house their batteries. I taped the race and watched later on Saturday. I was disappointed and when they switched cars I turned it off. Next time they should switch not to open wheel cars but to something like a tin top or a Monster Truck with those wheels that have the big, spinning swords that will cut up the other cars. I’ll watch that.

  4. The novelty wore off after the first lap.

  5. Biggest problem is this league is all about politics. Not really changing technology or anything else. And if you don’t think politics is now beginning to encroach and affect sports, look at what is happening to the NFL right now and how the broadcasts are being handled. Its a farce that the NFL is expected to play the role of the legal system and punish wrongdoers for actions that took place away from the football field and had nothing to do with the sport. And we don’t need commentators making their own social issue comments during and before the games.

    As for electric cars, they will never be practical until you can get a real 100 miles between charges. And they may never be able to race competitively. The weight of the batteries needed would rule it out If one could, let it enter the Indy 500 and go against the other cars.

    The switching cars during the race is the silliest thing I’ve heard of in a long time.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    I don’t know how fair it is to speculate on the future of a series after a single race, particularly a series that is supposedly expecting to see significant changes in technology and competition in its near future.

    That said, first impressions are fair game, and mine was fairly underwhelming. For Formula E (or any alternative-powered racing series, really) to succeed as a top-level motorsport it needs to either be very comparable to or significantly different in a compelling way from existing top-level motorsport.
    What we all taped this past weekend, and what we can probably expect from the series for the remainder of this season, was neither. It was an open-wheel feeder series race as far as speed and spectacle were concerned. There’s nothing wrong with that, generally speaking, but it is definitely underwhelming when such a series is pitched as a headlining racing event.

    The decision to use a largely conventional car and race format tells me that the hope is for Formula E to become comparable to current top-level motorsport instead of radically different. That day may come, time will tell. If it does, here’s hoping it won’t still sound like you are getting the deepest filling in dental history.

  7. I haven’t seen the race (my DVR attempts failed due to user error). But these comments are interesting. Never is a long time … When the internal combustion engine car was introduced many also declared it would NEVER replace the good old horse. Race cars would never go 200 mph. Phones would never be cord free. Man would never walk on the moon. You get my drift. First race, brazen new concept gets a lot of slack from me. The sound issues are probably fixable and the last thing you want to do is say the pocket protector squad will never come up with a battery that lasts all race. In fact, the biggest value of Formula E I see is pushing the tech so that commercial electric cars become more viable with longer ranges between charges. The Tesla right now has a range of 250 miles, but it’s currently unaffordable to the vast majority of buyers. Kind of like the first cell phones that cost $1000. As the tech develops, the price comes down, the demand increases, competition increases, that motivates more innovation and … MURICA. I’ll catch the first race on YouTube ASAP and definitely DVR/watch live the next one.

    • Chris Lukens Says:

      P-dog, quick note here. The Tesla has a 250 mile range as a HYBRID. On batteries it goes about 60 miles, just like every other EV in the world.

      But you are right, if battery technology takes off this could be a very viable series and a good place to showcase the technology. Considering that the physics and electrical properties of batteries are rather well understood, I don’t see that happening soon, although I won’t say never.

      And something I read elsewhere, maybe someone else can confirm or deny. The batteries used in F1 KERS are only good for a single race and then must be replaced.

      And Dragon Racing in Formula E. I hope Jay Penske doesn’t pee on the batteries.

  8. Overall I enjoyed Formula E more than most of you would suspect, considering it is underpowered international street racing. If only there were some American drivers, or at least the three drivers I like (Senna, Legge, Servia) were a bit more competitive. There was some passing, and the near last lap pass from Hiedfield is a good sign.

    The cars are really slow, and they sound like go-karts. I would hate for F1/Indycar/NASCAR/MotoGP/Le Mans to sound like that, but for a stand alone winter series (A1GP 2.0) it is fine. While I am someone who believes in climate change and believes that we need to do something about it my least favorite thing about Formula E is how self-righteous and obsessive they (and some of their supporters) get about the whole green movement. Not allowing any support series (or allowing Formula E to support others RE: Long Beach) because they’re not 0 emission is dumb. The constant screaming of electric racing being the “Future” and better than NASCAR/Indycar/F1/Le Mans is getting old, fast. Maybe the ideology plays better in Europe, but even as someone who believes in the need for action on climate change I find the rhetoric around Formula E a fairly big turn off.

    But I like Formula E not as a competitor to Indycar/F1, but as something to do during the off season. If it could get some real F1 drivers and some more Indycar drivers, maybe some more rotating seats (Kyle Busch? Kurt Busch?) we could have a fun winter series. My main concern is the potential of FE might get squandered in the pursuit of “being green”

  9. The track was dreadful, the TV production was awful, the race was only 25 laps, they had to change cars like a Moto GP Race with rain, and the sound could be better. But it was just the start.

    The first Indy 500 would have been hard to watch by today’s standards. Technology will develop and the show will get better. There will be a time when there will be no gasoline in gasoline alley. It may be electric, it may be hydrogen, or something else, but the day of gasoline engines will come to an end (I doubt we are alive then).

    Does it not amaze anyone they can get a car that is powered by a battery to go 165MPH? That is incredible. The car actually looks cool. The clowns at Toyota should pay attention. The Prius is the ugliest car on the road today. Formula e is a great thing for the electric auto industry and I would expect their money (and government money?) to go in that direction.

    A+ start

  10. Well, yeah, they did sound kind of like my leaf blower. But I am just happy to see folks racin’ stuff. I would watch it to avoid most yardwork and household chores.

  11. Formula E needs twice as much power, current cars look boring to race. To compensate the lack of range, they should use a rallycross-style (or short oval-style) weekend format, with several 6-8 lap races.

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