If you’re worried that electric cars will ruin racing, let me kill that thought once and for all. I got the rare chance to do something usually reserved for ex-Formula One and Le Mans drivers: drive a Formula E car. I stepped out of the car laughing like a madwoman because it was that much fun to drive.
If the race in New York this weekend is half as fun as the cars are, America is in for a good show.
[Full disclosure: Formula E wanted to let us experience a race weekend so bad ahead of the New York City ePrix on July 15-16 that they flew me to Mexico City for the Mexico City ePrix. The series paid for travel, lodging and food, and let us drive their demonstration car after the race. We even went to see luchadores, where I got to see a dude get tossed through the air. Mexico City is rad.]
Driving a top-level race car from any discipline isn’t an opportunity anyone should ever reject, but I won’t pretend like I wasn’t nervous. I was extremely nervous, because I didn’t want to be That Person who accidentally borks a demo car. Worse yet, I had the earliest flight home, so I would be going first.
But Formula E has put itself out there as the world’s top all-electric series, and I’d hate myself forever if I weenied out of driving their car. We were at the same track they used for the Mexico City ePrix, which was a short course that uses part of Mexico City’s Autodrómo Hermanos Rodríguez Formula One circuit.
Formula E usually races on street courses in order to bring races closer in to potential fans, and even this trip to an unusually centrally-located race track felt a lot like one of their street courses. The walls were close—particularly on the series’ shortcuts through what usually makes up the infield of the track—and I didn’t want to hit them.
The tires, too, are a harder Michelin treaded tire that looks a lot like a regular road car tire, with one 18-inch all-weather tire for all uses. It’s meant to last both to keep costs down and maintain maximum road-relevance, which also means that Formula E’s tires have considerably less grip than most dry-weather racing tires do. This makes for some fantastic racing, but I didn’t want slide into a barrier, either.
Worse yet, the safety briefing on what to do if you do crashed was a little terrifying. A green light on the nose of the car lets you know if everything is fine. If it was red, there could be trouble.
However, because of the electrocution risk, you can’t just step out of the car regardless of whether that green light is on or not. You have to get up on the nose (or some other sturdy piece of what’s left of your car) and make a clean jump off so that your body doesn’t connect a potentially live race car with the ground and electrocute you, a big human electrical ground, in the process. Trip and you’re doomed, so don’t crash.
After a few recon laps in the BMW i8s they had on hand, the two drivers they had on-hand for instruction deemed me responsible enough to handle the series’ pride and joy: a Formula E test car with the series’ original five-speed gearbox, which was being supported by members of the MS Amlin Andretti Formula E crew for the day.
If you’ve never driven a single-seater race car, merely sitting down in the Formula E car can feel like a completely foreign experience. You lean way back in the car, more like you’re reclining for a nap than you are sitting up to drive a standard road car.
It took most of the padding they had on hand for me to reach the pedals, and then when I went to see if I could reach everything, the brake pedal felt more like a vintage Triumph’s than anything else—far from any kind of state-of-the-art brake-by-wire system you might expect to be in such a future-tech race car.
The Formula E car doesn’t have any hydraulic assistance on its ultra-light carbon racing disc brakes. There are only two foot pedals, and while the throttle pedal is fairly standard, the brake pedal lacks the forgiving pneumatic flooof feeling when you press it that many of us are used to in modern street cars. Braking requires a lot more force than you’d expect. As such, this can be tricky to get used to if (as was my case) the last time you drove a car with a rock-hard manual braking system was several years ago.
But the second you set off, it all makes sense. The low center of gravity you get from being laid back in comfy-mode, the the centrally-located battery block, the simple but effective brake pedal and all the ultra-lightweight kit around it make the car an absolute blast to drive.
My first lap in the car was pretty timid given that I didn’t want to break it like an overenthusiastic moron, and I wanted to get some heat in the wheels and tires before I tried to go faster. When I got back around to the main straight, I mashed down the throttle, quickly rowing through the gears to test the waters on going fast.
This car’s paddle-controlled five-speed gearbox on the car is a dream, clicking up and down gears with near-instantaneous speed. It was extremely user-friendly, too, lacking the additional clutch paddle that many formula cars use to get going—the likes of which can even trip up some of the world’s best drivers. All I had to do to start moving in the Formula E car was yank a paddle into first gear, press the throttle and drive away.
At the end of the straight, which felt much shorter in the wicked fast Formula E racer than it did in the i8s, all of the cautionary words on cold brakes, cold tires and the need to really, really stomp on the pedal rung true. Embarrassingly, I hadn’t braked enough to slow down for the next turn.
I was trying to brake with my left foot like it was a big go-kart, and apparently I was a bit rusty at that! So, I calmly continued my braking in a straight line into the paved run-off area, and turned around to rejoin the track.
On my second lap, I was starting to get more comfortable with the car—muttering and shaking my head no whenever I was too far from a corner, braked too much or took something too slow.
Pretty soon, I had forgotten my nerves entirely, and I really fell in love with this car. It felt well balanced and nimble with the weight of its batteries so centrally located within the car.
The car itself weighs only 1,940 pounds, which was immediately apparent once you put your throttle foot down and started rolling through the gears. They only let us out in shakedown mode—with 110 KW (147 HP) instead of the 200 kW (268 HP) they have available—but it was enough to get the idea without having to pick journalists out of a barrier. Races are usually run with 170 kW, or 228 HP.
Regardless, there is one great truth in life: electric torque is insane, giggle-worthy fun.
That corner at the end of the long straight was now my nemesis. I locked up the brakes on my second time around, but made the corner—going farther in to the turn than I wanted to before making a sharp turn in, but I made it! This car was more forgiving than I expected it to be. When it twitched a little as I locked the brakes up, it was easy to catch and regain control.
My next trip around, I was really on it for the pit straight—and locked up the wheels again (albeit less) at what was now Nemesis Corner. But by now, I was starting to look for spots to carry more speed and having more fun with the car, which I’m sure is why they only trusted our group of journalists with only three flying laps in the car. I honestly didn’t want to give it back.
Finally, on the last time around, it happened: I made the turn after the pit straight without locking up the brakes. It felt like my biggest accomplishment of the year. I hit the pit speed limiter on the way into pit lane and returned the car with a big, satisfied grin on my face.
Hey, future—we’re chill. I’m so ready for electric race cars. Can cars like this be available for normal schmucks now? Because the Formula E car is the most surprisingly fun thing I’ve driven in ages.
There’s a lot of people out there who consider a move into Formula E to be a downgrade, but perhaps the drivers who opt to move over here instead of farting around in a questionable Formula One backmarker have the right idea. The paddock is more open and friendly, the atmosphere is more laid-back and as I found out, even the car is fun. Regulations keep all the cars fairly close in performance such that there’s usually a good battle for the lead, even in seasons like this one where Sébastien Buemi keeps winning a lot.
Formula E’s hilariously torquey car is one of the most fun things I’ve ever driven, and they’re only getting cooler, more powerful and more race-worthy from here as Formula E opens more things up for development. I like where this is going.