The formula for Formula racing hasn't really evolved. F1 continues to be a 200-MPH soap opera and only die-hards pay attention to the feeder series below it. Formula E offers something different. It's close-quarter racing brimming with cutting-edge technology that, for the first time in decades, is not only approachable, but could be applicable to the future of performance. And after tossing a Formula E car around the track, I'm actually excited about an open-wheel spec series. I tasted the future and, for once, the future delivers.
[Full Disclosure: Formula E and the chipmaker Qualcomm, one of the race's sponsors, wanted me to drive its electric race car so badly they flew me to Miami, put me up in a hotel decorated in what's best described as "cocaine chic", and gave me a race suit so I wouldn't be extra crispy if the unthinkable happened. The extra crispy calamari, however, was delicious.]
I should point out two things about the Formula E car I piloted: First, it was chassis number 2, one short of a museum piece, and second, it was set up for the handful of journalists driving it, including one that had no prior track experience. Yes, none.
Because of the assorted "skills" of the assembled keyboard jockeys like myself, the suspension was tuned to be as pliant as possible, the electric motor's output – normally capped at 150 kW during the race or 200 kW for qualifying – was initially turned down to 120 kW, and unlike the race taking place on the streets of Miami tomorrow, we were driving around the infield circuit at the Homestead Speedway.
However, none of these caveats dampened what turned out to be among my top life-affirming driving experiences. Not just because of the speed and the grip and the sound – yes, the sound – but because it felt like I was driving the future. And the future felt accessible.
That may be overstating it, but there's something interesting going on here, and not just because of Formula E's electric drivetrain and perceived (justifiably or not) green cred.
Unencumbered by a stodgy legacy (Formula Un) and conventional motorsport fans (NASCAR), the FIA is trying something new. Actually, lots of things.
Beyond the powertrain, there's the strict street circuit format with 11 races scattered across nearly every continent; testing, qualifying, and racing happens all on the same day, allowing the curious and newly-devoted to make it a relatively inexpensive, easy weekend trip; and of course, there's the Fan Boost feature, where drivers get an extra few seconds of power if they get enough fans to rally over social media during the race. That last part is gimmicky at best, and patronizing and unsportsmanlike at worst, but because Formula E can experiment, it can try whatever it wants to get the coveted younger demographic engaged. And to focus on that one aspect – as some have done – is to sell the series short, particularly the tack it's taking with its cars.
This being the first season, the open-wheeled racers are all the same, with everyone running the Spark-Renault SRT_01E car. The chassis is developed by Dallara, the battery is from Williams, the five-speed gearbox is supplied by Hewland, and the electric motor is from McLaren – the same unit used on the P1.
Starting out as essentially a spec series is important. If the FIA would've gone the way of, say, F1, teams would have to drop tens or hundreds of millions on chassis development and battery tech. Only a few could compete and the series would die as quickly as it started.
Instead, Formula E isn't allowing any modifications to the car this year, but for the next season, teams can start playing with the motor, inverter, controllers, and gearbox. In its third year, they can finally toy with the battery. That's when it's going to get really interesting and, more importantly, where the innovations on the track could actually become applicable to the street.
But that's the future. Let's talk about the present.
The car I'm driving is exactly like the 40 others being used by the 10 teams and each of their two drivers. As a reminder, each driver has two cars for the hour-long race. They run the first one for about 30 minutes, and when the 38 kWh battery is dry, they swap into another juiced-up car for the second stint. They could be more creative with that aspect, but battery swapping isn't in the cards (yet) and my suggestion of a 100-meter, Le Mans-style sprint to the second car was met with unblinking stares that inferred, as my British hosts might say, "you're a pillocking nob."
With a variety of driving "talent" at Homestead, we're treated with kid gloves. I'm suited up, helmet-and-all, and sent out on a few reconnaissance laps of the track. In the medical car. A BMW i3.
To my right is one Nelson Piquet Jr., no suit and no helmet. I head out of the pits to acclimate to the track. We chat while he checks his email. "What do you like about Formula E?" I ask. "The challenge," is his only reply. Fair enough.
I'd driven the Homestead road course before and it's actually a perfectly suitable circuit to test out a Formula E car. They only top out at 140 MPH, so the two-mile track, with it's 14 turns and few straightaways, puts an emphasis on cornering speed and tight lines. After a few laps in the i3, I head back so I can get some time in the safety car.
You know what's better than a BMW i8? A BMW i8 with the interior stripped out and a roll cage. But there's one other notable modification: both it and the i3 are fitted with wireless charging.
This isn't a some tech-for-tech's sake schtick, it's a safety consideration. You don't want an electric safety or medical car peeling out of the pits with the charging cable still attached. Instead, both cars park over a mat and get their batteries topped up through inductive charging. It seems to work, but by the time I slip into the i8 after a few other drivers, the batteries are already flat. Oh well.
My handler this time around is Bruno Correia, hired hotshoe and safety car driver for both Formula E and the WTCC. We head out of the pits with the 1.5-liter three-cylinder crackling behind us and halfway through the first lap, he pulls out his phone. He's not checking email, he's taking a selfie. I like this guy.
By the end of the first lap he turns to me and asks in a thick accent, "I would like to turn off the traction control, ok?" I like this guy even more.
Both drivers are apparently happy with my performance, so soon I find myself slithering into the cockpit of the SRT_01E. They ask if I'm comfortable. The driving position is spot-on. They ask if I'm used to wearing a helmet. I tell them I ride a motorcycle. Apparently claustrophobia is a very real thing for newbies in single-seat racers, and when the foam bar surrounding the cabin is clicked into place I understand why. Things are tight, but not uncomfortable.
Spark engineer Pierre Prunin gives me another run-down on the steering wheel controls. The white button engages neutral, the blue button turns the pit speed limiter on and off. Check. The car has a five-speed gearbox, but I'm told to only play with four using the carbon fiber paddles. Also, don't touch the other two paddles. One's for Fan Boost and the other engages more braking regeneration, reserved for recouping juice during the race. Fine.
All systems are Go. I engage first and roll out of the pits. The whine from the electric motor is less deafening than I expected, but it still sounds like an audio prop from Star Wars. Diehard racing fans might prefer the maniacal roar of an unmuffled V10. I fully understand, but don't care. This thing just sounds fucking rad.
By the time I make it to pit exit, my gloved finger is fumbling for the blue button to disengage the speed limiter. When I find it, the shriek from behind pierces through my helmet, the speed piles on, and I start cackling like an eight-year-old stuffed with sugar and caffeine.
Even with the motor dialed back to 120 kW (160 HP), the instantaneous thrust of the electric motor shoves the 1,900-pound racer through turns four and five with ferocity and confidence. The 700-pound battery is a structural member, and with it and the motor mounted inches from the ground, the grip is otherworldly. By the time I'm on my second lap, with some heat in the brakes and the Michelin rubber (essentially street tires you'd find on a supercar), I finally keep it flat through turn seven, a sweeping right-hander that leads to a short straight, followed by some hard braking, and onto the back of stretch.
It's at this point that I realize I desperately want more power.
One more lap and I come into the pits. Prunin comes over, twists a knob on the multi-function wheel, and says, "Ok, now you've got the 150 (kW)." That's what they use for the race. I am pleased.
The bump from 160 to 200 HP makes itself known, not so much on the straightaways where torque bleeds off, but when I keep it pegged through turn seven again. I hesitate for a fraction of a second, knowing that if I stuff it I'll ruin my both colleague's day and my host's week, and possibly have to remember the very specific exiting protocol (jump out to avoid possible, if improbable, electrocution). But there's trust now, and my planted right foot is reward with neck-punishing grip.
When I make it back into the pits, it takes a moment for the adrenaline to wear off. But it wasn't the same. Unlike past track experiences, there wasn't that unhinged sense of skirting the limit of my capabilities. It wasn't a white-knuckled brawl to match grip with speed or intestinal fortitude with self-preservation. It wasn't nuts. It was just… fun. And I'm not sure how I feel about that.
Formula cars haven't really changed much in the past several decades. They're still open-wheeled, with the driver posted ahead of a mid-mounted engine sending power to the rear wheels. To make them work, you've got to be in full-on, butt-puckering attack mode, with hot brakes, sticky tires, and enough speed for the aero to shove it into the ground. I drove a Formula 2000 car once and thought I'd die. Driving this all-electric variant wasn't like that at all, and that might be a problem, at least for now.
The fact the organizers saw fit to put a bunch of rookies into a race car and expected everything to be okay speaks for itself, particularly given the lack of electronic aids to save us from our own hamfists.
However, add 19 other racers to the mix on a tight, confined street circuit, all with the same chassis and power, and you've got the makings of a spectacle. That's what Formula E needs to be to survive, and based on both the season opener and the last round in Buenos Aires, the ingredients are there. But is it enough to survive?
Motorsport heavy-hitters like Andretti, Audi, and Renault – just to name a few – don't waste their time or resources on complete flights of fancy. They're not just in it for the racing or some kind of greenwashing, but for the chance of bringing the lessons learned – particularly on the battery side – to the street. Combine that with a recent (and sizable) round of investment earlier this week from Liberty Global and Discovery, and Formula E's CEO Alejandro Agag assures me that the series will survive "at least five, maybe ten years" into the future.
I hope he's right, because there is something here; something worth paying attention to. It may be experimentally flawed and not fully formed, but that's what makes it intriguing – the potential, the accessibility, the chance to watch something completely new grow and mature. And when the time comes, maybe just a bit more juice and a bit more excitement could push the electric game forward. That's where it needs – no, deserves – to be. I'm more hopeful than before, but still skeptical. And a little extra nuttiness would help.
Photos: Formula E, Damon Lavrinc