09.12.2015

Cool carnage: what happens when petrolheads go green

WE GOT POWER |

WE GOT POWER - MASTER BADGE

On the threshold of the silent vroom – welcome to the joys of electric motorsports and robotic racing.

 
They race against each other in cars that go from nought to a hundred in just three seconds. They’re some of the world’s best racing drivers, and they hit speeds of up to 225km/h. They power through cool city streets in races sponsored by glitzy brands like Mumm champagne, taking to the podiums afterwards to describe the day’s events as ‘exhilarating carnage’.

You’d be forgiven for thinking we were talking about an opulent Formula 1 grand prix here, but we’re not. This is, in fact, Formula E, the cleaner, greener alternative to the glam motorsport that has captured the imaginations of speed freaks for nearly 100 years. Just like traditional F1, Formula E is all about top speeds, true talent and high tech, but without the petrol. Because each of the championship’s ten teams rely solely on their electric vehicles to snatch pole position.

Las Vegas Car Demo, Jan 2014

A Stake in the future: Formula E Las Vegas Car Demo, Jan 2014

The championship – governed by racing’s top dogs Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) – is still in its infancy, with the second season set to end in July 2016. But it’s already having a massive impact on both motorsports and mainstream vehicle technology in general.

To kick off proceedings last year, all teams were supplied with an identical electric car. Now, however, technical regulations have been changed to allow teams to develop their own vehicles, and the result has been a technological arms race yielding a plethora of awards and recognition. Williams Advanced Engineering, for example, recently won the ‘Most Innovative New Motorsport Product’ award for its electric battery, which was developed from scratch within just 12 months. It’s this kind of innovation that will, as Formula E chief executive Alejandro Agag says, “make possible advances that will filter down to road cars”.

It’s all about top speeds, true talent and high tech – but without the petrol.

Electric car sales are growing fast – in China alone, monthly figures soared from 6,500 units in January to more than 34,000 in October. But they still only account for a tiny percentage of the world’s car market, with limited range often cited as the main barrier to popular uptake. But Formula E engineers are on the case, especially as their own electric race cars currently can’t carry the power needed to complete a whole race, so each team has two. Eliminating this obstacle will give teams an enormous advantage, so it’s simply a case of when – not if – for improved electric vehicle range.

Geneva Street Demo, Mar 2015

On a Swiss roll: Formula E Geneva Street Demo, Mar 2015

There are interesting developments elsewhere in the sport, such as the dystopian-sounding ROBORACE, which will fire up its engines during the 2016-2017 season. A partnership between Formula E and tech group Kinetic, ROBORACE was announced to coincide with the Paris-hosted COP21 global climate talks, and will see races featuring wholly-robotic cars taking place alongside Formula E. They will feature ten teams, all using the same spec race car. The only difference will be in the artificial intelligence software that allows the cars to navigate the track without any input from a human driver.

Founder of Kinetic Denis Sverdlov says he believes ROBORACE represents the coming trends of both motor racing and the motor industry overall. “In the future, all of the world’s vehicles will be assisted by AI and powered by electricity, thus improving the environment and road safety,” he explains and adds: “Anyone who is at the edge of this transformation now has a platform to show the advantages of their driverless solutions and this will push the development of the technology.”

Of course, whether fans will back a championship that revolves solely around technology and programming rather than suave sporting personalities (not to mention the very real danger of track fatalities – come on, crashes do make for exciting viewing) remains to be seen. But there can be little dispute about the value such an initiative will bring to a world ever-focused on efficiency.

Sleek, sexy and powerful designs rolling out of concept factories.

Equally, Formula E hopes to raise the profile and perception of electric transport in general. Most people, after all, are inclined to think of the ugly, boxy G-Wiz when considering electric cars rather than the sleek, sexy and powerful designs rolling out of concept factories as we speak.

With city centre race tracks, spectators can get face to face with the action, enjoying a slice of the glitzy motorsport lifestyle and witnessing the thrills of high speed sport. As Virgin team driver Sam Bird says: “If people don’t say Formula E is exciting, then I think they didn’t watch that race. It was carnage, but cool carnage. It’s a series that people should watch because it’s fantastic racing.”

London Race, Jun 2014

London’s burning: Formula E London Race, Jun 2014

Andretti team driver Robin Frijns agrees. Speaking of his dramatic third place at the recent Putrajaya ePrix, he says: “I felt like I was a rally driver… I went in just a bit too quick and there was a lot of rubber and dirt. I was on it and I saw the wall coming and I said, ‘this is it, it’s over.’ It was quite a big hit and the rear was completely bent… But I’m surprised how strong the Formula E car is.” These are not the words of a man who’s spent an hour pootling around a track in complete safety.

Now, organisers have added extra appeal by making it interactive. The three most popular Formula E drivers – determined by fan votes before each race – get to deploy a ‘fan boost’ of extra electric power, making the championship a “mix between a race and a video game,” according to Mr Agag.

The championship focuses on the core values of energy, environment and entertainment. It’s a fusion of engineering, technology, sport, science and design, all combining to drive the change towards an electric future. Formula E isn’t a simple corporate social responsibility ‘add-on’ for the FIA, it’s a championship in its own right – and one likely to help futureproof the ill-fated gas-guzzling sport loved the world over.

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Sam Bird,Lucas Di Grassi and Robin Frijns on the podium at Putrajaya ePrix, Malaysia, Nov 2015
(Photo: Zak Mauger)

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