Formula E in Brooklyn: A Baby Step for Electric Racing, Just Before the Sprint
The cars are getting faster, and whether or not spectators care, manufacturers are going all in.
Formula E racing marked the end of an era in Brooklyn this past weekend, and the beginning of another. We still have no idea what it all means. But really, can't we just enjoy the ride? Too often, electrified Formula E has been the capsule version of every Tesla vs. Big Auto/Big Oil argument that wastes time and breaks the Internet. Observers are encouraged, if not required, to choose sides, and extreme ones at that. The pro side: Electric racing will hasten both technical development and mass consumer acceptance of showroom EVs. It will revolutionize and save the sport of racing, capturing new generations of tech-savvy fans. The con side: Electric racing is a novelty at best, a near-silent echo of a once-grand sport that’s in precipitous decline. For manufacturers, it's environmental greenwashing and diversionary marketing, driven by regulatory and commercial threat: Much easier and cheaper to slap your logo on a spec racer—one you had no hand in actually designing—and shoot a few self-congratulating ads around the races, rather than to build factories and fill showrooms with mass-produced EV’s.
As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle, as Bobby Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing suggested at a Brooklyn bowling alley prior to the Qatar Airways New York City E-Prix. The doubleheader finale of the series’ fourth season saw Jean-Eric Vergne, the former Formula One driver, charge to the driver’s championship. And since I live just a few blocks from the waterfront street circuit, in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, I had a local’s perspective on the race’s second appearance in New York. And what was Rahal, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner—one as a driver, one as owner—doing in Brooklyn, with talented British racer Katherine Legge in tow? Promoting his two-car entry into the new Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy series, with Legge as lead driver. Those Jaguar I-Pace crossovers will attempt something that Tesla clearly isn’t equipped to handle, at least not without crushing public embarrassment: Racing of production-based EVs, as an undercard support series at Formula E events. Beginning with season five in Saudi Arabia in December.
“This car blows Tesla out of the water,” in terms of performance and racing fitness, Rahal says of the electric Jaguars that his team will begin testing at Silverstone in the fall. As for racing, “Is electric going to replace everything? No, but there’s a huge place for it. Gas and alcohol-powered racing isn’t going away, at least not in our lifetimes. But it’s only a matter of time before (electricity) becomes our main mode of transport. So it's an addition to the palette of racing."
Those Jaguar support races, in familiar-looking cars, may give people—including EV fans who might be interested in a showroom I-Pace—another reason to give Formula E a look. Those spectators should see an improved brand of racing beginning this winter. The new-era, second-generation Formula E car brings decisively more speed and stamina. The Spark-chassis racer certainly looks the radical part, including the FIA’s head-protecting cockpit halo, wrapped in LEDs that could display remaining battery charge or other data for fans. The new car’s electric motor will spool up 25 percent more power—a peak of 250 kW, or the equivalent of 335 horsepower. That’s for qualifying, with cars limited to 200 kW during races, up from 180 kW now. After testing, some drivers said the Gen 2 feels roughly as quick as a Formula 3 internal-combustion racer, at least on the straights, and that sounds about right. Those F3 cars have only about 240 horsepower from naturally aspirated four-cylinder engines, but they still crank from 0-60 mph in about three seconds flat, and top out around 160 mph. When ABB FIA Formula E unveiled the redesigned racer in Geneva, it cited a 0-60 sprint in 2.7 seconds. Its top speed officially rises from 140 mph to 174 mph, though Audi driver Lucas di Grassi has said the racer appears capable of breaking the 300 kph barrier, or 186 mph. No, that's not the 220-plus mph of F1 or Indy cars, but plenty fast for thrilling open-wheel racing. Give Formula E another 10 years, with some of the world's best auto and battery engineers working the problem, and they'll be topping 200 mph without a sweat.
On this Brooklyn weekend, the competition was already better than last year’s, filled with ballsy passes, door-to-door action and one wrecked car on the wall. On Saturday, Vergne and his Techeetah teammate—merely the three-time 24 Hours of LeMans winner Andre Lotterer— were forced to start from 18th and 19th position for violating the maximum energy limit of 200 kW and being barred from qualifying. Yet Vergne snaked his way through the field, despite the insanely tight circuit, to finish fifth and secure the driver’s title. Saturday’s race winner, Audi Sport’s Lucas di Grassi, also pulled off several daring passes that had spectators cheering. Those included a perhaps ill-advised pass of his teammate Daniel Abt that had their Audi team manager pounding the pit wall in agitation. But no harm, no foul: With their strong performances (including a 1-2 finish on Saturday), di Grassi, last year’s champion, and Abt helped Audi Sport steal the constructor’s title by just two points over Techeetah.
On Brooklyn's 1.5-mile temporary circuit — built on the grimy bones of Pier 11 and its cruise ship terminal — Vergne’s average lap speed was still a paltry 62.6 mph. (I've hit higher speeds on these Brooklyn piers). Drivers and fans alike should welcome the faster Gen 2 car, but they might also welcome a New York course with longer straights and more room to maneuver. Just as critical is the all-new battery from McLaren Applied Technologies, the technical arm of McLaren's storied F1 team. The larger, 54-kW battery (nearly doubled from 28 kW) will allow drivers to complete races without having to hop and swap into a second, fully juiced car around the halfway point. A brake-by-wire system will automate the balance between mechanical front stoppers and regenerative rear brakes, making teams' software management even more critical to the competition. Currently, as the race proceeds and the cars gain regenerative braking power through their electrically driven rear axles (because dwindling batteries now have more room to stuff in electrons), the pilots have to tweak a brake-bias switch to maximize stopping power and avoid perilous lockups. But FE cars will definitely be keeping a literally cool feature, as I saw during my pre-race grid walk: The various dry ice contraptions that circulate cold air around the cars’ batteries to boost charging efficiency and avoid overheating.
Formula E Observations: What's working. What needs improving, or debunking
— I attended Nissan's display of its new-gen Formula-E racer, which the company showed it alongside its Leaf—still history’s best-selling EV—while striving like mad to link its inaugural series entry with its ambitious goals for showroom EV's. It's becoming clear that Formula E attendance is becoming a must for image-polishing manufacturers, who are scared to death of losing EV ground to rivals, even if that's public perception and not reality. Nissan and BMW are onboard for season five, joining the pioneering likes of Jaguar and Audi. With the eagerly awaited arrival of Porsche and Mercedes-Benz in season six, the level of competition, and green chest-thumping, is sure to jump again.
— Brooklyn’s waterfront Red Hook neighborhood was chosen in part for its spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty, after a potential Central Park race location fell through. (That would have required chopping down some mature trees). It’s not New York’s most accessible nabe in terms of public transit—the nearest subway stop from the track is more than a half-mile away—but it’s still a hell of a lot easier to get to, than, say, Lime Rock, Watkins Glen or other tracks hours outside of the city. That’s part of the FE strategy, to stage street races in densely populated urban settings, including Hong Kong, Rome, Berlin and Mexico City, free of politics and pushback over gasoline racing's noise and air pollution. Still, grandstand attendance here was distressingly sparse. Organizers claimed last year's race weekend drew 20,000 fans, and there's no way that this year's came close. Some of my Red Hook neighbors still had no idea what Formula E is, or that an auto race was taking place just down the road. (Traditional, shrieking gasoline-powered cars would have taken care of that). Free street parking was readily available, including on my own block, if people had just known where to look—a shorter hike than most any Nascar or IndyCar parking lot. Now, in a New York whose residents largely clear out on summer weekends, bound for the Hamptons or Catskills, even the hottest restaurants and other attractions can have trouble filling seats. (Making it the best time to nab a reservation at said restaurants). Still, the spotty attendance doesn’t say much for Formula E marketing; or worse, that the hoped-for cross-section of traditional race fans, tech geeks and enviro-conscious types isn’t materializing. But hey, no one in America used to give a damn about soccer, either.
— If general-admission fans were lacking, connected types were well represented. Every racing series—yes, even populist NASCAR—is two forms of racing in one. The second is all about manufacturers, sponsors and customers; selling, schmoozing and suites. Here, FE organizers fared better, converting the mangy Brooklyn Cruise Terminal into a red-carpet-entrance club with comfy furniture, champagne bars and buffets, widescreen broadcasts of the race, tables overlooking New York Harbor, and even our proudest neighborhood cuisine, including New York's best lobster roll (from Red Hook Lobster Pound).
—Yes, the new, faster FE cars will be welcome. But relative speed, not ultimate speed, is still the surest measure of racing excitement. Especially on television or a webstream, it’s almost impossible to tell whether a car is going 90 mph, 120 mph, or 180 mph at a given moment. What you want to see is close, thrilling, danger-tempting competition. You want to see cars passing, being passed, getting ensnared in incidents, or the chess-match strategies on track and in the pits. There's no reason electric cars can't do all that, with an added bonus of groundbreaking tech. I’d pay to watch Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel duke it out in electrified karts, or the silly vintage British family cars that blast around Goodwood every year, and I imagine others would as well. As Rahal said of electric racing, “It's different, let's face it. But it’s still competition."
—About that sound, or lack thereof: Sure, we all miss the 18,000-rpm shriek of a vintage F1 engine, but current F1 already misses that. The FE cars sound interesting in their own weird way, a fast-moving army of Dyson vacuum cleaners. When their regen brakes kick in, they sound like Dysons that just sucked up a giant hairball. And you hear things you’ve never heard before on IC racers, whose bumptious engines drown out anything else: Tires squealing or breaking loose, suspensions loading and unloading. The idea that racing can never be fun and exciting without fossil-fueled noise and potential hearing loss is ridiculous and reactionary, anyway. Does Usain Bolt need to fart and scream when he flies down a track to assure you he's moving fast?
—Katherine Legge, now confirmed as the first driver in the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy series, has driven everything from IndyCar and Formula racers to sports cars. I ask her if she's every raced anything as heavy as the electric I-Pace, and she politely mentions Deutsche touring cars. (The Jag will definitely be heavier, but good answer). Anyway, Legge approves of innovation in racing, electric or otherwise.
“I'm all for ‘different’; I drove the DeltaWing, after all,” she reminds me at Brooklyn Bowl. “I’ve been pestering Bobby for years for a ride. I think we can win with RLL (Rahal Letterman Lanigan), and I’ll get to show what I’m made of.” Legge may even get to show her mother, the one electric advantage that I'm pretty sure no one has considered.
“My mum always says racing is noisy, smelly and dirty. So now she may be more inclined to come,” Legge says with a laugh.