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28 November 2013

Formula E: is it the real deal?

The FIA's all-electric race series is nearly here, but should you care? UPDATE: added footage of the Formula E car in action

Jason Barlow
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Time was when a new motorsport series would announce itself in a blaze of fireworks, tyre smoke and more than likely some scantily clad ladies. Formula E launched with a stirring, statistic-laden address from a pair of financial analysts. Eh?

Don't panic. It should still be fun. Formula E, as you probably know, is the all-new all-electric single-seater series, due for lift-off in Beijing next September, with races after that on street circuits around Hong Kong, LA, Buenos Aires, Miami, and London, amongst others. Ten teams - including Mahindra Racing, the eighth firm to enter the fray - will field four cars each, shared between two drivers.

The car itself is called the Spark-Renault SRT_01E (pictured above), and is a game attempt to create a full-blown hi-tech single-seater, that just happens to use an electric motor and batteries to power it. Top speed is limited to around 240kph, and 0-100kph takes three seconds.

The partners involved are all highly credible: Dallara has engineered the carbon/aluminium chassis, the powertrain and transmission is supplied by McLaren's electronics division, the 200kWH batteries are from Williams F1, and the sequential gearbox is from Hewland. Renault is tasked with integrating the whole lot, and the tyres - treaded all-weather jobs, on unusually large 18in rims, with a much broader temperature operating range - have been specially developed by Michelin. Tag Heuer is one of the key sponsors, along with wireless tech company Qualcomm. None of these organisations is likely to waste time on a footling motor race series.

The impetus for Formula E came from the FIA, motorsport's governing body, whose President Jean Todt has been banging on about it for years to anyone who'll listen. But the man who's really made it happen is Spaniard Alejandro Agag, a former politician turned entrepreneur who was a prime mover in securing the television rights for Formula One in Spain, helped broker Santander's sponsorship of Scuderia Ferrari, and was until just last week owner of GP2 squad Barwa Addax, series champions in 2008 and runners-up in 2009.

Oh, he also bought QPR along with Flavio Briatore, Bernie Ecclestone and steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal in 2007. Fair to say he's well-connected. Agag insists that Formula E is not out to steal F1's lunch, and will actually complement the sport's big guns.

"We love F1," he says, "but I remember a few years ago talking to a major potential sponsor who wanted into F1, who realised it was an amazing platform, but whose board demanded that wherever they went it had to be sustainable. That's when I thought, ‘we have a problem here'."

Bernie Ecclestone, of course, remains sceptical about electric racing cars, primarily because they're just not as visceral as even 2014's slightly emasculated and newly fuel-efficient crop of F1 cars. Agag smiles.

"Bernie is the master!" he says. "I like to think that if he was doing Formula E, he'd do it the way we are. I know he's sceptical, and I know we have challenges. Battery management will be a big issue, and noise is also an issue. But I believe that the electric angle and the fact that we are racing in cities is an irresistible USP."

Agag also knows that any new race series lives or dies on the quality of its racing, irrespective of the motive power or venue.

"Listen, I am convinced the racing will be great," he says. "Why? Because the cars are on hard tyres, the same rubber whatever the weather. And the circuits will be slippery, because they're streets that won't have had time to ‘rubber' up. There will be lots of opportunities for overtaking, for late braking, and it'll be action-packed. Plus, the drivers will switch from one car to another, once the first one has run out of charge. I know it's controversial, but TV really loves that element."

Six of the 10 teams have already been announced - including Alain Prost's ‘e-dams' outfit and the return of Super Aguri - with four more due to be confirmed shortly. Agag says that another 25 have tried to sign up, and both a major car maker and a Hollywood superstar are among the names to be confirmed.

For year one, the cars will be identical, with room for technical development after that. Team personnel is limited to just 12 people, and a season's racing should cost no more than approximately Rs 30 crore. Not cheap, but a tiny fraction of F1's bill.

Formula E's test driver, 2008 GP2 winner and ex-Virgin F1 driver Lucas di Grassi, is due to run the car for the first time this week. He reckons that the series is actually a mix of single-seater circuit racing and WRC, and could eventually attract drivers from all motorsport disciplines. It sounds like a certain amount of driver improvisation might be needed.

"I'm excited by the prospect, not because of the car's performance, but because it's a new challenge. That's what motivates racing drivers, the challenge of winning in something new. It's why we do things like the Race of Champions, or karting events. We want to win. I think you'll see top-line drivers doing this series alongside other racing championships, and the calendar lends itself to that. On those tyres, around street circuits, the cars should really slide, too.

"Maybe I'm too politically correct," he adds, "but it will be nice to give something back."

Which is where the analysts' graphs come in. Agag and his partners reckon Formula E will pull in the next generation of race fans, and help push electric cars past the tipping point they're currently poised at.

"It's about perception," he says. "We can help change that, racing zero emission single-seaters in cities, and bringing governments, utilities companies, and universities together to help promote electric cars. These things can't just be an alternative, they need to be better than internal combustion cars. I want Formula E to accelerate innovation."

It's bold stuff. Not just motor racing, and not just entertainment, but a genuine agent of social change. What on earth would Bernie make of that?

There's some footage of the SRT_01E doing its first test runs around a French circuit in the hands of Lucas Di Grassi, and you can watch it below...

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