Monday, September 8, 2014

I Sing the Formula Electric (Mostly)

It's occurred to me just today that after months and months of hearing about Formula E, the FIA's new electric formula car racing series, we are now just mere days away from the first event. Testing has taken place, the teams have (mostly) named their drivers, and as far as all the pre-event publicity goes, it sounds like things are actually going to go down in Beijing this weekend. As I tend to do with most new things, I haven't jumped onto the bandwagon with both feet (I hardly think this is going to replace F1, as I've seen in some suggest, though I could see the September through June calendar making it a de-facto latter day A1GP during the normal racing offseason months), but I am very, very curious to see how things go.

I've been spurred into writing a little something before the Beijing debut by a columnist that I usually enjoy, Peter M. De Lorenzo, who seems to have eaten a giant bowl of grumpy flakes over the weekend, or possibly a mostly silent electric car ran over his foot recently. Whatever the case, PMD not only isn't bullish about Formula E, he basically seems to be rooting for it to fail all together, which seems awfully mean spirited and unnecessary, if you ask me.

(A word of full disclosure right here: one of the major backers of the Formula E series is Renault, who is providing the powertrain for the Formula E cars, along with most of the technical support for the cars. I work for Nissan, who is a corporate allied partner with Renault. So, yes, while I suppose I probably hope that Formula E succeeding means that Nissan might sell an extra Leaf electric vehicle or two, I've yet to have a single conversation with anybody at my workplace about Formula E. I sort of suspect that 99.9% of the people at my office don't even know that it exists, and don't care about it one way or the other. Believe you me, this is coming from a standpoint of "I like racing" much, much more than a standpoint of "I hope somebody makes money". I'm certain that there are far more effective ways for a company to make money than by supporting/advertising in a burgeoning, mostly unknown racing series. I just like racing.)

A criticism that I've heard, and that PMD somewhat addresses by pointing out the billed "sustainability" of Formula E, is that this is some sort of future "replacement" for Formula 1. Oh, my. Um, no way. First of all, Formula 1 has worked on its own "sustainability" this year by introducing the hybrid-turbocharged-V6 formula for this year (which has been pretty darned effective, in my opinion, producing similar lap times to last year, at about 30-35% less fuel use...this is a whole other topic, though). If F1 is positioning itself for the future, then why would the FIA feel the need to position Formula E to "take over" at some point in the distant future? Secondly, motor/battery technology in this type of application (high power/low weight/semi-reasonable endurance) is basically in its infancy. The cars are going to be a fraction as quick as Formula 1, though to my eyeball, they don't look all THAT slow to me.

No, Formula E is going to be its own thing, not replacing any other existing thing. Really, the argument here is: "something new" or "no new thing"? I'll take the "something new", personally. It gives me something to watch in the off-season. So, what we're getting is a slew of recognizable name drivers (Bruno Senna, Nicolas Prost, Sebastien Buemi, Jarno Trulli, Nick Heidfeld, Stephane Sarrazin, Jaime Alguersuari, Sam Bird, Karun Chandhok, Oriol Servia, Nelson Piquet Jr., Lucas di Grassi, Katherine Legge, Franck Montagny, and others) for teams that many of us have already seen elsewhere (Andretti Autosport and Dragon/Virgin Racing, to name a couple), using cars of a sort that we've never really seen before, using what's more or less new technology. And they're going to be run in the middle of large cities, many of which have never had racing on their streets or even anywhere nearby (Beijing, Buenos Aires, Berlin and London, to name a few, though I suppose F1 did run near Buenos Aires years and years ago). Putting racing in these locales near large concentrations of people who have never had first-person contact with racing has the potential to not just attract new fans to Formula E, but new fans to all of motorsport. Can somebody outline for me how exactly THAT is a bad thing?

Are there downsides here? Of course. The battery capacities are not to the point where they can run a full race distance, so each driver will have to hop out of their car and hop into a totally different car around halfway. That's admittedly pretty dorky, and I do hope that the technology improves over the course of the coming seasons in order to eliminate this. And for reasons I can't quite make out, the FIA has decided to introduce the ludicrous "Fan Boost", where people can log into the Formula E website and vote for their favorite driver, who will then get a Mario Kart-esque five second boost of roughly 40 HP. That is ridiculously gimmicky, but at least a five second boost is probably only good for one pass, so the effect should be fairly small.

In the end, what we're getting here is this: a different kind of racing with some very capable drivers, in some different areas where we've never seen racing, using some technology that we've never really seen in race cars before. It's not going to replace F1 or NASCAR or anything else. It's something extra to follow, and maybe even attend, should you feel the urge (though unless you live in or near one of the site cities, I can't really imagine justifying a special trip for a one-day event). If you're half the racing junkie that I am, it's probably worth a look. It's going to be on Fox Sports 1, starting early this Saturday morning (with color commentary from retired IndyCar legend, Dario Franchitti!) at 3:30 AM Eastern, so you may want set your DVR. Will it be a great show or a fiascotastrophe? It's anybody's guess, at this point, but I'll be watching to find out.

No comments: