Formula E racing is in infancy but will drive broader innovation

A winner has been crowned in the world's first Formula E electric car racing series, which took place in Beijing Saturday, but as Andrew Lee reports from the Chinese capital, the true winners may be consumers, who will benefit from the innovation the new breed of efficient race cars spurs.

World's 1st electric racing series held Saturday in Beijing

Debut of Formula E race

8 years ago
Duration 3:02
CBC's Andrew Lee is in Beijing for the inaugural event of Formula E, the first electric race car series

I grew up on Latimer Road, an isolated street, with small farms and a couple of sandpits on it in Surrey, B.C. People would joke that there was nothing around there, and they were mostly right. 

Yet, in the midnight hour, it was a gathering place. I remember the sounds of engines waking me up as a child as dozens of muscle cars rumbled past, on their way to or from the illegal drag races held at the end of the street.

As I grew older, it was important to be able to hold a conversation about the noise an engine would make. You learned an audio vocabulary that included words like "glass packs," "cams," "headers," "open headers" and "blowers." 

And soon, you were able to tell who was rolling down the street before you could even see them. My friend Shawn Heppel’s Mach 1 Mustang’s bored-out 460 engine would make a distinctive sound that became almost a signature.

Flash forward to present day, and I find myself in a sea of white tents, the temporary garages for teams in the FIA Formula E Championship — an open-wheeled, electric car race held on a street track in Beijing this Saturday that organizers say is the world's first fully electric racing series.

I can't help but wonder what the cars will sound like.

When you are in the car after a certain speed, you just hear the wind. You hear everything.- Jaime Alguersuari, Formula E driver- Jaime Alguersuari, Formula E driver

Jaime Alguersuari, a Formula One veteran and driver with the Virgin Formula E team backed by British billionaire Richard Branson, described it best.

"It reminds me of a turbine from a jet plane," he said in an interview with CBC News. "When you are in the car after a certain speed, you just hear the wind. You hear everything, the suspension movement, the floors when you are touching a curb, you hear tires, all sorts of stuff where in other racing series you just hear the engine."

Batteries don't last whole race

As the race begins, the high-pitched whine is evident, as is the speed of the cars. Yet there are quirks, like the batteries can only last half the race so all the drivers have two cars and swap midway through the race — which lasts only one hour.

A total of 10 teams took part in Saturday's FIA Formula E Championship, which organizers said was the world's first fully electric racing series. Each team had two cars and two drivers, with drivers having to switch cars mid-way through the race because of the short life of the electric vehicles' batteries. (Barry Huang/Reuters)

"I think Formual E is a baby that is just born," says Alguersuari. "For the first year, all the cars are identical. After Year One, teams will be trying different things to push their cars further and faster."

Michael Andretti, a former race car driver who now has a Formula E team in Beijing, says it is from competition that innovation will emerge.

"Right now, we are going to be going about 25 to 30 minutes with the battery at 130 to 140 miles and hour. Five years from now, we'll probably be going 200 miles an hour with a battery that is half the weight that goes two or three times farther. That is what competition does."

He says these innovations will ultimately trickle down to the vehicles ordinary consumers drive.

E-race cars win on efficiency

Sylvain Filippi, Virgin’s head technology officer and an electric car race pioneer, says the only thing holding back Formula E cars from being as fast as their Formula One cousins (the two race series are linked) is the power supply. 

Jaime Alguersuari, a veteran of the Formula One racing circuit, raced for the Virgin team owned by British billionaire Richard Branson. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio also co-owns a team. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

"It's really easy to make an electric single-seater go really fast. The challenge is to have more energy density in the battery," he said. "The more energy in the battery, the faster you can go."

Currently, the battery weighs 300 kg. It is so heavy that it must be bolted directly onto the chassis. 

The engine is a mere 25 kilograms, but it kicks out 200 kilowatts of energy, which is equivalent to roughly 270 horsepower — an incredible weight-to-power ratio.

"That's the beauty of electric cars: the motors are really, really efficient," Filippi said.

He argues that even with electric cars using energy created from coal-fired power plants, it is still a much cleaner option than internal combustion engines. It comes down to efficiency, Filippi says. 

"First, an electric car is between 90 and 95 per cent efficient for 100 units of energy you put in the car, when an internal combustion car would average 25 to 30 per cent efficiency," he said.

"What is exciting in the future [is that] we will be able to replace coal with renewable energy. Then, it becomes a no-brainer."

Electric racing are much more efficient than Formula One vehicles and will only get more so as the world moves toward renewable energy source and improves battery life. (Barry Huang/Reuters)

Filippi tells me he has his eyes on a new, more powerful engine for next year. As he passionately explains the ins and outs of the car's battery design, the inverter and the logistics of how they sit on the chassis, I feel like a teenager again, struggling to learn a new language the cool kids are already fluent in. (One of those cool kids is Hollywood actor and celebrity environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, who backed the Monaco-based Venturi team in Saturday's race.)

A language future hot rodders might be speaking as they talk about the energy capacity of the latest batteries they can jam under the hood of their e-cars.   

The winner of Saturday's Formula E race, which had 10 teams competing, was Lucas di Grassi of the Audi Sport ADT team. Di Grassi avoided a dramatic crash that took out Nicolas Prost and Nick Heidfeld of the e.dams Renault team in the last corner as they battled for the lead.

In the big picture, however, the true winner might be the innovation this series spawns.


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