The ten Formula E racers bolted from the start with more of a whine than a roar as the deafening sound of engines that have been a hallmark of automobile racing yielded to the quieter future of electric motors. The first Formula E race in New York City, a doubleheader event on July 15 and 16, created a buzz that drew celebrities like film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomie Harris, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas, and Chris Hemsworth; billionaire Sir Richard Branson, who heads up a Virgin Atlantic race entry; and a bevy of models, Brooklynites, and curious petrol heads who turned up to see the action along a street course on the Brooklyn waterfront.
At their loudest, electric racers may remind some of an unruly vacuum cleaner; their noise was nearly drowned out by the crowd, who gasped audibly as cars spun off-track or collided and cheered as one driver passed another for the lead.
While fan numbers may still be short of long established competitions like Formula 1 and NASCAR, Formula E racing, with its emphasis on clean energy and sustainability, is drawing a hip, savvy crowd—and a number of automotive marques. Audi exited the fabled 24 Hours of LeMans, a French endurance race the German car company ruled in recent years, to focus on Formula E. Jaguar and Panasonic partnered to field a team, and BMW says it will enter season five as part of the Andretti Formula E group led by American racing legend Michael Andretti.
Hard-core racing fans also noted the presence of retired four-time Formula 1 champion Alain Prost, on-site to pass the steering wheel to his son Nico, a driver for the Formula E Renault team from France. Luxury brands are taking note as well: Watchmaker Tag-Heuer has been the official timekeeper from the beginning, and champagne vintner G.H.Mumm is a podium regular.
While there are ten drivers, there are 20 cars in the race, with each driver switching to another about halfway through the hour-long spectacle due to the limitations of electric batteries that can quickly drain as drivers hit speeds of up to 140 mph and accelerate from zero to 60 in under three seconds. Race officials think advances in battery tech will eliminate this 47-second pit stop by season five. But because the batteries used by all the cars are the same, the technically inclined are watching for advances in power trains, secrets that are already closely guarded not just for their immediate impact on race results but for the modifications they’ll inspire on future electric cars for everyday drivers.
The third season of Formula E winds down at the end of July in Montreal, but a fourth season starts in December, in cities where electric cars are likely to become the most visible in the coming years. Expect return trips to New York and Montreal as well as events in Paris, London, Hong Kong, Rome, Mexico City, and Marrakesh. Cities in Germany, Chile, and Brazil also are likely to be on the docket.
New York’s first ePrix was tightly contested, with the win going to the Virgin Atlantic team. But there was a greater victory appreciated by the departing spectators: Formula E racing may be new, but it has kept the old excitement of the sport.