You might think that the perfect formula for motorsport needs roaring engines, beautiful cars and skilled drivers, but there’s a new idea on the scene. The world’s first fully electric, zero-emission racing series, Formula E, is making waves four rounds into its inaugural season and already looks set to be a big success.
With all-action racing on challenging street circuits around the globe and a stellar cast list to boot, it is proving a hit with fans keen to experience what is being billed as ‘the future of motorsport.’ The car itself, built by Spark Racing Technology, with help from McLaren Electronic Systems, Williams Advanced Engineering and Dallara, is a state-of-the-art battery powered single-seater, producing around 270 horsepower from the 200 kW available. However, despite the constantly improving technology in car batteries, they do not (as yet) last a full race. This requires a mandatory pit-stop at half distance to change to a second identical car, creating an element of strategy as drivers attempt to conserve energy to use later in the race.
The season started with a bang on the streets of Beijing; quite literally in the case of Nick Heidfeld. The race was Nico Prost’s to lose, having qualified his e-Dams machine on pole and converting it to a comfortable lead once the race got underway, but former F1 man Heidfeld, driving for the Venturi team co-founded by none other than Hollywood lothario Leonardo di Caprio, had other ideas. The German was the quickest man in the track in the closing stages as he doggedly pursued Prost and finally attempted a move into the final corner. Prost swerved to block and the two made contact, taking both out of the race in spectacular fashion, Heidfeld’s car flying almost over the catch-fencing before coming to rest upside-down. Through the mire came a grateful Lucas Di Grassi to inherit victory, with Franck Montagny taking second after a typically combative drive. But after testing positive for a derivative of cocaine a few weeks later, the Frenchman is likely to face a lengthy ban and may have said au revoir to his racing career.
Putrajaya in Malaysia was next on the Formula E calendar as Briton Sam Bird put in the most dominant performance of the season so far for Virgin. Prost was again the quickest man in qualifying, but took a ten-place grid penalty for causing the collision with Heidfeld in Beijing, leaving IndyCar veteran Oriol Servia as the surprise pole-sitter for Dragon Racing. But after a brief safety car interlude, it took only a couple of corners for Bird to work his way into a lead, before pulling away from the rest of the field – despite using less energy. After Nelson Piquet Jr. was denied a chance of a podium finish by an errant Jarno Trulli, di Grassi once again was on hand to pick up the pieces, with WEC champion Sebastien Buemi coming from the back of the grid to finish third. Bruno Senna was on course to finish fourth after a good battle with Prost, but undid all his hard work by thumping the wall on the final lap.
Toro Rosso refugee Jean-Eric Vergne joined the Formula E circus for round three along the beachfront at Punta del Este in Uruguay and promptly qualified his Andretti mount on pole, despite his unfamiliarity with the machinery. The popular Frenchman was one of the three drivers each race to be awarded ‘Fanboost’, a unique phenomena to Formula E chosen by the fans in a pre-race poll which temporarily increases the power output for five seconds per car, however his dream debut would soon go awry. After patiently working his way past a fast-starting Piquet, JEV held the lead only briefly as a lightning-quick pitstop leapfrogged Buemi in front. The stage was set for a frantic two-lap shootout after Matty Brabham’s crash brought out the safety car, but broken suspension for Vergne soon brought any hopes of victory to an abrupt halt. Piquet collected second, with di Grassi once again on the podium in third.
Nobody seemed to want to win the most recent round in Buenos Aires. After a tame first half, the race came alive after Karun Chandhok suffered a suspension failure at the chicane, requiring the intervention of the safety car. No sooner had it withdrawn than race-long leader Buemi threw away his advantage by clipping the wall at the same place, handing the baton over to di Grassi. But Mr. Consistency would suffer the same fate as Chandhok, with broken suspension resulting in the Brazilian’s first non-finish of the season. It then looked like the race was Heidfeld’s to lose, but when the German was slapped with a pitlane-speeding penalty two laps from the finish, it was Red Bull protégé Antonio Felix da Costa who brought it home for Amlin Aguri to become the fourth different winner in as many races. Amid a chaotic final few laps, Prost somehow came through to second and Piquet – who believed he was a lap down – to third, in one of the more bemused podium celebrations you’ll ever see.
Despite his setback in Buenos Aires, Grassi has kept hold of the top spot in the points race ahead of Bird and Buemi, with everything still to play for in the second half of the season before the series finale in London in June. It’s only the first season of this futuristic championship and as is to be expected, Formula E has had its teething problems. A litany of suspension failures exposed the car’s weak spot in Latin America and could play a massive role in the outcome of the championship, while criticism for the gimmicky nature of Fanboost – despite its added entertainment value – is likely to persist among purists. But ultimately it’s the on-track product, the racing itself, that can make or break Formula E. And on the evidence so far, electric racing should be here to stay.