A day at the (electric) races

If electric cars are the future of motoring, then Formula E is the future of motorsport – and Londoners were treated to more than a glimpse of that future at Battersea Park last month.

The all-electric counterpart to Formula 1 began its inaugural series in Beijing last September, and concluded with a spectacular weekend of racing on the south bank of the Thames at the end of June.

A Formula E car might look pretty similar to the one Lewis Hamilton took to victory in Silverstone recently, but under the skin it’s a very different beast. In place of the F1 car’s 100kg petrol tank and 1.6 litre engine are a battery and electric motor capable of producing 200kW for top speeds of 140mph.

The series is an incubator for the technology that will power electric road cars, just as many features of the cars we drive today were conceived or improved in F1.

With range anxiety still putting some off buying electric cars, longer battery life is a key goal. Indeed, Formula E cars cannot make a whole race on one battery, so the drivers come into the pits and swap into a second, fully-charged car halfway through. The hope is that in a few years that won’t be necessary. Lighter batteries are another goal: Formula E’s are already 200kg, well under half the weight of the one in a Tesla S.

Even the energy used to charge the batteries is pretty revolutionary – and greener than you’d think. Instead of just plugging the cars into the national grid, they’re charged from generators powered by glycerine – a virtually emission-free biofuel produced by algae. And how about wireless charging? Not for the race cars just yet, but the safety car – a BMW i8 – is charged without being plugged in.

As you’d expect, Formula E has its sights fixed firmly on the future, and therefore specifically aims to appeal to a younger audience. While Bernie Ecclestone dismisses the value of young viewers (‘most of these kids haven’t got any money’) and declares that he’s ‘not interested in tweeting, Facebook and whatever this nonsense is’, Formula E deliberately goes after them, with live-streaming online, instant replays on Twitter, highlights on YouTube and a ‘FanBoost’ where drivers can win two five-second bursts of an extra 30bhp through an online vote. At Battersea Park, the feel was very much ‘family day out’, with fairground rides and even a chance to race very-miniature cars round a track with inflatable barriers.

And the racing itself didn’t disappoint. Unlike Formula 1, with practice on Friday and Saturday morning, qualifying on Saturday afternoon and the race on Sunday, a Formula E round – from first practice to the chequered flag – is crammed into a single day. London hosted the season’s final two rounds back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday.

Saturday’s race set up the championship decider nicely, with Sebastian Buemi winning from pole to move just five points behind the leader, Nelson Piquet Jr. On Sunday, it seemed Buemi had not just momentum but also the weather gods on his side, as heavy rain slowed Piquet Jr in qualifying, leaving him 16th on the grid, 10 places behind his title rival. But Piquet made his way through the field well, rising to 8th, and Buemi lost a place to 6th when he spun after his pit stop, putting Piquet in the championship-winning position. Buemi tried everything to overtake Bruno Senna and regain the place he’d lost in his spin – which would’ve won him the championship – but ultimately just fell short.

Meanwhile, the battle for the race win was between Stephane Sarrazin and local hero Sam Bird, born just a few miles from the track in Roehampton. Bird was tucked right behind Sarrazin for the last few laps, but was unable to find a way past. However, to hold him off, Sarrazin used more than the maximum allowed energy and was penalised by 49 seconds, handing a popular home win to Sam Bird.

Like its closing weekend in London, Formula E’s first season has been characterised by close wheel-to-wheel racing, dramatic penalties and results decided by which driver uses their battery better. That Sarrazin lost the race because he used too much power, or that Nelson Piquet Jr won the championship largely because he tended to make his battery last longer than his rivals, is a feature of Formula E, not a bug.

Whether Formula E can overtake F1 – as Richard Branson, owner of Sam Bird’s Virgin Racing team, prophesied – remains to be seen. But what’s far more important is whether it leads to more and better electric cars on our roads. That’ll be the true measure of Formula E’s success.