Lucas di Grassi, Franck Montagny, Sam Bird… have you heard of any of these guys? Nope? Well, I’m sorry to say, you really should pay a bit more attention to the motor sports pages. These are the three men currently leading the drivers’ championship. The number one, two and three drivers. And you call yourself a car enthusiast?
Okay, I’m kidding. There’s actually no shame in being unfamiliar with Senhor di Grassi et al. They’re not Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel. They are, instead, the pioneers of a new form of motor racing, called ‘Formula E’. There has only been one official race so far, in Beijing last month, with nine more to follow over the next nine months. This particular drivers’ championship is very young indeed.
How does Formula E differ from the older, more famous sport of Formula 1? The cars look similar, they’re both overseen by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile – so, what’s the difference? The clue is in the name. The ‘E’ signifies that the cars in this racing series are electric. Gone are the hasty fuel refills in the pits, replaced with rechargeable batteries. Gone is the guttural roar of the racing car, replaced with – as the video at the top of this post testifies – a tremulous whine. These cars sound like the emission of air from the back-end of a vacuum cleaner.
The video also highlights another difference between Formulas E and 1: electric racing is cleaner. No doubt its participants are still in it for money, fame and glory, but the environment is clearly a concern for at least some of them. Hence why activist sorts, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, are backing teams.
Eventually, we may all have cause to thank Leo. In this first season, all of the teams are using the same car: the Spark-Renault SRT_01E, which, with a top speed of 140mph (FIA maximum), may not match its Formula 1 equivalents, but should be fast enough to convince people that electric cars really can motor. But, as of next season, the teams will be able to work on their own vehicles. It’s hoped that some of their developments will percolate through to consumer vehicles. Formula E could be in the vanguard of the electric revolution.
And it could be involved in other revolutions, too. You’ll notice that the roster of Formula E drivers includes two women. That’s only ten per cent of the total, but it beats any proportion that Formula 1 has ever managed.
Which leaves us with the question: will electric motor racing catch on? The weird thing is that Formula E’s success could be, in a roundabout way, its own undoing. If the technology improves to the point that electric cars become the norm – as many people expect – why mention the ‘E’ at all? Why not just call it Formula 1? I can imagine it now. Lewis Hamilton, start your vacuum cleaner.