There are still a few weeks left until the 2015 Formula 1 seasons starts. Until then, there's a brand new FIA Formula series where it's all down to the drivers and where engine sound really isn't an issue: Formula E.
Formula E, like Formula 1, is all about open-wheel, open cockpit racing. The Formula E series also travels around the world, visiting major cities like Beijing and London, and famous venues like the Monaco street circuit. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end and the differences begin. Unlike Formula 1, all the Formula E drivers have to use the same car design, the Spark-Renault SRT_01E. This keeps the cost for the teams low, since they don’t have to use billions of dollars on car R&D. Also, it makes the driver a lot more important than in Formula 1: Since all the Formula E drivers have more or less the same car, a Formula E race is a test of the drivers' skills, not a test of the team’s R&D department. In Formula 1, a crappy driver can perform miracles in a great car, in Formula E, not so much. This is one of the reasons why I’ve started to favor other racing series where the vehicles are made from the same mold, like the GP2 series, over Formula 1.
But where Formula E really stands out from Formula 1 - and every other professional racing series - is the Spark-Renault SRT_01E’s engine. It’s electric (something you might have already gathered from the “E” in “Formula E”.) The old farts running FIA have actually taken a few steps towards the future, and launched a racing series with electric cars.
When new engines were introduced in last year’s Formula 1 season, there was a lot of heated arguments going around whether or not the engine sound was better or worse than previous years. Some people enjoyed the new turbo sound, other people hated its guts. In Formula E, there’s not much engine sound to argue about. This is Lucas di Grassi, former Formula 1 driver, making doughnuts in Los Angeles.
When I was a kid, my dad had an electric RC car. And it sounded exactly like this. Not terribly exciting, I agree. But it’s not the engine sound, or rather the lack of, that makes Formula E attractive.
First of all, the driver line-up is pretty impressive, with a lot of former Formula 1 drivers and a lot of talent: Jaime Alguersuari, Karun Chandhok, Bruno Senna, Sébastien Buemi, Jarno Trulli, Lucas di Grassi, Nick Heidfeld and Nicolas Prost - just to mention a few. Yeah, you probably noticed something interesting in that list of drivers: Senna and Prost. Bruno Senna, nephew of the late, great Ayrton Senna is racing in the same championship as Nicolas Prost, son of 4-time Formula 1 champion Alain Prost. If history repeats itself, we can look forward to some very aggressive racing - Nicolas Prost has already proven that he can be very, very
aggressive reckless. Take a look at this video from the Beijing race last year and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
And then, of course, it’s the technology. Electricity is an interesting alternative to carbon-based fuel, and in Formula E they really do their best to keep it electric. Of course all the racing cars are electric, but so are the medical cars. At the Beijing race, power for the cars was supplied by generators running on a low-emission by-product of biodiesel called glycerine, and solar panels, and similar methods are used to generate electricity at the other races as well. Nifty. The safety car isn’t 100% electric, though - it’s hard to find a production car that can keep up with the formula cars - but at least it’s a hybrid: The BMW i8. When it’s available, the new Tesla Model S P85D might be a fully electric alternative.
Personally, I don’t think electric cars is the future. I see it as more of a transition to the real future, which is hydrogen powered vehicles. If I could replace our diesel-fueled, CO2 and NOX-spewing car with a car that only emits sterile water while driving, I’d do it today. But while that hydrogen car is a great idea in theory, there’s still the problem of hydrogen fuel production - it takes a substantial amount of energy to produce it, and that energy has to come from somewhere - and distribution - I’ve never seen a hydrogen fuel pump at a gas station in Norway. But I’m still calling it: Electric vehicles will be replaced by hydrogen fueled ones within 20 years. And have you considered what kind of environmental hazard that huge battery pack in your electric car will be when it has to be replaced in 10 years time? Does the car manufacturer actually have a plan for handling and recycling the battery pack?
But while we wait for hydrogen fueled cars to become a reality, we can all sit back and enjoy very silent, but action packed, Formula E racing. But where can you watch a race? The official Formula E site has a handy television guide. If there’s no television broadcast in your area, you might be able to watch qualifying and races live on the Formula E website. There’s also quite a lot of videos on YouTube, including full races.
So there really is no excuse not to watch the future of racing. Until hydrogen powered racing cars arrive at the scene, of course.
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