For many, motor racing is all about the evocative roar of powerful V12 engines and the distinctive smell of burning gasoline. But when spectators line up in Rio and Rome next year for a new world racing championship, there will be neither of those things. Instead, the sleek, ground-hugging cars will whip by with hardly a sound.
That’s because the Formula E series – the latest racing series to be sanctioned by motorsport’s governing body, the FIA - will feature all-electric cars. The first team has already signed up and the first cars are expected to begin demonstrations later this year. All things being well, the first races will be staged in 2014.
The organisers hope the zero-emission cars will herald a new era in racing, with stages held in city locations that were previously ruled out because of noise and pollution concerns.
The thinking behind the series is twofold. First, electric cars have an image problem.
Many people believe they are impractical, slow and have limited range between charges. Second, most gas-guzzling motorsports are increasingly at odds with the ambitions of many drivers and many manufacturers. So, showing electric cars screaming around some of the world’s most iconic capital cities should help solve both of these issues.
In addition, the series keeps up a long tradition of motorsports where races are used to showcase the latest in technology, often serving as test beds for ideas that eventually become commonplace on public roads.
“We are convinced that the future of auto motion, particularly in cities, is electric”, says Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E Holdings, which will oversee the races. “The promotion of clean mobility and sustainability is a priority for the FIA, so joining forces to set up the first sustainable global motorsport championship is a great opportunity for us.”
Unlike previous champion racing vehicles, which have used hybrid engines, Formula E cars will be purely electric. Forty-two of the vehicles have been ordered from the newly founded company Spark Racing Technology, which is working with veteran racecar manufacturer McLaren on the drivetrain and electronics. When finished, the ten competing teams will each have four cars each, while the remaining two will be used for crash tests.
Each one will look similar to a standard single-seat, open cockpit Formula 1 car, complete with large wings at the front and back. Details of the engines are still under wraps, but its designers do not think performance will be a problem.
“We are working at the extreme edge of what electric drive can do,” Peter Van
Manen, managing director of McLaren Electronic Systems, told me. “Professional racing cars generally have top speeds approaching 200mph (320 km/h). As soon as you start operating in a city center, speeds will be a little bit lower than that. Practical top speed is probably around 170 or 180mph (290 km/h).”
Acceleration will likely be just off the pace of a Formula 1 car, which can reach 60mph (96 km/h) in less than 3 seconds. This is due to the instantly available – and relatively constant - torque of an electric motor.
Torque is a rotational force and can be thought of as the “strength” of the engine. Unlike an internal combustion engine that generates its maximum torque around half way towards maximum revs, an electric engine does not need to build up to full power, and can produce maximum torque immediately. As a result, electric cars can pull away from a standing start very quickly – a useful feature in races.