I finally went to a Formula E race. The series, if you’re not hip to the international open-wheel electric racing scene, is like Formula 1 only slower. Yet every year, the cars improve and the races get more interesting. For the 2019–20 season, the cars max out at 335 horsepower in qualifying trim, but don’t let that Camaro V-6 number fool you. The cars weigh less than a ton, run zero to 60 in a claimed 2.8 seconds, and top out at more than 170 mph. Formula E isn’t in the performance realm of F1, but the cars are quick enough to put on a good show on the streets of Brooklyn.
The New York race, like all the races on Formula E’s international schedule, is overseen by the FIA. Which, in case you didn’t know, stands for Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile. As you may have inferred, that is an outfit of the French variety. The FIA differs from, say, NASCAR in that it operates on the premise that you are lucky to attend the race, you swine. The Brooklynites working the gates were invariably friendly and courteous, but once you’re inside, you’re in the FIA’s world—a world of bracelets and badges and people frowning at your various bracelets and badges and telling you that you need a new bracelet and possibly another badge if you want to walk over there. At one point, Jaguar (which runs the I-Pace eTrophy support races and fields its own Formula E team, Panasonic Jaguar Racing) invited me to a paddock tour, but the FIA said I couldn’t go because it hadn’t issued me the proper badge, for which I’d dutifully applied in advance. In another case, there were two routes to a fan zone—one though an air-conditioned hallway, another outside in the merciless sun—and the route you took depended on your badge. Good thing I brought sunblock.
Because I have this strange fetish for race cars that are actually relevant to something you can buy, I was more interested in the I-Pace eTrophy cars than the open-wheel spec racers. The I-Pace is a fantastically weird starting point for a race car. The race version has slammed suspensions and a gutted interior, but it uses the same battery, motors, and inverter as the street car. One major difference: The Jag’s air-conditioning system is repurposed to provide extra cooling for the battery. In that way, and in probably no other way at all, the I-Pace eTrophy is like a Hellcat Redeye with the Power Chiller.
The eTrophy races are entertaining because they pit pro drivers like Katherine Legge and the excellently named Cacá Bueno against amateur drivers. To score a seat as an amateur driver, you have to have skills and passion. And you have to have $662,000. That last part is important, because that’s what it costs to run an I-Pace for 10 races. That includes unlimited charging, though.
This was only the third year for the Brooklyn race, but you get the sense that Formula E has momentum. More carmakers have joined (this season has teams from Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Porsche), and it’s becoming a destination to flaunt your new electric hotness. Harley-Davidson showed off the LiveWire, and Porsche ran a few laps with Taycans. I caught a ride around the circuit in an Audi e-tron, which didn’t tell me much about the e-tron but did show me the tightness of the track.
Before the race, I met with Michael Perschke, CEO of Automobili Pininfarina, to discuss the upcoming Battista, the company’s 1900-hp electric car. “The only way to do a car like this now is by going electric,” said Perschke. “If you tried to do internal combustion, you could spend $100 million and end up with the same performance as everyone else. This is something else. We’re doing zero to 60 in 1.9 seconds. In a straight line, it’s quicker than any Formula 1 car.”
Wrap your brain around that. We’re nearing the point where if you want ultimate performance, the only affordable path forward is electric. Formula E isn’t going to surpass Formula 1. Eventually it will be Formula 1. Check it out while it’s still funky.
From the December 2019 issue.