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Racers, Plug in Your Engines!

Teams get ready for first Formula E battery-car race.

by on Sep.05, 2014

Formula E racers run a simulation of the first race scheduled to take place in Beijing.

It’s taken several years of planning and engineering and months of simulations and dry runs, but if all goes according to schedule, proponents of electric propulsion will get their chance, a week from now, to prove that battery cars really can play in the same league as conventional gas-powered vehicles.

August 13th will bring the inaugural race for Formula E, a new motor sports series that is being billed as the electric equivalent of Formula One, the world’s most popular racing series. Indeed, the cars that will be racing in Beijing next weekend look quite similar to those used on the F1 circuit.

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While they won’t quite hit the same top speeds, the Formula E race cars will be reasonably quick, and expected to reach as much as 140 mph – though they’ll do it in near silence, rather than the deafening screams that mark a traditional race track.

For its first season, Formula E will see 10 teams field vehicles, each with two drivers. Several, including Virgin Racing’s Jaime Alguersuari and Mahindra Racing’s Karun Chandhok, previously ran the Formula One circuit.

Drivers – and fans alike will have to get used to some differences between traditional motor sports and battery-car racing. For one thing, the events will be shorter, a reality mandated by current battery technology. In Beijing, race day will start out with two morning practice sessions, then a qualifying session. The race itself will last only about an hour.

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The speed of those vehicles may take some observers by surprise. While traditional internal-combustion engines need to rev up to reach maximum power, electric motors generate maximum tire-spinning torque the moment they start turning. But they do so in near silence, something that even a few drivers have admitted can be unnerving. How fans will respond remains to be seen, but there has been an angry backlash to the new rules for Formula One this year that resulted in a significant change in engine sound.

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Organizers don’t appear worried about that. While they eventually hope that the performance of the Formula E cars will attract traditional motor sports fans, the initial audience is likely to be heavily dependent upon techies and the environmentally minded, the sorts who don’t normally tune in ESPN for an F1 event.

If there’s enough excitement to build a broader following, backers of the series have suggested, it could convince more potential buyers to consider plug-based vehicles. Sales have gained some momentum in recent years but still make up barely 1% of global new vehicle demand.

That helps explain the decision to inaugurate the new series in Beijing, which also has a classic Formula One race each year. The city is struggling to find ways to deal with its endemic air pollution problems and has been pushing buyers to switch to alternative propulsion. Battery cars, for one thing, are exempt from the monthly restrictions on registering new vehicles in the capital city.

“Putting on a major sporting event in the heart of cities around the world is a massive undertaking and requires careful preparation,” said Alejandro Agag, the CEO of the new race program. “We want the Formula E Beijing ePrix to be a fantastic spectacle, which is why we’re leaving nothing to chance by rigorously testing all the systems beforehand.”

Several weeks back, organizers and team members gathered in Leicestershire, England for two full scale simulations of the Beijing race – everything from handling accreditation procedures and TV coverage to running qualifying sessions.

“Overall we’re very pleased with how things went,” said Agag.

Whether things run as smoothly in Beijing remains to be seen – as does fan reaction to the first Formula E race.

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