The last time I was at the street circuit in downtown Long Beach, California, I watched as bulked-up Formula Drift sports cars with thousands of combined horsepower painted the streets black. Clamoring engines and coughing exhausts from all directions had me wondering where the villain was going to pop out like I was in a horror flick.
The thick billows of white smoke hovering over the course made for spectacular entrances when the cars finally burst through sideways into the corners. I was picking rubber nuggets that had rocketed off the cars through the fences out of my hair and shoes for days.
It’s the most visceral racing experience I’ve ever been a part of. So when I got an invitation from Michelin to join them at the street circuit in Long Beach for a Formula E race—featuring Formula 1-looking electric cars—I was thrilled, but I also had my doubts whether it could compete with my prior trip to the LBC.
The obvious question is, “Can it still be fun and engaging without gasoline-powered race cars?” I was curious to find out.
Sizzle Versus Steak
I’ll be the first one to tell you I’m an extremely casual racing fan. Hell, I’m from Indiana, yet I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never been to the Indianapolis 500. Growing up, I liked Tony Stewart because we had the same name. I rooted for Jeff Gordon because his number 24 was the same date as my birthday, and, well, his car looked like it’d just been splashed with multi-colored Nickelodeon slime.
I’ve been to multiple races for NASCAR, MotoGP, IndyCar, Red Bull Frozen Rush, and the Monterey Historics. Still, the only racing I can stand to watch on TV is Formula 1, and that’s mainly because the events are so short. Like with live hockey, being at the races changes everything and physically helps you understand the fun of the sport. Every sense is sparked.
But again, I knew things would be much different with Formula E—even if it was only the third-ever Formula E race in the United States. The obvious question is, “Can it still be fun and engaging without gasoline-powered race cars?” I was curious to find out.
Upon my arrival at the track, I found one notion inescapable: Just as electric powertrains are supposed to solve the emissions crisis, Formula E is supposed to be the future of racing. This message was freakin’ everywhere. “The electrifying future” … “driving the future” … “we speed up the future.” OK already, Jesus. We get it. You’re in your second year of existence, and you need everybody to join planet-saving investor Leonardo DiCaprio in latching onto the idea that this is a legitimate thing with a bright future.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not disagreeing, especially from a technological standpoint. One of the main aims of racing is to research new tech for use in road cars. But that won’t happen if the sport can’t sustain itself with an intriguing product.
The cars weigh a little less than 2,000 pounds, including the driver, which helps them go from 0 to 60 in approximately three seconds. But the top speed is limited to 140 mph.
Nuts and Bolts
The basics structure of the series is as follows: Nine teams, each with two drivers and four cars. Starting in October and ending in July, there are 11 total races, all of which take place on tracks built on city streets.
Each race is approximately 50 minutes long, and everything from practice to qualifying to racing takes place in one single day, reducing the overall carbon footprint.
The cars have already evolved in just E’s second season. Originally, every team had exactly the same car with the same setup: the SPARK-Renault SRT_01E. This season, the FIA opened up the competition and allowed the teams to pick from eight manufacturers to build out the motor, inverter, gearbox, and cooling systems. That means the races this year include some cars with single-speed transmissions and some with five-speed transmissions. Teams are also now allowed to build their own rear suspensions and choose a wheel supplier.
The cars weigh a little less than 2,000 pounds, including the driver, which helps them go from 0 to 60 in approximately three seconds. But the top speed is limited by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) to 140 mph.
For comparison, the 1,550-pound Formula 1 cars run on hybrid turbocharged V6 engines that produce a combined 760 horsepower (600 from the engine) and hit up to 220 mph. In a very different realm of racing, 3,400-pound NASCAR Sprint Cup cars use 700–800 hp V8s that exceed 200 mph.
Then the lights turned green, and the cars took off. And I felt… nothing.
Gentlemen, Start Your Electric Engines
I truly tried to shelve any preconceived notions about a calm and quiet race before I got to the track. I had heard from other auto journalists about the sound, I’d watched videos of the cars taking off, but I wanted to hold any opinion back until I actually witnessed it myself. I was hopeful I could get into the vibe and atmosphere of the race, as I have at other events.
After seeing the cars zip around during practice and qualifying earlier in the day, I stood in the VIP bleachers at the start line as the cars lined up in the grid. It was time for the real thing. The moment of truth. A woman sang the national anthem, and dozens of people scattered my view of the track with extended arms and fingers hovering over the video record button on their phones. Then the lights turned green, and the cars took off.
And I felt… nothing.
According to Formula E, E cars top out at 80 decibels—the equivalent of a standard road car going 70 mph—and they reminded me of a few things. The cars’ initial launch is when they sound most like a toy. The flyby is similar to that of a semi-trailer truck passing you at high speed. It’s a high-pitched whoosh. You can also hear the mechanics of the cars, transmissions shifting and suspensions dealing with imperfections on Long Beach roads. It was like you were watching super-sized RC cars zip around a track. Cool, yes, but not exactly something that hypes you up.
Formula E races also lack true pit stops because the batteries only last about 25 minutes. Then the driver drives into a pit, GETS OUT OF THE CAR, hops in another one and goes about the rest of the race.
Wanted: Adrenaline Rush
I realize part of the problem is that I am such a casual racing fan. Watching cars battle each other is fun, but that’s not all that holds my attention. I love being at NASCAR races because of the sensory overload, which is simply not there with E cars.
I’m one of those people who loves the smell of fuel and burning rubber. For the most part at this race, I smelled the barbecue. I love the audial attack that gets to the point of wearing ear muffs, ear plugs or just looking like the Hear No Evil monkey when V8s pass. I like that evil. The rush that pulses through your body. It makes you quite literally feel like you’re part of the race experience. The only buzzing I felt during the race were texts from my dad, who I told to watch the race on TV.
Formula E races also lack true pit stops because the batteries only last about 25 minutes. That means the driver drives into a pit, GETS OUT OF THE CAR, hops in another one and goes about the rest of the race. It’s one of the funniest and strangest things I’ve ever seen. There are no battery swaps. There’s no charging. Not even the tires are changed. In fact, each car uses the same tires the entire day unless one is somehow ruined.
And there’s a minimum time for each pit stop; the FIA was worried about safety because people were driving off without being properly buckled in. But that’s not exciting. The series hopes to eliminate the issue in coming years with batteries that would last an entire race, meaning zero pit stops all together.
Every high-tech tire has a serial number and, at the end of a race, must be logged back in. If a team breaks this contract, there’s a $1,000,000 fine. Seriously.
But Here’s the Cool Part…
One fact about Formula E racing is pretty clear: This series is just as much for the manufacturers as it is for the. Racing is, and always will be, about furthering technological development. I never thought I’d write this sentence, but one of the most interesting aspects of Formula E is the tire situation. As I mentioned before, full disclosure: Michelin got me and two other journalists passes to the race. We had VIP access to the pits, the paddock, and full-service lounge with a very high-end European vibe, which I’m sure was cherry-picked from the F1 scene. But all that being said, I truly found the tire stuff intriguing.
Speaking with Pascal Couasnon, the director of Michelin Motorsport, and Ken Payne, a former Michelin test driver who’s now technical director for Michelin and BFGoodrich Motorsports in North America, I learned that the Formula E series might end up being the company’s most important testing ground. In what phase of testing are the tires? Well, the teams don’t even own them; they lease them, because there is literally confidential technology within the tread, the materials in the rubber, the angles of the belts in the tires, the materials of the belts, and something else that nobody even knows about. Every high-tech tire has a serial number and, at the end of a race, must be logged back in. If a team breaks this contract, there’s a $1,000,000 fine. Seriously.
These tires are so important to Michelin due to their shape and size, the length of E races and the track type. Simply put, they are as close to a street tire as you’ll ever see in motorsport. F1 and NASCAR tires are slicks, wrapped around tiny wheels and have high profiles. They’re nothing like a real tire that you buy for your car.
E tires, however, have tread and are wrapped around 18-inch wheels, so the profile is much more like that of a street car. The drivers are racing on the exact same surfaces that you and I drive on, and with the speeds capped at 140 mph, the stress on the rubber is much closer to what our tires are experiencing.
Still, not everyone is an auto nerd like me, and tire technology is not the kind of thing that is likely going to bring in loads of fans, nor is it going to keep people who check the sport out coming back. Which brings me back to the question I kept asking myself: What’s the long-term, super-exciting draw?
The talent that has signed up for the series is fantastic. The technology is incredible. The racing is good. The drivers are going hard and battling. The tracks and locations are great, and the whole series is certainly much less wasteful and more sustainable than traditional racing.
But in a world filled with so many testosterone- and gasoline-fueled racing options, I just didn’t see a gripping competition that will attract a large audience. Even if Leo pours in all his hard-earned Wall Street wolfin’, bear-rasslin’ money.