How Formula E can overtake F1 and help save the world

Find out why this electric racing series has a shot at becoming huge -- and how its technology could change the cars we drive for the better.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It might seem a bit of a stretch to say that a motor race can help save the world, but with Formula E, that's not such an outlandish statement.

This new race series, held on the streets of cities around the world, uses cars that look almost identical to the vehicles seen in the globally popular Formula 1 series, but are powered entirely by electricity rather than petrol.

Aside from becoming a popular and profitable race series, Formula E has two main goals. The first is to act as a testing ground for new electric motor technologies which can filter down into mass-produced production cars. The second and arguably more important goal is to inspire the general public into seeing electric cars not simply as a novelty driven by an eccentric few, but as an exciting option for everyday people.

British businessman Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, sees Formula E as a catalyst to create more energy-efficient electric technologies, potentially leading to a cleaner world that's less reliant on fossil fuels. His Virgin Racing team finished fifth in this year's inaugural team championship.

"Formula E makes green energy sexy," Branson explained at Virgin Racing's press conference before the final races of the season in London last weekend. "If you go back 10 or 20 years, people thought electric cars were something granny drove. Now they see wonderful hybrids, looking sleek, looking sexy, and that puts a spur on the revolution the world needs. It's going to be a very exciting revolution.

Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"If you turn the clock forward 30 years we will be powering the world with clean energy, which will cost us half what we're currently paying, and that means we'll be able to build more hospitals, we'll be able to build more schools, and we won't be polluting our children, or our grandchildren.

"Formula E is going to grow as clean energy generally is. Twenty years from now there will be no new cars being built that do not run only on battery power. [Internal combustion technology] is antiquated technology, it will disappear over the next 20 years. There's still going to be room for Formula 1 but I think four or five years from now you'll see Formula E overtaking it.

"The future is going to be a fascinating one, and I'm taking my pills so I can live to see it."

Unlike Formula 1, the cars in the inaugural season of Formula E are standardised across the teams, meaning the design, engines, wheels and tyres are all the same. The car is a Spark-Renault SRT-01E, made from carbon-fibre, aluminium and Kevlar. It can accelerate from 0-62mph in 3 seconds and has a top speed of 140mph. Wondering how electric race cars sound? I recorded some of them going past at the race in London -- hit play on this SoundCloud file:

"Our main challenge is to manage the energy available to us over a stint," explained Danny King, one of Virgin Racing's engineers. "As battery technology improves, we'll have more energy available to us from a battery and we'll be less limited by temperature and current. They're the main challenges in racing to look at over the next few years."

From his position as an engineer, does King think electric racing will be the future of motor sport? "Absolutely 100 percent. The race is great, the technical challenge is extreme but fascinating and really good for the spectators and the engineers. It's absolutely the future. We're really pleased at how the momentum has grown behind the series and we're really glad that we're a part of it so early on."

In the pits with Virgin's racing team. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Inspiring the public to be excited about electric racing and electric cars in general is a critical task for Formula E. Without public interest, manufacturers have less incentive to develop and produce their own electric vehicles, as people simply won't buy them. Without manufacturers developing new and exciting electric technologies, public interest won't increase. It's off to a strong start, however, and as electric car advocate and Red Dwarf star Robert Llewellyn told me, "Formula E has raised the flag around the world that these cars are a viable alternative to fossil fuel dependent vehicles."

Motorsport Magazine editor Damien Smith is less convinced of Formula E's ability to overtake Formula 1 so soon, however. "People in motor racing remain sceptical. Will the interest of car manufacturers and blue-chip sponsors be enough to keep the series rolling? Unlike other series that have come before it, Formula E has the 'green' angle going for it. This could make it sustainable in more ways than one.

"The weekend crowd of 60,000 [at the London race] was encouraging, and the strength and depth of the driving talent is superb. But the series has a long way to go before it can rival Formula 1 in global popularity. Will it in the future? The spectacle and speed of the cars will need to come on in leaps and bounds for it to do so," Smith said.

"Formula E should be considered a welcome alternative, its lack of engine noise making it a family-friendly form of motor racing taking the sport into cities -- and potentially a new audience. The motor racing world should embrace it for this fact alone."

Tweet if you wanna go faster

To engage a new generation of social media-savvy fans, Formula E has introduced a new concept to racing called FanBoost. By voting for their favourite drivers, fans can give the top three drivers a 5-second speed boost to use at any time during the race.

Offering fans the opportunity to interact directly with the performance of the cars in a race is an unusual move and one that's unique to Formula E -- implementing a power boost in petrol-driven cars would be a major technical challenge. Some racing fans aren't keen on FanBoost, wanting the results of the race to be determined only by the skill of the racers and engineers, rather than by popularity. Making the race almost interactive does help generate a lot of interest, however.

"Formula E brought two fantastic messages," said Graeme Davison, VP of technology at Qualcomm, which provides wireless charging technology for the race. "The idea of making electric vehicles interesting, and showing how a motor sport could be brought to an inner city and appeal to a new set of fans -- fans who could walk to a motor sport [race] instead of driving hundreds of miles to a racetrack.

"They had this whole sustainability and environmental message which was great. But also then changing how fans interact with a motorsport event, through their handsets, tablets -- talking directly with the drivers, and using things like FanBoost."

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"It's been really interesting to see," Davison said. "The drivers in the early days didn't really know how to use social media to interact with the fans to gain the FanBoost. We saw a tweet go out two days before the race saying vote for the driver, but then you saw the drivers realise that if they interacted with the fans, offering autographs, sign hats and even just talk back -- we see a massive amount of social interactions resulting in FanBoosts."

Technical test bed

As well as helping convince the world of the virtues of electric cars, Formula E serves a second function as a test bed for electric technologies that can be filtered down into mass-produced road cars.

"We're working already in wireless charging for things like smartphones -- where you can just go home and drop your phone on a pad and it charges -- but a good few years ago we realised we can take that technology, increase the amount of energy, and charge an electric vehicle," Davison said.

The race's safety cars are also powered by electricity. While in the pit lanes, hybrid BMW i8 s are positioned over Qualcomm's wireless charging pads. Because they're charged wirelessly, the cars can hit the track immediately in an emergency, without wasting precious seconds unplugging cables.

"That tech will ripple down into the electric vehicles we drive in the future," Davison said. "Human beings are very lazy creatures. We have a habit of driving home, parking the car, getting out and walking away. To then introduce the idea of plugging a car in when you park it, and unplug it when you leave is adding to the complexity."

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"I would say that some time in the next three to five years, when you're speccing up your new electric vehicle, wireless charging will be an option. You'll tick that and you'll have wireless charging installed at home," Graeme added.

The high profile of Formula 1, and the intense competition between its teams has pushed automotive technology forward over the last 50 years. "As a result," Branson said, "cars that you and I drive on the road will get better and more efficient. It's through motor racing like Formula E that those technologies are pushed forward."

Global talent

Ten teams competed in the first season of Formula E, including established names like Virgin Racing, Audi, French racing team Trulli (set up by Monaco F1 Grand Prix winner Jarno Trulli), and Indy car team Andretti. Trulli himself took the wheel for his team, being joined on the track by F1 veterans Lucas Di Grassi (team Audi Sport ABT) and Nelson Piquet (team NEXTEV TCR), who went on to be the series champion in a thrilling last-lap finale. That the series is already filled with well-known racing names is a draw for fans and a mark of its potential.

Formula E visited 10 cities around the world during its first season, including Beijing, Miami, Monte Carlo and Moscow. (You can see galleries of the races in Long Beach, California and Putrajaya, Malaysia above.) I was trackside for the final race of the season, held in London's leafy Battersea Park. It took two weeks to construct the temporary course next to the river Thames, and all traces of it were removed afterwards.

The narrow track, with tight corners, meant the cars' 140mph top speed seemed suicidally fast. The small bumps in the park's roads added an extra element of excitement too, as the cars could be seen wobbling as they zoomed over them. That's not usually the case on smooth, purpose-built racetracks.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Standing behind a small concrete barrier, only a foot away from the cars as they hurtled past on the third corner, I can confidently confirm that this event is every bit as exhilarating as classic motor races like the Le Mans 24 hours. Although the cars lack the ear-splitting whine of petrol-driven F1 cars, the electric whirr, not to mention the sound of the tyres on the track and the whoosh of air, means the cars do still make an impressive sound. Mercifully though, it's not one that leaves you with a pounding headache afterwards.

Formula E may well have a way to go yet before it brings in the numbers of fans seen at some Formula 1 events -- 140,000 are expected at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix this weekend -- but it's early days.

Formula E is perhaps best seen as an investment in the future -- not just as a home for motor racing fans who will need an F1 replacement once the oil runs out, but with more support from sponsors and the public alike, it may well be that energy advancements developed for Formula E could be the very things helping us live greener lives in the years to come.

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