Growing up on a steady diet of Jules Verne and HG Wells meant that I always had a fascination for steampunk and everything that it stood for. It was a lovely combination of 19th century propriety and etiquette which, when combined with 21st century technology, meant that gentlemen in top hats and ladies with elaborate coiffures could race all manner of strange machinery. There were ships that flew through the air, bicycles that took to the skies with hot air balloons attached to their handlebars and unicycles that had pairs of legs fashioned out of metal, that would aid the rider both in terms of balance and speed.
As the years passed, though, I abandoned all hope of ever witnessing a true blue steampunk race. But I can’t pretend that for a minute or two, when the Formula E racing series was announced, that I didn’t have visions of electric racing cars on rails that looped through the air in the manner of a rollercoaster. While my steampunk fantasies might not have come true with the first season of Formula E, one must admit that the series has proved to be quite a success.
Let’s rewind to the beginning of the first season of Formula E, in September 2014. It wasn’t without some apprehension that we suspiciously surveyed the first ‘e-Prix’ in Beijing. After all, motor racing had nearly always been about the internal combustion engine. In fact, we had barely begun tut-tutting the fact that hybrid technology was being implemented in Formula 1 and the World Endurance Championship when the announcement was made about this all-electric, zero-emissions, in-the-heart-of-the-city racing series.
What was it that Formula E promised, then? The premise was simple. There was one single make of car being raced — the Spark Renault SRT_01E was handed out to each team, with each driver being allotted two such cars. The cars were raced as you would normally expect them to be raced (all your usual sparring, parrying and thrusting included), the only difference being that instead of a pitstop to recharge the batteries of these electric machines, there would be a car swap. At the end of the many laps of racing, the driver who was ahead would win.
In order for any racing series to be run successfully, the key lies in good racing. There needs to be plenty of overtaking and lots of uncertainty about who will cross the chequered flag first. It must also leave fans with their fingernails greatly diminished, and so much adrenaline coursing through them that one might suspect them of having taken a shot of epinephrine. Here, Formula E succeeded from the very first race. The battle for second was what held the attention of everybody all through, while pole man Nicolas Prost was running away at the head of the field.
But then, just when he was about to come up to the very last corner, that final corner that separated him from being the first ever winner in what would be a historic racing series, he managed to topple his car and go into the barriers in a spectacular fashion. Behind him, Lucas di Grassi, who’d been waiting for his chance, sailed past and took a terrific first win at the championship. It was a sign of things to come. The great racing would continue all through the season, with the championship being decided on the final corner of the final race at Battersea, with Nelson Piquet only just pipping Sebastien Buemi to the title.
Clearly, then, the series had the ‘racing’ bit down. What about all the talk of technological innovation, though? Given that it was all-electric cars that were being raced, it wouldn’t take a dummy to guess that there was technological innovation already involved. There’s more to it than just churning out batteries in a factory, plonking them into a racecar and then sending them down a racetrack. When you race a gasoline car, you have a constant power factor, while the weight reduces. When you race an electric car, you have a constant weight, but power decreases. The challenge then, for drivers and engineers alike, is ensuring that you don’t run out of energy before you can get the car into the garage for a swap, or before you cross the chequered flag.
With the series shifting from single-make racing, in the 2014-2015 season, to individual teams developing their own racecars in 2015- 2016, the drive to improve green technology will certainly be greater, and it is from a fierce competition that emerge some of the best technological treats we find on road cars. Let’s not forget that the rear view mirror was developed by Ray Harroun at the first ever Indianapolis 500 race, which he won.
What is it that is really pulling the fans into the Formula E paddock? There are two clear attractions. The first is that instead of taking fans to the racing, Formula E brings the racing to the fans. It ensures that people don’t need to travel to far flung racetracks in order to watch a race; they can manage, in one single day, to watch qualifying and racing in the heart of the city, no less. It also does away with all the ‘stand behind the white line’ and ‘this pass doesn’t allow you there’ of other racing series. These finicky rules completely suck the joy out of watching a race and isolate fans from the race and racers. Instead, Formula E allows you to get up close to the racers, who are busy doling out freebies to grownups and kids alike, snapping photographs with fans, and, when they have the time, even stopping for a quick chat. To follow any racing series, people need heroes — with names, faces and personalities — and Formula E tries to make this possible.
There’s another important angle to this factor of fan engagement. The novel fanboost concept allows you to vote for your favourite racer, helping him get 30kW more power for up to five seconds, which can be used over the course of qualifying or the race. This means you just might play a part in helping your favourite driver win, and feeling like you’re a part of the team certainly helps. There’s also plenty for kids to do over the course of a Formula E race. Not only is there enough of a festive atmosphere, like you’d have at an event like Le Mans, but stuff like the support race held at Battersea, which had children from the UK assemble and race all-electric kit cars, was a crowd-pleaser. Imagine being able to say your 12-year old was a part of the support race for an FIA racing championship. It doesn’t happen too often, certainly.
So is Formula E really the way forward? If the first season is anything to go by, it could well be a racing series that will catch on, especially since there seems to be no getting away from trying to go green in the automotive world. Is it the sort of motor racing series that can hook kids from a young age, because now that they’re growing up with all these battery powered gizmos they will relate to it better? It is going to do that, for sure.
Where Formula E succeeds is in bringing the fans so close to the racing that it makes it worth their while to go and see a motor race. It’s the same sort of allure, I imagine, that strolling through the F1 paddock in the 1960s held. It has all the trappings of modern technology with all the charm of old school racing — a little bit of the past and the future, all at once. A little bit like steampunk, after all.