Formula E: The Speed Chills View

You can’t stop the future, can you. With every leap in technology comes some kind of big debate, then inevitably progress marches on and we all forget what we were annoyed about. But what about when progress isn’t really so believable? How do we judge whether the next step in the evolution of something is worth our time and money?

Lola_Drayson_B1269EV

This is the problem we at Speed Chills have been having over the last couple of days, with the FIA’s announcement of their new electric racing series. It’s no secret that electric power is universally shunned by those who would call themselves ‘petrol heads’, i.e. most of us. It’s partly due to the rubbish e-cars we’ve been offered up until now, but a lot of the blame can be laid on the media, including Clarkson & Co’s relentless war against them.

But in recent years there’s been a boom in electricity-powered cars that might actually work in the real world. Nissan’s leaf might be expensive, and it might still be hamstrung by the recharging issue, but it’s a great showcase for a technology that we’re probably going to have to rely on in the future. We might be having to put up with the bleeding-heart environment rhetoric now but it was inevitable that we’d be seeing an electric foray into our sport sooner or later.

They’ve got some pretty influential backers, too. The legend that is Lord Paul Drayson has been roped in to act as ‘scientific adviser’, and he’s got some experience in building electric racers. That picture up above is of his Lola-Drayson B12/69EV which we’re told can do 0-60 in three seconds and top out at 200mph. It’s certainly a looker, but will it work? Actually, more importantly, will we want to watch it? We put the question to you guys on Facebook and Twitter, and here’s what we got back.

There was one thing that everybody pointed to; motor racing is a visceral experience. When you’re pressed up against the wall at 3 o’clock on Saturday at Le Mans and see the train of cars approaching from Karting Corner, the crowd noise reaches to the sky, you know that in a few seconds you’ll be treated to the insane experience of a 24 hours rolling start. The cars exit the Ford Chicane and scores of gas pedals become glued to the floor as the wall of noise thunders past and the vibrations shake from your feet up into your chest. There’s nothing else like it.

Now imagine how it would feel without the sound, without the rumble. Or better yet, imagine a field full of diesel powered Audis. Every time I watch a start at the 24 I actually couldn’t care less about the front three with their four rings and insane speed, it’s the petrol P1 cars and the GTs that are exciting. If you look up the straight to the throng of spectators as the Corvettes go past, you can almost see a Mexican wave as the fans shudder from the V8 barbarism.

Lola_Drayson_Nose_Closeup

It’s the same during the race; the only thing that makes the diesel cars exciting to watch is the fact that they’re going at hypersonic speeds. The 2011 Jaguar XKR GT2 car was absolutely atrocious and gave up within about five minutes, but we remember it because it sounded like Satan gargling a spitfire. If our sport ends up being about cars that whisper past then we will have lost one of the greatest things that racing gives us.

So the real litmus test here is whether an electric racing series can put us on a different drug altogether and make us momentarily forget what we’ve lost. The only way that it can do that, according to you guys, is to make sure that it a) creates great racing and b) does it because of the technology rather than because the FIA has mandated ridiculous rules; it’s that second part that should concern us the most.

Formula One might be the ‘fastest’ class of racing in the world, but the glory days of innovation and ridiculous new concepts are far, far gone. Nowadays the top dogs have been reduced to mandating overtaking aids and fiddling with tyre compounds in order to make races exciting; never again will we see a team trying to get away with six wheels or a car that acts like a giant hoover. Every time we see something new and clever (I’m thinking F-ducts and double diffusers) the other teams complain and new red tape is put in place. It’s boring.

If the FIA can avoid that with Formula E and end up treating us to some batshit crazy ideas based around, as Derek Gardner put it: ‘gaining the unfair advantage’ , then it could win us over. If some of those crazy ideas turn out to be brilliant and can translate over to our electric road cars then the series will have proved its worth.

On that hopeful note, they’ll have to avoid some serious pitfalls as well; notably everything that the population legitimately hates about electric cars. Lord Drayson let slip a nugget of information in the launch event that got us worried; and what made it worse was that he seemed to think it was a good idea. He said that due to the issues with recharging the cars we could be seeing drivers swapping entire cars during pit stops.

Lola_Drayson_on_track

Bear in mind two things here; the FIA are currently engaging in a massive economy drive, and electric cars are constantly hobbled by the public’s view on their range issues. As Antony and Nick pointed out on our Facebook page, we think Lord Drayson’s got his priorities upside down. What will the sceptical public think when something that is supposed to be promoting a technology falls into all of its stereotypes?

Two cars will be expensive and will put off the privateer teams that are the lifeblood of racing, while also upsetting the green lobbyists and undoing a lot of the careful economising that the FIA has been shoving in our faces for so long. With regards to the range, Antony put it expertly:

“What's the point of just proving the critics right in this way? Make a car that can last a race, for goodness sake...”

Quite. Either make sure they can last a race or make a way for the cars to ‘refuel’. This could be a great way to kickstart innovation in electric power; the FIA shouldn’t be wasting that opportunity.

That’s Speed Chills’ two cents, then. Make it competitive, make it interesting, and don’t just play into the hands of the naysayers. That way we can have a great addition to the motor racing stable, and one that could help secure a future for our sport. As long as they carefully avoid screwing it up we’ll all be happy; we might be protective of our pastime but we’re not idiots, we can appreciate the need for change and innovation. Just please don’t force the ecospeak down our throats.

Jamie Snelling is a freelance motor sports journalist and 6-times Speed Chills veteran.