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The Spark-Renault Formula E race car. (FIA Formula E Championship)
The Spark-Renault Formula E race car. (FIA Formula E Championship)

The Green Highway

Electric Prix: Race cars as quiet as golf carts Add to ...

It looks like Formula E will get the green flag after all. That would be Formula One’s electric rival, which is aiming to be the first all-electric global motor racing series.

Renault recently signed on as the technical partner for Formula E, in which drivers will compete in identical battery-powered open wheel racers. Organizers have now released the first images of the new electric race car.

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Formula E’s intent is to show how exciting electric vehicles can be as they race around inner city street courses. Ten cities are being lined up for the stage races in 2014 – with nine announced so far: London, Rome, Los Angeles, Miami, Beijing, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janerio, Bangkok and Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur.

Formula E has the backing of the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) – motor racing’s global governing body, which also oversees Formula One.

Landing Renault is significant. Renault is the engine supplier and a big sponsor of Red Bull Racing and a former F1 champion itself. Renault has also invested more in all-electric cars than any other manufacturer and believes Formula E will give it a global marketing opportunity to show off the performance and safety of electric cars.

The French auto maker joins McLaren, Drayson Racing and Spark Racing Technology to develop the Formula E cars, labelled the Spark-Renault. They will be designed to accelerate from zero to 100 km/h in less than three seconds and race for 25 minutes at speeds of up to 220 km/h.

The plan is to have 10 teams and 20 drivers in 2014. Each race, known as an “Electric Prix,” will take place in a single day, including qualifying and the actual race.

But 25 minutes isn’t much of a race. That’s why each driver gets two cars. The plan is to jump out of one car before the juice runs out and into the other to finish the race. Forget the high-pitched scream of 18,000 RPM F1 gas engines and hitting 300 km/h down the straights. These cars will be as silent as a golf cart, apart from wind and tire noise.

All-electric cars will have a greater role in urban transportation in the near future. However, Formula E may be a white elephant in the making. Staging a major motor race through a street circuit is an expensive proposition and Formula E has said it’s not interested in using existing race tracks because it wants to show electric cars performing in a setting where normal electric cars should thrive.

However, it still needs to construct safety barriers and grandstands and bring in hundreds of race officials and medical personnel. Are tens of thousands of race fans just waiting to plunk down a hundred bucks for a front-row seat for a 50-minute race between 20 (well, 40, actually) identical and silent vehicles?

Organizers say this is about “sustainable motoring” but questions concerning how “green” this event is will arise once the jumbo jets full of teams and cars start flying around the world. However, the “green” bandwagon is irresistible to some politicians. Local governments, not private sponsors, have been the ones signing up for races.

Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a notorious publicity seeker, has committed his city to a Formula E race stating, “By hosting Formula E Championship races here, we ensure our place as a leader in the charge to generate awareness for electric vehicles and their benefits.”

He also promised “increased tourism revenue to our city.” We’ll see how that turns out and who gets stuck with the bills.

Judging by the disappointing sales figures, not many people are sold on the merits of all-electric motoring. The technology and the perceived benefits both have to advance. I doubt Formula E is the best way to address those needs.

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