The 50-metre marker board is a blur. Mounted high on the catch fencing in the approach to turn six, it’s a fleeting signal taken in by the peripheral vision, routed to the brain and rerouted to the left foot. It’s a visual prompt to attack the brake pedal with enough pressure to dent metal. It’s also the point at which your eyes look left, searching for the entrance to a tight left-right chicane, a small opening in a sea of concrete blocks, sponsor banners and blue-and-white curbing.
I’m racing on the city streets of Brooklyn, the most populated of the five New York boroughs, and everything seems like a dream sequence. Perhaps the most surreal aspect of the whole situation is self-evident: I’m racing a car in Brooklyn. Next up on the sliding scale of surrealism are the following, in whichever order you find the most unlikely: The car I’m racing is an electric vehicle – and it’s an SUV.
An award-winning EV hits the track
In its brief time in existence, the Jaguar I-Pace has nabbed numerous awards, including World Car of the Year, World Green Car and World Car Design of the Year. The kudos are merited: The Jaguar is a real-world-ready electric vehicle that looks sharp, handles like a high-performance hatchback and comes standard with no small amount of cachet.
To make matters more interesting, it’s also the star of the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy, the first production-based battery electric-vehicle race series sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). The support series to Formula E, the I-Pace eTrophy began in late 2018 and featured a 10-race inaugural season that concluded with a doubleheader in Brooklyn last July.
The first season featured teams from Brazil, China, Saudi Arabia, Germany and the United States, all driving identical race versions of the I-Pace, prepared and maintained by Jaguar Special Vehicle Operations (SVO). The series incorporates a championship for professional drivers and a title chase for amateurs, although all drivers compete in the same race at the same time. In each race, there’s also one I-Pace allocated to a guest driver, provided that driver has the necessary race licence.
Last year, I had the honour of piloting the guest car in the season finale – and it was a wild ride from start to finish.
An SUV becomes a race car
In developing a production-based EV race car for the I-Pace eTrophy, the team at SVO had two main goals: protecting the driver (with measures including a full roll cage and six-point racing harness) and protecting the battery pack (by surrounding it with a 35-millimetre carbon fibre plate). All told, it took about 2½ years and countless miles of testing to go from concept to first production race car.
My chief engineer for the race weekend is Steve Dunlop, a veteran of the professional motorsports scene. He worked with rally legend Colin McRae – so, at best, I’m the second-most-talented driver to enter his orbit. In our briefing session, Dunlop explains that the I-Pace eTrophy model is similar in some ways to the production model in your local Jaguar-Land Rover dealership. For example, the 90 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, electric motors, transmission and all-wheel-drive system are taken directly from the production version.
Even more impressive: Although all the racing sessions run for at least 30 minutes, drivers don’t have to worry about preserving battery life, so there’s no range anxiety at all. “We can easily complete the race distance on a fully charged battery,” Dunlop says. (Another production-based EV race series, this one using the Tesla Model S, has not yet hit the track, despite being announced more than two years ago. One of the challenges with that series, reportedly, is ensuring battery performance remains consistent over race distances.)
The I-Pace eTrophy race car is mandated to weigh a minimum of 2,149 kilograms (with driver included), a fair amount of heft to oversee when surrounded by walls and other solid objects. The idea of tossing this size of SUV around a tight city circuit doesn’t really make a lot of sense – until you realize that it’s not only possible; it’s incredibly entertaining.
There’s no noise from the electric drivetrain, of course, and no distraction from having to shift gears, let alone use a clutch, with the direct-drive transmission. The only sounds you hear inside the Jaguar are the tick-tick-tick of small pieces of track detritus kicked up by the street-legal Michelin tires, the sound of said tires being pushed through the corners and the squeal of the brakes as they haul the I-Pace eTrophy race car down from speed.
The regenerative braking system is the real eye-opener. It’s a more powerful system than on the Formula E cars. When hurtling down the back straight at about 170 kilometres an hour, it requires a real leap of faith to trust that 50-metre marker board approaching turn six. But the braking system is staggeringly good. In fact, it’s the most powerful system I’ve ever experienced next to a Formula One car.
From auto writer to EV racer
When the offer to drive the I-Pace eTrophy first lands, my answer is not an immediate yes. It’s a daunting proposition to compete in the final round of a race series against seasoned professionals in a completely new race car: At minimum, there’s a 50-50 chance of making a fool of yourself. But the offer to race the mean streets of Brooklyn is as rare as they come.
My goal for the first sessions is to get up to speed as quickly as possible, familiarize myself with the track and the I-Pace, and ignore the lap times at all costs. Focusing too much on results early on has a way of distracting from the end goal: to become competitive by the time the second race, scheduled for Sunday afternoon, goes green. I have five sessions on track before then – it seems like plenty, but the learning curve is steep and there’s much work to be done. The other drivers have had a full season to figure out how to extract the most from the Jag; I’ve got 90 minutes.
In the first qualifying session, my learning accelerates as the speeds rise. On one lap, while exploring the outer limits of the track, I nudge the wall entering turn one with the right-side mirror and knock the glass sideways. Ten corners later, I nudge another wall with the left-side mirror, this time knocking off the backing plate. I return to the pits for a pause and some quick fixes.
“What’s up?” Dunlop asks as he leans into the car. We’ve agreed that, with so little track time available, I need to be driving as much as possible and saving the detailed technical debriefs for later. “I don’t have any mirrors left.”
The shortened qualifying session leaves me last on the starting grid. The track is divided into three sectors and my best times in each sector were quick enough to place me within two seconds of the fastest pro driver. But the small mistakes and the loss of track time prevent me from piecing together a complete lap. (Plus, most race drivers – professionals and automotive writers alike – are always quick with excuses.)
Knowing that there was still some speed to be gained, I decide to treat the first race on Saturday as another practice session. My goal is to find clear space on the track, improve my lap times and set myself up to be competitive for the final race of the weekend. Everything is going according to plan … until it doesn’t.
As the race starts, I get the jump on a pair of competitors – normally, a good thing. But this fast start places me in a tussle with both of the other drivers right from the start – in other words, there's no clear space.
Three-quarters of the way through the race, another driver dives to the inside coming into the hairpin at turn 10. There’s contact between our two cars as we round the tight corner together – too much contact.
A few laps later, another driver makes a late dive down the inside at the same hairpin. There’s contact again and my damaged car is bounced into the other car and then into the outside wall at turn 10. My race is over. Even worse, the damage to my I-Pace is too extensive to repair in time for the race the following day. Heartbreak.
The adage goes that, as soon as the second motor car was built, the first car race was organized. On the surface, the idea of racing an all-electric SUV in one of the world’s most populated cities seems less than thrilling. But pitting yourself against another driver in equal machinery is a real challenge, regardless of the car, the shape of the car or how it’s powered. Over and above all that, the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy is a real race car capable of testing even an experienced driver’s capabilities.
A new race season goes green
The second season for the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy kicked off in November and continues through midsummer 2020. Since my experience last summer, there have been some interesting advancements in both the road-going and race versions of the I-Pace that prove there’s still real-world value to be derived from racing cars.
The I-Pace that’s in your local Jaguar Land Rover retailer now has an additional 19 km of range available from the same 90 kWh battery pack. The improvement is a direct result of information gathered from the race series with engineers adjusting the regenerative brakes, AWD system and battery management system settings, according to the company. Existing owners can achieve the additional range through an over-the-air software update. Total all-electric driving range for the production I-Pace now comes in at 377 km – provided you keep the thing off the walls.
Meanwhile, the race version now features an “attack mode” button that allows drivers to tap more energy from the battery to gain extra speed for a limited amount of time. There have also been some changes made to the braking and suspension systems to help create more excitement for drivers and fans alike.
A city circuit like Brooklyn can be unforgiving – but it’s part of what makes the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy such a big challenge. This season, the series will visit Paris, Rome, New York and London, among others.
For the driver interested in a technologically advanced series that’s unlike anything else out there, this is as good as it gets. The same goes for anyone ready to battle with other drivers on tracks where the margin for error is desperately slim. The electrified action restarts in Mexico City in mid-February.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
Stay on top of all our Drive stories. We have a Drive newsletter covering car reviews, innovative new cars and the ups and downs of everyday driving. Sign up for theweekly Drive newsletter, delivered to your inbox for free. Follow us on Instagram,@globedrive.