If you were never a fan of motor racing because the events were too loud or the action too dizzying, please allow me to make a suggestion — take a look at Formula E. The six-year-old series organized by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) pits dozens of international teams together in challenging, exciting, and near-silent, championship races at eight different venues in 2021.
Porsche — arguably the winningest racing automaker in history — is one of the key manufacturers competing in this year’s series. To better understand this “futuristic” style of motorsports absent of combustion engines, the German automaker invited me to hang with the TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team and watch a recent race held on a street circuit in Brooklyn, New York. The experience was, shall we say, mind altering.
From a glance, most passers-by would be challenged to tell the difference between a combustion-powered race car (such as those that compete in the IndyCar series) and an electrically powered race car from Formula E (known as the “Gen3”), but a more astute look reveals a few significant differences.
First, the brakes, wheels, and tires are smaller. Formula E race cars rely on regenerative braking – electrically recapturing kinetic energy and putting it back into the battery as electricity – during deceleration. Regenerative braking greatly reduces the workload on the mechanical brakes, so they don’t need to be nearly as robust as their counterparts on combustion racecars. Wheels and tires are smaller, to reduce aerodynamic drag and weight, and Formula E specifies that all teams must use a “street tire” instead of a competition slick (this year everyone is racing on special Michelin Pilot Sport tires created for the series).
Second, the E-racer is devoid of oversized wings, spoilers, and splitters. Formula E tracks are short and tight, with many sharp curves that require the vehicles to slow down between the short straights – this configuration ensures more action for the fans as it lowers vehicle speeds. As wings, spoilers, and splitters are engineered to creative downforce at high speeds (rendering them mostly useless at low speeds), they are unnecessary on Formula E race cars.
Lastly, the e-racer is more svelte. Combustion vehicles must incorporate a fuel-fed engine, it’s associated fuel tank, a liquid cooling system, and a transmission with multiple gears. Formula E racecars are mechanically simpler, with a motor, battery pack, and a single-speed gearbox that allows them to be better packaged – this allows them to be less bulky. Low drag is important, so engineers use wind tunnels to ensure they are slender and visually graceful.
Motorsport racing can be boring when things get drawn out over several days, but the organizers at Formula E designed the series to be exciting for the fans. Instead of qualifying occurring on day one and the actual race falling on day two – the traditional racing weekend schedule – Formula E packs everything into one day and then schedules two duplicate days of back-to-back racing. Requiring race teams to qualify and race just hours later forces them to preserve their cars – there’s no overnight break in the action to re-build broken components or bring in replacement parts, which keeps the competition fierce.
Viewing qualifying and the race is unexpectedly enjoyable. I was worried that the slightly lower speeds and lack of the characteristic thunderous wail of a well-tuned racing engine was going to leave my pulse flat. Instead, I found that the decidedly more serene atmosphere offered several of advantages.
Most notably, there’s no need to wear uncomfortable earplugs or bulky hearing protection as the vehicles are no louder than an electric lawn trimmer – it’s never even close to annoying. The absence of an overpowering exhaust note allows other noises to be discerned. I could hear the tires squirm, slip, and squeal as they were punished on the pavement. I could make out the changing tone of the gearbox whine as the motor speeds increased and decreased. And I distinctively heard the carbon fiber chassis “crunch” as they hit the curbs when drivers missed the racing line.
The action is also very digestible. The cars are significantly quicker than street vehicles, but still slow enough to easily follow as they zip by the stands. And Formula E is the only motorsport event that allows fans to play an active role in the race — they vote to give their favorite drivers “fan boost,” which allows “attack mode” (a five-second boost in power for passing). Lights on the roll hoops indicate the status so fans can tell which driver is utilizing the tool.
The experience of watching a Formula E race was unquestionably different – yet it was no less exciting. I enjoyed talking to (not shouting at) the people next to me in the stands during the race, and the serenity of walking through the paddock holding conversations at normal speaking levels. And, I’ll admit, the geek within me was fascinated by the new “electric” noises emanating from the track – it was a unique perspective on road course racing.
Porsche didn’t triumph at the race this time (they finished in the top 10), but I recorded a personal victory. Naysayers had kept this horsepower junkie away from Formula E for years, yet the race in Brooklyn opened my eyes to an entirely new way for an enthusiast to experience and enjoy competitive motorsport racing without wailing combustion engines… or those annoying earplugs.