As expected, the world’s first zero-emissions auto racing series began in Beijing Saturday, but unexpected was Audi Sport ABT’s Lucas di Grassi gaining the Formula E ePrix win after two leaders crashed out.
The drama took place at the last turn of the last lap of the 25-lap race around a 2.14-mile (3.44 km) circuit which saw race leader Nicolas Prost touch wheels with Nick Heidfeld who lost control, hit a wall, and landed upside down.
As the video shows, Prost, driving the e.dams-Renault and the fastest qualifier and leader for most of the race moved left as drafting Heidfeld tried to swoop around him.
“I thought it was going to be a very big crash as well,” said Heidfeld after the race which had an estimated 75,000 attendance. “Once I hit the kerb it felt like I was in the air forever. I closed my eyes and waited for the impact and then I thought ‘Oh that was lucky!’ I have a small pain in my calf but apart from that I’m perfectly fine.”
After Heidfeld crawled out unscathed, the drivers verbally clashed with Prost accusing Heidfeld of attempting a “suicide move” according to the BBC, but later, after seeing the video, Prost accepted responsibility for making Heidfeld crash.
“I feel very bad about the incident… I understand that I am responsible,” Prost wrote on Twitter. “I just did not see him. I feel very bad,” Prost said. “The most important thing is that my friend Nick Heidfield is OK, sorry again Nick, you know I would never do something like this.”
Prost was handed a 10-place grid penalty for the next race scheduled November 22 at Putrajaya for “causing an avoidable collision.”
Meanwhile DiGrassi swept by to the win followed by Franck Monatgny of Andretti Autosport three-seconds behind, and third place was taken by DiGrassi’s teammate Daniel Abt but his place was forfeited because he was penalized for using 28.2 kilowatt-hours of 28 available from his battery pack.
Third place in the official standings was thus given to Sam Bird of Virgin Racing.
Katherine Legge – one of two women drivers – and Jaime Alguersuari were also penalized for being over the energy budget.
Other incidents included Mahindra driver Bruno Senna’s having to bow out on the opening lap after breaking his left-front suspension when he was squeezed between the two Amlin Aguri cars.
Also, e.dams-Renault’s Sebastien Buemi did not fiinsh after dropping out on lap 19.
Unique Race Series
Formula E stands out not only as a zero-carbon series – which by the way helped justify its being run at the Olympic Park in Beijing where air quality is a pivotal issue – but it’s unique in several aspects.
For one, it’s a spec-class race, at least its first year, with identically prepared Spark-Renault SRT_01E cars.
The cars – which can be power limited during the race – make about 270 peak horsepower, weigh an estimated 1,720 pounds (780kg) and are shifted through five-speed paddle shift gearboxes. Zero-to-sixty is under 3 seconds, and top speed is about 137 mph (220 kph).
The sound they make is 80 decibels, a lot less than a conventional race car, but a unique sound signature that may in time become associated with high performance racing.
Otherwise, the cars are sanctioned by the FIA like F1 cars are, but just as Formula E is about promoting sustainability, strategy involves managing finite energy and resources.
The allocation of tires is only 10 per car per race weekend, compared to 52 tires for a Formula 1 car.
Notable is these are not the most gumball sticky tires, but instead, rather large-diameter 18-inch Michelins specially designed for dry and wet conditions, and to last the entire race.
Also unique, and being called by some a “gimmick” is FanBoost which lets fans vote via social media for their favorite driver to gain 20 percent more horsepower for five seconds during the race. This seemingly small boost can put a driver over the top, but some traditionalists question the merit of essentially using a popularity contest to sway a competition’s results.
After all, the racing in other ways is conspired to be brutally even-handed enabling the best driver – not so much the best funded driver – to win.
How so? Observers have suggested Formula E is a more-fair test of driver and car as the vehicles are on paper evenly matched. In contrast, better funded internal combustion-based teams or those with better engineering for their conventional cars built under FIA rules, may make it a battle between cars as well as a competition between drivers.
As it is, Bruno Senna, Lucas di Grassi and Katherine Legge were voted to receive the five seconds of extra power.
Unusual also – although not unprecedented – is car swapping. The race promoters have said they cannot work around battery swaps at this point, and charging is estimated at 50 minutes, an unacceptably glacial amount of time for a pit stop.
So drivers for now head into the pits after 25-30 minutes to switch cars. So far we have not seen any reports that an “identical” car may actually run slightly better or not, but in principle, it’s at least certain a lone car is not asked to run start to finish.
Formula E does arguably make it more about the driver – though that FanBoost idea adding a popularity contest aspect in it has been called questionable.
But speaking of popularity, for a new race series, some big names have been attracted including major sponsor Qualcomm, Renault, Michelin and DHL.
Drivers and team owners include celebrities from traditional auto racing or family members – such as Bruno Senna is the nephew of Ayrton Senna, three-time F1 champion, and driver Nicolas Prost – the one who should have won – is son of Alain Prost, F1 driver and co-founder of the e.dams-Renault team.
Also Leonardo DiCaprio is backing the Venturi team and a cofounder. The actor who was one of the first Fisker owners, is doing it for his major interest in the environment, and that spirit, by the way, is infused in most of the participants at various levels.
Formula E will likely go through more teething issues besides the unexpected crash, but industry watchers are hoping it will add prestige to electrified transportation, and lend trickle-down tech and lessons learned as well.
The whole televised race event.
Reports have been saying Formula E is the “first” electric racing series, but we have been careful to qualify this is a first “auto” race series.
The notion of an electric-only series was first seen in the motorcycle world with the more of a run-what-you-brung TTXGP series that probably would have benefitted if it had been spec class as well – there was a huge disparity between first to last place.
With TTXGP the idea is also to promote electric vehicles, albeit with a focus on the two-wheeled variety. The first TTXGP race was held in May 2010 at Infineon Raceway in California, and yours truly was there for that.
Unfortunately we couldn’t make it to Beijing. Maybe next time.