Formula E makes electric start with inaugural race

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Formula E got off to an electric start this weekend in Beijing as the series launched its inaugural season. The race was an interesting affair with big-name teams and drivers involved. A lot of names that Formula 1 fans will be familiar with. Lucas di Grassi, Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastien Buemi, nick Heidfeld, Bruon Senna, Jarno Trulli and more.

The formation lap had some slow starts but you can afford some patience as the series starts what surely will be a season of development and note-taking on how best to progress the chassis and power unit for future seasons.

Coverage in the US included Dario Franchitti and it was a nice addition to the broadcast to have a relevant driver unpacking the sport and driver challenges. I’ll confess that the intermittent and relentless palying of music during the coverage or racing was a very sour note. Injecting a drum machine trance beat into the broadcast while cars race around the circuit is a complete non sequitur. Racing was there, just seemed like DJ Tiesto showed up too.

An Early safety car saw the BMW i8 make its debut on track which was nice to see. Unlike F1, the sound of the series is what you would expect from an all-electric series.

I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching the world’s biggest Scalextric race. It reminded me of when I was young, my father used to be in a club that would race electric cars (late 1960’s). I know nothing about electric model racing but they seemed like they were 1:18 scale. I used to rummage around in his toolbox that housed all these rubber tires, gearboxes and wires and I was mesmerized by it. Chances are, the same allure had me intrigued by the sound and format of the Formula E series.

All the teams have the same car for year-one and that could/should change in the years to come. The spec nature of the series insured that cars would be running nose-to-tail and close racing was produced. It was nice to see cars that could race nose-to-tail without losing their front end int eh wash from the leading car.

Fan reaction has been very complimentary and some comments I’ve read are bemoaning how F1 can’t seem to find the excitement that Formula E had on Saturday. I appreciate the fanboi nature but they are two completely different series and barely comparable.

One element I did not like is the Fanboost where a popularity contest takes place in which fans can vote for a driver to get additional boosts during the race. Even Formula E’s own race recap fails to even mention who got the boost and when they used it so why even have it? The series would do well to avoid these constructs in the future.

The pit stops were a new dynamic as the cars do not have battery technology that would see them complete 25 laps so they stop for new cars, not new batteries. It must be a tough element as the cars are not always precisely the same in setup and while one chassis handles well, the other may be a handful.

The cars would pull nose-first into the garages. The driver would jump out of the old car and hop into the new car to continue the race. You can see where this will be a major element of focus on how to minimize the time it takes to change cars and could possibly be one of the largest elements of the event only shadowed by the on-track performances.

From onboard shots, it seems the cars were running down the straights at around 145kph or 90mph approximately. The gear changes didn’t seem lightning quick but did provide lots of tire squeal and chatter that could be heard sans the sound of an internal combustion engine.

The highlight was a crash on the last lap as Nick Heidfeld, who had a great race, made the move for the lead on Nico Prost. Prost abruptly turned in on Heidfeld to defend the position but it was too late of a move and it sent Nick flying into the air having been launched from one of those pesky orange curbs. Nick said:

“I thought it was going to be a very big crash as well. 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.”

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This handed the victory to Lucas di Grassi which was quite a milestone for this fledgling series. There are learning curves for all new racing series and Formula E will no doubt learn a lot this year. A lot of lift and coasting, energy conserving and car management and if you love that about the current spec of Formula 1, you will love it equally as much in Formula E.

Driver standings after the first race:

1. Lucas di Grassi – 25
2. Franck Montagny – 18
3. Sam Bird – 15
4. Charles Pic – 12
5. Karun Chandhok – 10
6. Jerome d’Ambrosio – 8
7. Oriol Servia – 6
8. Nelson Piquer Jr – 4
9. Nicolas Prost – 3
10. Stephane Sarrazin – 2
11. Takuma Sato – 2
12. Daniel Abt – 1
13. Jaime Alguersuari – 0
14. Nick Heidfeld – 0
15. Michela Cerruti – 0
16. Katherine Legge – 0
17. Ho-Pin Tung – 0
18. Sebastien Buemi – 0
19. Jarno Trulli – 0
20. Bruno Senna – 0

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