It’s the sound that is different.
Whereas up until now motorsport has always featured the often ear-splitting noise of high-revving petrol engines, with this new-age motorsport formula there isn’t much noise at all.
Well – there is noise.
But it’s more like a circus than a cacophony – experts say the sound of one of these race car being driven hard is the equivalent of an ordinary car travelling at 140 kmh. But it’s different; there’s a pronounced powertrain whine that combines with the noise of tyres squealing under hard braking and cornering as 20 or so racing cars hustle around the circuit.
Welcome to electric motor racing.
It’s the FIA Formula E Championship, the world’s first fully-electric single-seater competition.
The opening event for the 2017/18 season has just been hosted by Hong Kong, and race teams will now compete in major cities all over the world – Marrakesh, Santiago, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Rome, Paris, Berlin, Zurich, New York and Montreal.
All but the Mexico City round are being raced on downtown street circuits.
That’s the whole point of Formula E – to take motorsport right into the hearts of cities, because the urban environment is the natural home of the electric vehicle.
Formula E is also about spreading the message of sustainable mobility as the world moves towards an increasingly electrified automotive future.
It all makes sense. The world’s transition to electrified motoring has started and it’s unstoppable. Countries such as France and the United Kingdom are moving to ban petrol and diesel cars by 2040, and numerous car manufacturers have committed to electrify their entire model fleets.
One is Jaguar Land Rover, which wants all its model lines to be electrified via hybrid or battery technology by 2020.
So it’s an obvious progression for the brand to have its own team, Panasonic Jaguar Racing, competing in Formula E.
Its two drivers are young New Zealander Mitch Evans and Brazilian Nelson Piquet Jnr, and they drive the Jaguar I-Type 2 which for this year has a new powertrain and more than 200 new parts.
Not only that, but Jaguar has also just launched a world-first electric vehicle race series, the I-Pace eTrophy, which will showcase the link between Jaguar’s involvement in Formula E, the development of Jaguar road cars, and the future of electrification.
That’s the tradition of motorsport, said Panasonic Jaguar Racing sporting director Gary Ekerol as his team prepared for a day’s racing at the HKT Hong Kong E-Prix.
Everything from Formula 1 to rallying has always been about developing new technology which then passes down to the mainstream motor vehicles.
“Electric motor racing is no different. I’d say that if the efficiency of the vehicles competing in the first year of Formula E received a mark of 60 out of 100, then this year the mark has gone up to 80 out of 100.
“And next season will be even better. At the moment the batteries aboard the Formula E cars give them a range of between 20 and 22 laps, which means drivers have to change to a second car halfway through each race. But cell technology has advanced so much that a single-car format can be introduced next season, because range has improved.”
Little wonder then that many of the world’s top vehicle manufacturers are getting involved with electric motor racing. Already Jaguar, Audi DS, Mahindra and Renault are among teams in Formula E.
Now BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Nissan are poised to join in from next year.
If the excitement of the Hong Kong event is any indication, it’s good motor racing, too.
These cars can accelerate to 100kmh in less than three seconds and have top speeds in excess of 250kmh, which made for good motorsport on a tight inner-city circuit that is 1.86k long, with 10 turns and two hairpins.
Formula E vehicles are full-blown single-seater race cars that are 5 metres long – which is about the same as F1.
But underneath, everything is dramatically different.
Each car carries an identical lithium-ion battery which is the equivalent to 4000 mobile phone batteries and which is limited by the FIA to deliver 28 kW/h.
During race qualifying it runs to a maximum power of 200kW, but in race mode it is restricted to 180kW.
It’s all so individual race teams have to control the rate at which their cars use, and harvest, their energy.
When one of these racers is driven very hard, a battery might last only 20 laps. The Hong Kong race is 45 laps, so real care needs to be taken in preserving available energy.
Exciting stuff – and isn’t that what sustainable motoring is all about?
And here’s another big difference – you can’t refuel an electric race car.
So whereas in the traditional motorsport the racers head into the pits to change tyres and refuel, with Formula E there is only one stop, and that is to change cars. Drivers literally drive into their garage and jump out of one car and into another which has a fully-charged battery.
No tyre changing is allowed either; in the interests of sustainable motoring the rules say that only one set of treaded all-weather tyres can be used per race.
And then there’s what is known as FanBoost.
This is a system where fans vote for their favourite drivers on social media.
Voting opens on the Monday before a race, closes six minutes after the race start, and it gives the three most popular drivers an extra 100kj of energy for a short period in their second car only. It means fans can actively influence the outcome of a race – something unique in the world of competitive sport.
It all combines to provide a load of new-age motorsport fun. At Hong Kong it was good to be a Kiwi too, because after a so-so day on the opening day of the competition double-header, Evans lit up on the Sunday to achieve fastest qualifying time, then was placed second in a five-car shoot-out to decide who would get pole position.
In the real race Evans finished fourth, but was promoted to third when the race winner was disqualified on a technicality – something about a mismatch between part numbers in the technical passport and the car. But it was the first time Panasonic Jaguar Racing had ever achieved a podium finish, so the team was celebrating.
As was said at the start of this article, in electric motor racing the sound of the race cars is distinctively different.
But maybe behind it all there’s a louder sound – the approaching noise of full-on acceptance of the electric vehicle.