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‘Formula E’ can make green cars sexy

Published March 22, 2013

You might recall that last spring I spent a day driving an open-wheel racer around Mosport’s training track.

The experience was a blast, but it burdened me with guilty questions about the 30 litres of fuel the Formula Van Diemens burned per 100 kilometres of fun.

It took a while but, eventually — Duh! — I conceived a solution: Race electric cars.

As usual, though, I was too slow off the mark and too empty in the bank account. Someone else, with far more cash and connections, saw the same light and is planning a battery-powered racing series to start in 2014.

“Formula E” events, approved by FIA, the global motorsport overseer, will occur in city centres around the world, making the point that EVs are quiet and pollution-free — at the tailpipe, at least. The organizers recently announced a preliminary roster from more than 20 that expressed enthusiastic interest. It includes London, Rome, Miami, Los Angeles, Beijing, Putrajaya (Malaysia), Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. Two more are to be added for the inaugural year — the schedule is to be set in September — with further expansion expected.

Sadly, Vancouver is the only Canadian city, so far, in the discussions.

The racers will be single-seat, open wheelers, just like Formula One.

Since there’s no guarantee independent groups will produce any cars for the inaugural season, the organizers are acquiring enough to supply up to 10 teams with four each. A new French company, Spark Racing Technology, will build the vehicles, incorporating a drive train developed by England’s McLaren Electric Systems Ltd. Road tests are anticipated this summer.

The prototypes carry 30-kilowatt-hour battery packs (for comparison, the Nissan Leaf’s are 24), and will accelerate from zero to 100 in three seconds, with a top speed of 220 — plenty quick and fast for the tight urban courses, each 2.5 to three kilometres long, being devised.

Like all EVs, these machines have limited range: At low speed, they’ll cruise 200 kilometres between charges; but floored, only about 90, lasting 20 to 25 minutes.

That forces schedule adjustments: I think this is how it goes: Races are in the evening, after a day of practice, qualifying and recharging. The event is divided into three “stints.” Each team enters two cars and drivers. The first cars do the initial stint. When their batteries drain, the drivers pit and sprint 100 metres to the second cars for the middle frame. Meanwhile, the first cars are recharged for the finale.

Not ideal, but that’s battery power right now. Since one aim of the series is to advance EV technology, performance and range should improve — for racers and ordinary drivers.

Another goal: Shift EVs’ image away from polar bears and environmental angst and toward youthful, cool and dare we say — sexy.

So far, only two teams — one British, the other Chinese — have signed on, but the organizers foresee no difficulty filling the minimum field. It’s an open competition, so they’ll also welcome teams that develop their own cars, under specifications to be released soon.

Race winners get the equivalent of about $265,000. The overall championship is worth $5.3 million.

Unlike F1, cities won’t be squeezed for $30 million, or any sum, to host the event; just the cost of traffic management. No word yet on major sponsorships or driver commitments.

Who beat me to the punch? — Alejandro Agag, a Spanish businessman with bags of money and a list of social, political and racing contacts longer than any EV could hope to travel between charges.

Agag has worked with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone but is his polar opposite about embracing new ideas.

“The fact that we will only race in city centres highlights the main message of our championship: the electric car as a solution for mobility in cities of the future,” he says.

Good luck to him, and excuse me while I hit the track for some practice laps.

wheels@thestar.ca

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