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Formula E has made a fan out of me

Norris McDonald, who says he has a love for all things car racing, surprised himself by enjoying the Montreal e-Prix.

  • electric car racing

This past week, I got an earful from critics who fear I have gone over to the Dark Side. In my Monday online column at wheels.ca, I wrote that I thought the Formula E races held in Montreal last weekend were swell.

“Who knew you, of all people, would drink the Kool-Aid?” one wrote.

“If anybody was a petrol head, it was you,” wrote another. “What happened?”

First, I went to Montreal as a guest of Jaguar Land Rover Canada with an open mind. I’m a reporter, and I think that’s what reporters should do. If you cover a government, a court case, review a movie — whatever — with a preconceived notion or bias, then your report will be slanted and that doesn’t do you or your audience any good.

Second, I am a fan of car racing. I don’t discriminate. I like oval racing and road/street course racing. I like racing on dirt as well as pavement. I like Formula One racing, sports car racing, Indy cars at the Brickyard and in Toronto, drag racing, sprint car and midget racing, and — yes, now — electric car racing. Sure, there are some forms of racing that I like more than others — short-track supermodified racing will always top my list — but, in the end, I like them all.

For instance, let me tell you about one of my biggest thrills.

electric car racing

Six years ago, I went out to Toronto Motorsports Park (a.k.a. Cayuga) for the annual Canadian Nitro Nationals drag races. NHRA Funny Car competitors Tony and Cruz Pedregon were there to put on a special exhibition race. I was asked by my old friend, John Waldy — a southwestern Ontario auto dealer (now retired) who, for years, gave more money than anyone else to more drag-racing and stock-car racing teams in that part of the world than you could count — if I’d like to stand between the two cars when they launched.

Are you kidding me? Stand between two, 8,000-horsepower-producing, rockets? Of course I would.

And as I stood there, and the Christmas tree lights flashed down to green, and those two guys let a total of 16,000 horses loose, the Earth moved — and I do not mean in a romantic sense. The pavement underneath the soles of my shoes suddenly felt sticky, and I swear the ground was about to open up and swallow me whole. My knees went weak. I had my earplugs in, and I stuck fingers into my ears as well, and it still sounded like the space shuttle at liftoff.

It was practically an out-of-body experience. A sensory and visceral moment unlike any other.

I loved it then, and I love it still, just thinking about it.

Now, I was at the F1 race in Montreal in June. There was electricity in the air; you couldn’t move in downtown Montreal, particularly when walking along Rue Ste.-Catherine. A couple of young guys in Ferraris were stopped at a light, side by side, and they were revving their engines and making a wonderful racket, and people were running from all directions to see the source of that glorious noise.

So much excitement everywhere.

It wasn’t like that last weekend in Montreal. It was … quiet. The circuit where they held the Formula E race was more compact — tight, even. There weren’t as many grandstands; there weren’t as many people — although an announced 45,000 over two days was pretty good for the first time out of the gate (they get 100,000-plus on race day at the Grand Prix).

As I said, I had an open mind. The first time the cars went out on the track, they sounded (to me) whiny — like grown-up slot cars. But they looked good — like “real” race cars. The drivers looked the same, with their painted helmets and firesuits. They were going at a good clip; yes, like all electric cars, they took off from a standing start as if shot from a gun, but then it took them awhile to reach top speed (about 140 miles or 225 kilometres an hour).

electric car racing

But rest assured, they were going fast enough: Sebastien Buemi got out of shape going into a chicane during practice on Saturday morning and ran into the corner of a wall and destroyed his car. He was extremely lucky he didn’t destroy himself.

And when the lights went out to start the first race, and the 20 cars went barrelling into the first corner, a hard right-hander, everybody in the main grandstand there — every seat was taken, by the way — rose as one to watch who would make it through and who wouldn’t — just like when the Grand Prix gets going on the island.

And people would cheer when drivers made passes — and pass each other they did.

By the second lap, I was a fan.

No, if I had to make a choice, I would not take the Formula E race over the F1 Grand Prix. Or the Honda Indy Toronto. Or the sports cars or NASCAR trucks at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. But electric-car racing has its place, and Montreal has got another world-class event on its hands.

Good for everybody involved.

Speaking of Montreal having another world-class event, you have to hand it to the mayors of that great city: if they want something, they just go out and get it. The hell with the consequences — of which there never really seem to be any, have you noticed?

The late Jean Drapeau set the tone with Expo 67, the Montreal mass transit system (he didn’t worry about “partnerships,” he just had it built) the 1976 Summer Games (which resulted in one of his most famous quotes: “The Olympics can no more run a deficit than a man can have a baby”), the Grand Prix of Canada (after Toronto turned it down twice) and the Place des Arts, which singer Paul Simon once called the “finest concert hall in the world.”

Drapeau was vilified by the media and Quebec provincial politicians for leaving the city millions of dollars in debt, but the last time I looked, Montreal has never declared bankruptcy, and if Drapeau was so unpopular for being fiscally irresponsible, I’d like to know how he kept getting elected again and again until he finally retired in 1986.

The current mayor, Denis Coderre, is cut from the same cloth. When the FIA decided to sanction Formula E three years ago, Coderre immediately got on a plane for a meeting in Paris with Jean Todt, the president, and told him he wanted a Formula E race for his city to — as he put it — complement the Formula 1 Grand Prix.

electric car racing

Todt gave the mayor his blessing and, in fact, was very much in evidence during the weekend in the “E-Motion” hospitality tent, Formula E’s answer to F1’s exclusive Paddock Club.

Coderre was clearly delighted with the success of the weekend and the large crowds that turned out both days.

“I’m thrilled,” he told me in an interview (parts of which were published in my race report from Montreal last Monday). “We’re sending a message to the world that we’re an international city, the capital of car racing in North America. Montreal is the Europe of the Americas, and that’s why Formula E belongs here.”

Then he added: “Something is happening (with electrification of transportation), and cities clearly have a role to play.”

On that point, he is correct. Rightly or wrongly, the automotive industry has decided electric is the way to go. By 2020, Formula E will be the racing series where most of the world’s manufacturers will be competing. Jaguar Land Rover and Renault are on board now, BMW and Audi will enter next year, then Mercedes-Benz and Porsche will join. Ferrari is rumoured to have something in the works and it will only be a matter of time before General Motors, Ford and the Japanese and Korean carmakers sign on. Formula E is cheaper than many other racing series and there isn’t a better way to showcase technology and expertise than in competition with all the rest of the world’s electric automakers.

Now, not everything is hunky-dory. Yes, the people I talked to about all this — in particular, James Barclay, Panasonic Jaguar Racing’s team manager, and that team’s two drivers, Adam Carroll and Mitch Evans — were sold on the concept and, of course, they would be: they are employed by that electric car racing team. I think they were genuine in their enthusiasm, but if your paycheque is coming from a Formula E team, I suggest it would be beneficial for you to be supportive.

All, for instance, talked about the lack of noise as being a plus, that modern metropolitan cities would never consider a noisy series over Formula E. And yet, London has not renewed its Formula E contract, and there is a strong suggestion that Formula One could be headed for the streets of the downtown core of that famous place.

Both drivers made the point in interviews that Formula E is one of the few racing series in the world, if not the only one, in which all of its drivers are paid. Carroll, in particular, was adamant that none of the Formula E drivers “brought money,” unlike F1, IndyCar, NASCAR, and the rest, where many (if not most) of the drivers are expected to bring funding to teams.

It was only later when I was talking to people in the paddock that I learned that at least two of the drivers were, indeed, paying for their rides. There could have been more.

The poster boy of the series this year was ex-Red Bull F1 driver Sebastien Buemi. You would think that if Formula E meant so much that he would make sure to be on hand for all the races. But he missed both races in New York three weeks ago in favour of driving in a World Endurance Championship race in Europe. It might not seem like much, but to me, it spoke volumes about the importance he placed on the electric car series.

electric car racing

Be that as it may, as a sporting spectacle and a downtown Montreal attraction, it was successful on all counts. It will grow, of course, and the level of competition will ramp up accordingly. I really doubt it will ever challenge F1 for motor-racing supremacy in Canada but it carved out a niche for itself last weekend and it deserves its place.

Finally, I want to remind everybody about the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame’s Celebration of Speed day this Monday at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. It is both a Track Day (where you can drive your own car around the Grand Prix circuit) and a Ride-Along, in which famous Canadian racing drivers will take you around at speed. For details, go to www.cmhf.ca and click on Events.

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