Impressions from a Formula E weekend

Formula E’s track in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn has views of both the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

Before arriving in Brooklyn for the NYC ePrix — Formula E’s season finale weekend — pretty much all I knew about the series was a column NBC’s Parker Kligerman wrote last year.

Kligerman had attended the race as a fan, only to find the experience wasn’t what he expected. His conclusion: Formula E was more of a platform for promoting electric cars than an actual racing event.

Still, I wanted to draw my own conclusions and went into the weekend with an open mind. But after getting to know more about Formula E, it turns out Kligerman wasn’t far off.

Formula E is indeed based more on spreading the electric vehicle message than existing as a pure racing series. The thing is, those involved in Formula E embrace that concept; it’s part of the series’ DNA.

Basically, to understand Formula E, you have to take everything you know about racing and flip it around. It’s the virtual opposite of NASCAR, which is what I’m used to.

For example: In racing, the teams try to maximize engine power, right? Not here. All engines are capped at 200 kW of electrical output.

OK, but they’re still trying to go as fast as possible, right? Nope! This isn’t about maximum speed, because going all out for the whole race would drain the battery too quickly.

Instead, Formula E is about efficiency — from both teams and drivers. The teams have to figure out how to maximize the amount of energy they have available and the drivers have to balance hard racing with conserving their battery (which in NASCAR terms sort of makes every race like a fuel mileage race).

Lucas Di Grassi, who won Saturday’s race, emphasized how it was pointless to try and build a gap on another car after taking the lead. Why? Because then a driver is using more power, and if a caution comes out, the energy was wasted for no reason.

“It’s all about energy management,” he said.

Race fans of other series would also be taken aback by the sound — or lack thereof. The cars sound like some combination of an RC car, a high-powered golf cart and one of those kid-driven battery-powered cars (except on steroids). At times, the screeching of the tires is just as loud — or louder — than the engines.

But there’s a huge positive that goes along with that: It allows Formula E to race in city centers around the world. And that’s massive for the series, because when the electric car revolution really takes over, it’s going to first happen in cities — where less distance is required for a commute — before anywhere else.

That’s why Formula E doesn’t do road courses, according to Renault technical manager Vincent Gaillardot. The series wants to be right in the heart of places like Paris, Rome, Hong Kong and Berlin to showcase what electric cars can do.

In turn, the cities jump on board because it’s environmentally friendly and goes hand-in-hand with their green initiatives. But it’s not the cities themselves that matter most to Formula E’s success — it’s the manufacturers (OEMs).

OEMs have been signing up to join Formula E at an unprecedented pace. Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Nissan are among those who will be involved for Season 5; Porsche and Mercedes will join in Season 6, bringing the total number of manufacturers to a whopping 10.

“Formula E has only four percent of the lifetime of Formula One or IndyCar — four years against 100 or more,” Di Grassi said. “But we already have more manufacturers in Formula E than in IndyCar and F1 combined.

“That shows a clear direction that manufacturers are looking for electric. Formula E is delivering in reality, and it will establish itself stronger and stronger in the next years.”

The race event itself puts a heavy emphasis on the VIP experience. It’s a place where companies can host clients and show off their involvement in a cool, trendy form of motorsport. There’s an exclusive “Emotion Club” where celebrities mingling with executives and beautiful people — clearly a place to be seen.

There are a few thousand grandstand seats for the public, but it’s clear attendance isn’t how Formula E makes its money. As a result, there’s free access to what’s called the “eVillage” — basically the display area — but you can actually do way more than that. The free ticket gives you the ability to stand along the fence for roughly half the entire track without a seat.

And the races are so short, you don’t really need a seat anyway. Every Formula E event is a one-day show — practices started at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, followed by qualifying and the race at 3 p.m.

The races lasted about one hour this season but next year will be capped at 45 minutes, which will enable the futuristic, sleek-looking “Gen 2” car to last the entire race (New York was the final race for the first-generation car, which required drivers to stop halfway and jump into a completely different vehicle since batteries are too complex to be changed quickly).

A look at the second-generation Formula E car, which will debut next season (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

During the New York races, noted open-wheel driver Katherine Legge served alongside the public address announcer in calling the action for the crowd as dramatic-sounding music played as a base for the action. Fans lined up along the fences and seemed to pay attention when the cars zipped past, but I didn’t get the “race fan” vibe from most of them (it was more like the “Hey, let’s go spend a nice summer day hanging out at this event” vibe).

There are also gimmicky elements, such as a fan-voted energy boost (that lasts for five seconds during the race). And next season, Formula E will have a power stripe — located off the racing line — that will temporarily boost a car’s power level like in Mario Kart (though drivers will have to risk a slower lap time to get it).

The drivers are media friendly (Formula E makes every driver available each day of the race weekend) as well as fan friendly (there’s a full-field autograph session in the free fan zone), so those are positives.

As for the negatives? Well, at least for American race fans — specifically NASCAR fans — it’s hard to imagine them really falling in love with it. It’s just such a departure from the norm in the United States.

“This is too different,” said Formula E driver Nelson Piquet Jr., who spent three full seasons racing in NASCAR (one in Xfinity, two in Trucks). “It’s not as accessible as NASCAR, it’s not as cheap to get tickets as NASCAR. It’s in big cities. NASCAR, nine times out of 10, races in small places where people can go with their own caravans and can have family time, barbecues and watch the race. That’s a whole different concept and lifestyle.”

Piquet raises a good point, because there was certainly no tailgating or camping at the Brooklyn race — you couldn’t even drive to the track (there’s no parking)! The only options for reaching the event were a subway/shuttle bus combo, a ferry ride from Manhattan or an Uber.

Transportation options for the Formula E race in Brooklyn, as seen from a sign on the fence. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

“Unfortunately, we are going to attract much more city people than the NASCAR audience,” Piquet said. “I think the racing would be fun for NASCAR fans, but even IndyCar for them is a step away. This is an even bigger step away. So unfortunately, even when this succeeds, I don’t think it will attract that audience.”

That could prove somewhat problematic if Formula E can’t hook the American audience like it has in other countries (when it raced in Switzerland, there were 150 reporters and 40% of the country was watching on TV). Series CEO Alejandro Agag said the future of electrification — whether that’s battery-powered cars, hydrogen-powered cars or some other power source we don’t know yet — will depend in part on how quickly this country adapts (along with China).

China and America have to lead the way,” he said.

To that end, Formula E has added a second race in China next season. And it will once again finish up in New York for two races in Season 5.

So it’s clearly a series on the rise with a ton of money behind it, and it has a lot to offer for certain demographics and types of race fans.

But is it for everyone? Not now.  Maybe someday.

The world is changing and evolving,” British driver Sam Bird said. “This is a form of motorsport that is exciting, fresh, new and caters to the younger generation.

“Everything is pointing in the right direction. It has a very, very bright future.”