No Gas Guzzlers Here; Beijing Hosts First All-Electric Car Race
Some of the world's top race-car drivers put the pedal to the metal in Formula E this weekend, the first-ever all-electric automobile race. It was held in the Chinese capital, the first of 10 cities that will host the races between now and next June.
The championship is aimed to generate interest in — and boost sales of — electric cars.
The Formula E race cars are low to the ground, somewhere between Formula 1 and Indy cars. They've got aluminum and carbon fiber chassis, and can go from zero to 60 in under 3 seconds, and reach top speeds of over 150 mph.
Clearly, these cars are not your father's Prius.
On Saturday, 10 teams with two drivers each competed on a narrow track set up around Beijing's iconic Olympic stadium, more commonly known as the Bird's Nest. The race covered about 50 miles, or 25 laps around a circuit that was roughly 2 miles.
Outside the pit stop of the Amlin Aguri team, where mechanics swap tires, is driver Katherine Legge. She is a Briton who has settled in Indianapolis and raced twice in the Indy 500.
She explains that the Formula E car batteries only put out 28 kilowatt-hours, so drivers have to use two cars to finish the race. They have to conserve energy while going as fast as they can. They also use the brakes and the clutch to charge the battery on the fly.
"You've got lots of dials and switches and knobs and things to turn on the wheel, and paddles to pull," she says, "and so you have to be patient, and also forward-thinking as a driver as well, to try and manage the amount of allotted energy that we have."
Because of the heavy weight of the car's battery, it steers differently from other cars. And less engine noise means drivers get less information about the car's performance.
Training for Formula E has meant a lot of time and commitment for the drivers and their teams.
"It's important to be seen as green and viable," says Legge. "By being here, I've shown how committed I am to the concept. I believe in it, and I think everybody here believes in it, and I do believe it will be a success.
"It feels special to be part of something completely new, something that may help define the future," says Nick Heidfeld, a seasoned German driver for the Monaco-based Venturi team.
"What we're trying to show to the world is electric vehicles can be fast, they can be sexy, they can be cool," adds Jim Wright, who manages Venturi's business side.
"And we want the next generation — I guess guys who are in their teens now, teenagers — their first car that they buy, we want that to be an electric vehicle," Wright says.
It's no coincidence, he adds, that Formula E's first leg is being held in China. It's the world's biggest market for automobiles, and the government sees electric cars as part of the solution to the country's pollution problem.
But professor Song Jian, of Tsinghua University's automotive engineering department in Beijing, says gas is still cheap enough in China that motorists don't have to think much about conserving it. Until battery technology is more commercially viable, he predicts, even the most progressive government policies won't get people buying electric cars.
"Formula E may help young people understand the technology," he says, "but it may not do much to boost sales. After all, race cars are a far cry from what ordinary consumers buy."
"Sure," he adds, "you've got Formula 1 racing. But how many young people go out and buy Formula 1 cars?"
There were a couple of crashes on Saturday, but no serious injuries. Team Audi took first place. In the coming months, the races will be held in cities including London, Buenos Aires and Miami.
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