Formula E Racing: The sport designing our future

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Formula E Beginning 'Excites' Drivers - Sato
By TYLER DASWICK
College Contributor Network

Racing is going to design our future? I thought this was the sport with beer-bellied fans who bring their coonskin caps to the racetrack.

I know, I know. When I think of NASCAR, it conjures the image of people who wear belly shirts and bandannas and crush beer cans against their foreheads. In my admittedly-uninitiated mind, racing in general seems pretty unintuitive -- just cars going around in a circle, right? -- but luckily, there is a brand new breed of driving out there, and it is looking to change that perception.

This oughta be good.

It definitely is. Formula E Racing began about a month ago, and chances are high that you had no idea. It is the world's very first fully-electric racing series. That means that each of the ten teams, ranging from Germany's Audi Sport ABT to America's Dragon Racing, are driving a series-approved electric racecar. That car goes zero to sixty in three seconds, and it tops out at 150 miles per hour. This is the future. This is real.

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Woah. That is cool. But hold on -- a racing series for electric cars? That sounds like something I'd find in the inevitable ninth Fast and Furious movie.

Actually, this is far from an underground series. Formula E is a single-seater championship put on by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) from France. The series operates under three principles: Energy, Environment and Entertainment. Certainly, a big function of Formula E is to reveal a new brand of racing, but they also seek to create a formula for advancement in electric vehicle technology, eventually making electric cars more accessible to everyday drivers.

Seems legit, but all I know about electric cars comes from old Chevy Volt commercials and my rich neighbor's Tesla. Is that what these guys are driving on the racetrack?

Good question. The championship right now operates under strict regulations, so for the inaugural season, drivers can only operate the Spark-Renault SRT_01E (built by new French company Spark Racing Technology). This is the aforementioned 150 mph future-car.

Woah. That thing looks like something out of a Tron movie, but I still don't know if I would go and see a race. Watching ten guys all drive the same car around and around seems pretty boring.

Very fair, but, Formula E has something no other race has: fan-determined speed boosts. At the beginning of each race, fans can vote for three drivers that they want to award a "FanBoost" to, and the selected drivers receive a 5-second spike in their car's power at any point in the race. The team uses the FanBoost, and then their car goes faster (20% faster!) for five whole seconds. You know what we call that in the world of Mario Kart and other racing video games? Turbo. Professional racing has turbo now.

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As exciting as that sounds, I see a loophole in this European racing fantasy. All this boosting has to be tough on the battery -- what happens when someone's car runs out of power?

Easy -- they change cars. Every team in Formula E is given two cars at the beginning of every race, so when the driver sees his Spark-Renault running out of juice, he takes it to the pit stop and hops in the bonus car and takes off again. They have to do this at least once during the race according to the rules of the series, and additional pit stops can be made in case of tire changes or other issues.

The only caveat: the car-switch pit stop cannot be the same stop for changing tires or fixing other problems. It is an interesting wrinkle (by the way, the Formula E website claims that it takes a mere 50 minutes to charge all 20 race-driven cars from dead to full -- woah).

Look, we might have power-ups in sports now, and the electric car technology in the world today might be secretly mind-boggling, but this is still lame. Gearheads love breaking down the cars, and if all the cars are the same, that takes away a lot of nuance. Dumb.

Hang in there. Season one has nine races left, and then Formula E goes onward to season two, where the FIA opens up the rulebook and allows teams and manufacturers to use their own inventions and innovations to modify, and even build from scratch, their own custom cars. The FIA will have certain standards and specifications in place, of course, but the whole system is designed to filter these new technologies (and especially the battery technology) into the widespread market, so they want to encourage experimentation and advancement. They want us to drive cars with this technology one day, ideally leading to a cleaner road system and a healthier planet. Literally everyone wins.

So other companies like Tesla can potentially enter the ring and build electric race-cars?

Yeah! And imagine how the sport will evolve when they do. Right now all Formula E is trying to do is lay the foundation for electric innovation. The whole culture of the FIA is geared around making everything better, so in the future, we will likely see more tools like FanBoost enter the picture. Viewers will have more involvement and more impact on races, and things would be more dramatic and intense overall. Isn't that what racing was all about to begin with?

I don't know, you spent the whole first paragraph making fun of that kind of racing.

Touché, but you know what? This is a brand of sport that I can support. The technology on display here is straight out of the movies or video games, and to this new generation of sports fans, raised on Xbox and Playstation, it is really exciting. From a broader sports standpoint, it is also great to see an organization like FIA take so much care to ensure that their competitions not only prioritize safety, but also prioritize constant improvement.

I'm sold. So when I start watching, what storylines should I look out for?

Keep an eye on American driver Matthew Brabham. Right now he is the reserve driver for Andretti, currently the leading USA team. Brabham did not drive in Beijing, when Andretti drivers propelled the team to 30 points and a first-place team finish, but he has the talent and potential to be a huge contributor.

At only 20 years old, the Florida native has already won the IndyCar USF2000 series (in 2012) and the Pro Mazda Series (2013). He is coming off of back-to-back title years, and it will be exciting to see the impact he makes in this brand new circuit. Plus, with round five of the series taking place in Miami on March 14, the Hometown Hero potential is huge.

I think I'll go spend all the money I have on tickets. Thank you for telling me about the future of international racing.


Tyler Daswick is a junior at Northwestern University. He is a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers, Indiana Jones, and writing stories about cowboys and banditos. Follow him on Twitter: @AccordingtoDazz
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