Electric cars: Future of motorsport or green gimmick?

A Renault Spark SRT-01E FIA Formula E race car
Image caption The Renault Spark SRT-01E FIA Formula E race car was presented at Frankfurt

The future of motorsport was unveiled at the Frankfurt motor show. Well, that's what some people claim.

An ambitious all-electric racing series starts next year, and the car to be used made its first public appearance.

It looks like it should be on a Formula 1 grid, but this racer wants to take motorsport in a wholly different direction.

The new Formula E championship hopes to prove that racing can move beyond the gas-guzzling roar of an F1 engine.

There will be 10 teams and 20 drivers racing on roads - not racetracks - in 10 cities, with a preliminary line-up that includes Los Angeles, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro, London, Buenos Aires and Beijing.

Alejandro Agag, chief executive of Formula E Holdings, the company running the series, accepts that it won't be easy winning over the hearts and minds of race fans bred on high-octane motor sport.

And, yet, he is convinced that Formula E is in step with society's direction of travel. Look around the Frankfurt show and giant auditoriums are packed with carmakers promoting their eco-friendly technology.

"Why should this move towards environmentally friendly cars not translate to motorsport?" he says.

Nor would you want to bet against the series' success, given who is involved.

The race car is designed and built by Spark Racing Technology and Renault. The chassis comes from Dallara, which for decades has provided some of the highest-spec racing bodies in motorsport.

Much of the technical wizardry inside the car is from two big names in F1 - McLaren and Williams. And the tyres have been specially developed by Michelin.

Sponsors - or partners - already signed up include US technology group Qualcomm, the transport giant DHL, and Tag Heuer, best known for its luxury watches.

As with other sports, sponsorship is critical. "Many companies are looking for a sponsorship platform that ticks the CSR (corporate social responsibility) box. That makes Formula E very attractive," Mr Agag says.

Injecting excitement

Formula E can trace its roots to the European Commission, which had been pushing the motorsport industry to think about more sustainable forms of racing.

The hope in Brussels was that it would give electric cars - once seen as a boring, even comical choice - and injection of excitement.

So, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), motorsport's governing body, explored ideas for racing powered by more eco-friendly means.

Eventually, Formula E Holdings, backed by a group of international investors, was formed and awarded commercial rights by the FIA to hold a championship.

So is Formula E really anyhing more than a marketing exercise? "Yes, in a way, in that the aim is to have more electric cars on the roads," says Mr Agag. "But one way of achieving that is to hold a great race.

"Electric cars have barriers in terms of perception. But we can be a technological platform, a technology test-bed," he says.

There was an era when F1 was a test-bed for technology that eventually filtered down into road cars. F1's tighter rules and regulations mean that's not so true these days.

But Mr Agag believes that the adage "racing improves the breed" can ring true in Formula E.

Speed record

There's no doubt that alternative-powered motorsport is increasingly common.

Image caption Audi's R18 e-tron quattro team won at Le Mans in June

At the Le Mans 24-hour race, Audi's success has proved the power of its hybrid technology, and next year Nissan will enter an all-electric car.

Drag racing and motorbike manufacturers have experimented with electric technology for years.

In June, Lord Drayson, a motorsport fan and former minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, set the electric car speed record of 204mph - that was 30mph better than the previous best.

Drayson Racing is one of the teams to have signed up to compete in Formula E.

Divided opinion

But Formula E has many sceptics.

The limited battery life of the race cars means the drivers will compete in two cars for about 25 minutes each, swapping between cockpits when the power expires.

Traditional motorsport fans love the sound and fury of F1. But Formula E batteries deliver a whoosh rather than a roar.

And there's also the difference in speed, more than 300km/h in F1 against a maximum of 220km/h in Formula E.

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, a man who knows a thing or two about putting on a motorsport spectacle, has voiced his doubts about Formula E.

"We are very respectful of his opinion," says Mr Agag. "He has great vision. On the other hand, we have our own vision and our job is to convince him."

The two men know each other well. Mr Agag served as chairman of Queen Park Rangers when Mr Ecclestone was part of a consortium that bought the football club.

Mr Agag says: "I talk to him from time to time. I have got his curiosity for the moment. There is no animosity; just a little scepticism."

Jean Todt, president of the FIA, called Formula E "a vision of the future". And this comes from a man who built his reputation in rally car racing and then as head of F1's most famous competitor, Ferrari.

He told the BBC: "F1 is the pinnacle of motor racing, but there is plenty of space for other championships, from endurance racing to touring car, to karting - and definitely Formula E."

He rejected claims that Formula E is simply a promotional exercise to improve motorsport's image.

"Sport is a mixture of good partners. If you want to have success you need good technical partners, good commercial partners, good marketing partners.

"The names involved in Formula E are very impressive. It is very important for the future."

Younger audience

Establishing a fan-base will be vital to Formula E's success, and it has struck an important deal to have the series broadcast by the Fox television network.

Win over the fans, and that will draw in sponsors and encourage more investment in the sport.

Image caption Rome is one of three European cities to host the Formula E championship

But Mr Agag is not only interested in winning over traditional fans. He believes there is a new, younger audience to be captured.

There are ambitious plans to enhance the digital aspect of the series. A video game is in development that will allow fans watching TV to race in real time with the competitors.

Also, the racing cars will have a power-boost function to increase passing speed, and fans will be able to vote when it is used during the race.

There are plenty of broadband infrastructure and GPS positioning issues still to be resolved. "But it's all do-able," Mr Agag says. "We want fans to be able to interact."

Mr Agag says it is important to remember that Formula E is new. The sport will evolve as the technology improves and the popularity of electric racing grows.

In the first year, all the teams will use a common car. But teams will be encouraged to develop their own individual vehicles.

And he hopes that one day, Tesla, the US firm behind the popular electric sports car, can be persuaded to get involved.

Mr Agag says he is not out to compete with F1 or any other championship.

But he believes Formula E will be a big noise (figuratively speaking) in motorsport and who knows, may one day consign the term "petrolhead" to history.

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