Well that’s one way to generate interest in the new, all-electric Formula E racing series: have the P1 driver and second-place challenger take each other out spectacularly, all on the last lap, in the last turn of this heavy-hitter-laden series’ first ever race.
With former Formula One driver Nick Heidfeld clearly outpacing and pulling up nearly level to leader Nicolas Prost, the son of Formula One icon Alain Prost turned into the side of Heidfeld, banging wheels hard enough to make Heidfeld’s a passenger as he slid towards the last two curbs on the Beijing street circuit before the waving checkered flag. That first curb became a ramp that tossed his sliding car up and over curb number two, before crashing hard into a retaining wall and pirouetting down onto the pavement, shiny side down.
Both drivers walked away from the crash, Heidfeld especially lucky to be able to extricate himself from the upside down wreckage. Yet he got out quickly enough to jog up to Prost making that painful walk of shame back to the pits, remonstrating to the younger Prost, who would eventually admit fault for the on-track altercation. And Heidfeld, who holds the unfortunate record for most Formula One Grand Prix podium finishes without a win, would go without either once more, as another ex-F1 driver Lucas di Grossi put himself and his Audi Sport ABT team into the history books as the inaugural winner of the first FIA-sanctioned ePrix.
How long that history book will be remains to be seen, as there is plenty of doubt amongst hardcore racing fans over the sporting credibility and ongoing viability of the series, despite the participation of well-known and respected racing names such as Alain Prost, Jarno Trulli, and Andretti Racing. The racecars consist of lightweight (888 kg, or 1,958 lb) carbon-fibre and aluminum chassis, with electric motors capable of producing 200 kW, or about 270 hp in qualifying trim, though closer to 203 hp in race mode. These e-racers are capable of 260 km/h top speeds, and acceleration from 0-100 km/h in about three seconds – a couple tenths faster than your average Indycar, though the Indycar’s vmax is a much higher 370+ km/h.
Inaugural Formula E Race. Click image to enlarge
While impressively efficient from a power-to-weight ratio, these Formula E numbers are relatively subdued for a major race series, especially with the cars whisper quiet compared to most racing machines: that’s 80 decibels, or about the volume level of a close-up telephone dial tone, versus over 100 decibels for the Indycar, which is closer to ‘loud rock concert’ levels. This lack of ear-splitting noise – or soul-stirring engine thunder, depending on one’s perspective – is a common criticism amongst traditional (generally older) racing fans, but if you’ve ever tried taking a child to an Indycar or Formula One race, the noise is often enough for generally cautious parents not to try it again, even with serious ear protection.
But perhaps the most controversial, and mocked, aspect of the TV-friendly 45 minute races are the scrambly driver switches to a new car halfway through the race. With the design of the current identical cars, the driver hops out of their original car, and into a second car with a full battery, instead of refueling in a few seconds using high-pressure liquid fuel.