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Soup of This Day #394: You Stick Around Now It May Show

October 1, 2014

Spark-Renault SRT 01E
The Spark-Renault SRT 01E looks like it’s moving even when it’s parked – Photo: Smokeonthewater, 2013. Smokeonthewater is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

Mate…

The other night I set aside a couple of hours to watch the future of motorsport – The first ever Formula E race.

This new class of motorsport mates the slick grandeur of open-wheel racing with cutting-edge electric-powered technology. It’s everything we dreamed of as kids and that science-fiction films taught us was possible.

And there’s a part of me that wants those two hours of my life back.

Because as relevant and of the future as this category simultaneously is, it’s also mind-numbingly boring to watch.

It’s not difficult to understand why, although it is easy to get blinded by the show – The cars for instance, all Spark-Renault SRT 01E models, absolutely look the goods – They have Formula 1 style aero packages, all slippery angles and sleek, understated curves. The tyres too are suitably fat and sticky, and the whole gives the impression that given enough velocity, these sexy wraiths will hold, even upside down, to the roof of a tunnel.

Given enough velocity.

Which these cars don’t have. They in fact have nowhere near enough velocity, with the entrants in the opening race topping out at around 160kph. That’s hardly fast for pretty much any modern motorsport category. That too was the upper limit – At times, while negotiating one of a number of chicanes, some cars were slowing down to below 50kph.

I sometimes go slower than that during my morning commute, but that’s because I need to slow down for school zones (40kph here in Western Australia). There were no school zones on the Beijing circuit in use for this debut Formula E race.

In truth there wasn’t much of anything on that circuit to make it interesting – It wasn’t far off being an innocuous rectangle, occasionally leavened by chicanes designed to aid energy recovery. The latter are crucial as these cars harvest energy from braking and squeeze it back into the running of the engine. They need to do this because, while the race was less than 100km and scheduled to take no more than an hour, there simply wasn’t enough juice in each car to make it more than halfway through.

This posed a fairly novel dilemma for competing teams, in that you can’t refuel one of these cars like you can a conventional petrol-powered unit – It simply takes too long to charge up the batteries and they’re not easily removable either. So the organisers settled on the best available means for turning around a car that had run out of power.

They didn’t.

Instead, each entrant had two cars. At the halfway mark of the race, there was a mandatory pit stop whereby the driver would swap cars, exchanging an almost-flat unit for a full-charged, ‘here’s-one-I-prepared-earlier’. This was handled surprisingly cleanly – Each team had to stop for a minimum amount of time, so this administrative manoeuvre could have little impact on the actual race, allowing competitors to fairly seamlessly howl back out on to the track.

And howl they did, although not like the ferocious scream that Formula 1 cars used to have. Formula E cars have a high-pitched breathy whine. A little like that imagined in this future vision from the 1992 movie, Freejack:

Mick Jagger’s fleet of pursuit vehicles sound like they might be electrical units, most likely powered by batteries. Mick Jagger’s acting also seems to be powered by batteries. Batteries that are low on charge.

This sound is strangely fitting and because of that, not annoying. If going on context, that whine may even be a better sound than what you get from the low, coughing V6 turbos of the current generation of Formula 1 cars.

So these cars look like ducks (Sexy, swooping ducks) and they quack like ducks (Futuristic, jacked cyborg ducks) – The problem I keep coming back to is that they don’t paddle like ducks. At least not healthy ducks.

This is because speed is as fundamental to motorsport as webbed feet are to a duck. For sure there are other elements that make up racecraft but speed is what binds them into a compelling package. Without that velocity, we’re talking chess-on-wheels.

Disclosure: I had a bastard of a chess computer as a kid and my views of that game may be slightly coloured in a shade of unreasonably pissed-off. Thank you Hanimex and your cunning Portachess CXG202.

My prejudices aside, chess is measured and thoughtful. It’s also slow and so it’s not a spectator sport with mass appeal. This is a template you want to avoid for motorsport.

Maybe the organisers of Formula E realised this and were keen to avoid spectators being turned off this early into the concept. That could explain the odd element they tried to inject into proceedings – With competitors given a strict and frugal energy budget for the Beijing ePrix, there was a precious five second power boost gifted to the three competitors who received the most votes in a pre-race poll.

To be fair, five seconds is not an outright distortion – Certainly not in the way the ‘Reverse Play’ button is on the CXG202 (You can switch sides when losing. I accidentally leaned on that button sometimes) but it’s still a false note and an unnecessary one too – There were other elements to promote on the Beijing track…

Stuff like the two female drivers, racing this series on merit. Yep, Formula E is how it should be in so many ways.

It just needs speed.

It will get it too, because this is truly the future of motorsport. That’s why I figure on taking out a couple of more hours of my life to watch the next race, around Malaysia’s Putrajaya Street Circuit in late November. Then in December it’s Uruguay, January in Argentina, March and April in the US, May in Monaco and Berlin, and June in London, before a whole new season with upgraded tech. Somewhere along the ride, these cars will get properly fast and compelling. It will happen and I can wait for that spark.

In the meantime, to add some buzz of my own, I’ve just dug out the old Portachess, whacked in some new batteries and taken it for a spin. Some 30 years on and it does ok – It’s hardly aerodynamic but it’s still ever so thoughtful and cunning. This time out though, with some help from my crew chief, I got to the chequered flag waved over the chequered board in first place.

…Mate.

You Stick Around Now It May Show

4 Comments
  1. Who knew when this post started out we’d wind up with a bonus movie review thrown in? Nice shot at Mick. I must confess to having seen that movie but at least I viewed it on cable and didn’t trek to the cinema for that dreck. The latest cars don’t sound like the greatest. Hey, as I flipped some printed calendars today to October I see there is a Labor Day in Australia coming up. Cooler temperatures here mean Halloween is near. It seems as though we just got done blowing snow away from the driveway…and soon we shall again. In the meantime we shall enjoy the colors of the changing leaves..driving about in cats that sound like they have the same velocity as these do.

    • Um…before I hit send I should have corrected that last line to read CARS, not cats. (Did I mention my eyesight needs a checkup…?)

      • ‘Cats’ works ok too – Those cars did slink around a bit, just not like cheetahs.

    • Glad to hear you didn’t have to pay for that movie – It had a promising cast but it lacked a little in the execution.

      It is Labour Day but only over for some states. For us in Western Australia Labour Day is in March – We did just have a Queen’s Birthday long weekend though and had ourselves a trip to the Royal Perth Show. That’s it for us now holiday-wise until Christmas, with no Thanksgiving down here. Meanwhile as you start eyeing off the snow we’re anticipating another record-breaking season of heat – Maybe you could spare some of the frozen stuff for us.

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