YOU’VE HEARD OF FORMULA ONE, BUT HAVE YOU HEARD OF FORMULA E, ASKS ADRIAN BURFORD
Brands like Audi and Jaguar are competing in the 2016/2017 FIA Formula E championship. It is a great place to accelerate the learning process
Hybrid race cars have been around for the best part of a decade, and as road cars for more than twice as long. The Prius population runs into millions and they’re mainstream. Even all-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, BMW i3 and the various Tesla models are no longer the stuff of fantasy. Still, if you’re the wrong side of 50, the all-electric race car remains something unusual.
The first experience of driving an electric car - in my case a Nissan Leaf – is somewhat disconcerting. You press start, and exactly nothing happens (though there are some noises reminiscent of a laptop booting up). The Leaf has been available locally for a couple of years and (pardon the pun) is now in the Autumn of its lifespan and was first introduced in 2010. Nevertheless, for a while it was the only all-electric car on the local market, until the BMW i3 arrived.
The Leaf is a bit like a large Micra, and kind of unpretty in the same way. But that’s where the similarity ends. It surges forward like a sports car and there’s a mountain of torque available from the get go. The lack of shift points is odd but less odd than the warbling of a CVT. within minutes you’re used to the absence of sound, and wafting along on a wave of electric Watts is strangely soothing and peaceful. What is also new, is a condition already being referred to as Recharge Anxiety. With a real-world range of about 150 km (if you resign yourself to using the slightly lethargic Eco mode and drive sensibly) planning is of the essence.
While we can debate the real cradle to grave impact of a technology flagships and the final cost of the ‘fuel’, I commend brands who go out on a limb to make something special. It’s a bit like motorsport, isn’t it? Try something new, and if it gives you a few-hundredths of a second per lap, then you keep working in that direction, until you have a race winner. Will the marketing department put a spin on it? Hell yeah, but that’s why marketing departments exist and there’s lots of authentically good things to be said – especially in countries where more and more electricity is coming from solar and wind.
While the Leaf is becoming old tech as far as new tech is concerned, Nissan say it now has covered 3-billion cumulative kilometres, and to celebrate they opened a ‘pop-up’ Nissan Electric Café in Paris in December 2016. It showcased an electric future in several ways – one of which was the innovative WeWatt's bar seating system, which encouraged people to cycle while sitting down until they generate a target wattage. Once they had done so, they were rewarded with a beverage of their choice. In the real world the powered seating system would be used in a more practical way, like charging cellphone batteries.
On an everyday level, the electric car poses a number of challenges for those who will interact with them on a regular basis. Apart from the potential risk of ‘refuelling’ one in a pelting rainstorm, mechanics and tow-truck drivers will have to have their wits about them - not least of all because a modern electric car does have the capacity to electrocute you. There are high-voltage cables between the motor and the batteries so there are specific considerations when towing a crashed Leaf, or extinguishing a fire on a burning Leaf (don’t use water!), or repairing one in a body shop. The owner’s manual recommends that a Leaf should be towed with the front wheels off the ground because if not, the traction motor can continue to generate electricity which could cause damage and even possibly result in a fire.
Probably the best people to ask for advice are the marshals who retrieve broken/crashed Formula E cars – I’m sure some of them have learnt the hard way about the hair-straightening qualities of high-voltage electricity!
Read an interview with the CEO of Electric GT World Series here