Audi Wins First Formula E Race: Beijing

By Shirley Li

Beijing hosted the world’s first ever Formula E (electric motor car) race Saturday, featuring 10 teams of two drivers each weaving through a circuit around the city’s Olympic Park.

The 10-stop international circuit ending in June is meant to promote both the electric technology—something China hopes to use to cut down on air pollution—and attract new fans for a budding sport.

Team Audi won the weekend’s inaugural race following a dramatic final lap crash between the leading cars. Here are the major takeaways from the new sport’s first outing:

1. People Are Interested, Thanks to Easy Access

About 75,000 spectators showed up to the never-before-seen sport, including many local residents. The trick? The international event only required a park entrance fee.

But besides the low rate, the competition brought a unique feel to the city, one that wasn’t just about racing, but about innovation as well. As the South China Morning Post reported from the scene, fans “lined the track sides, carrying children on their shoulders as the futuristic whine of the cars sounded across the track, and techno music added to the atmosphere.” Fans were also encouraged to use a program called FanBoost, which they could use to vote for their favorite drivers.

The race also didn’t require Beijing itself to invest exorbitant time and resources into planning and programming. Formula E can pack everything—practice rounds, qualifying races, and the hour-long competition—into a single day, a marked difference from the three days usually required for other series.

2. The Real World Applications For the Technology Are Easy to See

With about $100 million in backing from Formula One veterans and notable names like Sir Richard Branson and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the series had plenty of room for developing faster energy-saving cars. The result: The Spark-Renault SRT_01E, which all drivers are using for this first international circuit.

The car features top-of-the-line elements, from its tires to its steering wheel. The all-weather tires designed by Michelin can last the whole race, meaning each Formula E car received only 10 tires for the race weekend, compared to the whopping 52 Formula One cars receive. The massive battery pack, which occupies the space usually meant for the engine and gas tank in F1 cars, weights about 772 pounds, but can accelerate a car past 150 mph at top speeds. The motor also yields just 80 decibels, far quieter than the 130 decibels F1 cars emit around the track.

What does this all mean? For one thing, it proves electric cars are quieter, durable, and will have no trouble picking up speed. As Beijing native Wang Zhigang told The New York Times, “I had no idea electric cars could be so fast.”

For another, China’s willing to pursue the electric cars. According to The Times, the country aims to have five million of the vehicles in use by 2020. Of course, ordinary consumers will have to be convinced into buying electric cars first. China may be the largest market for electric cars, but as NPR noted, it’s still home to cheap gas and skeptical residents.

3. There’s Ample Room for Improvement and Innovation

While the cars clearly work, they’re meant to be a first step on the road toward creating a popular electric car.

“We expect this championship to become the framework for research and development around the electric car, a key element for the future of our cities,” Alejandro Agag, the Spanish businessman who, along with the International Automobile Federation President Jean Todt, first came up with the idea in 2011, told the race’s website.

And development is inevitable. The cars may be fast, but they’re not quite furious: Because one battery can’t last the whole race, drivers must stop and change into a new car halfway through. For this first circuit, all drivers are using the same car, therefore all having to do so, but in the future, teams will be able to design their own cars, researching and possibly finding paths around the obstacle.

“Right now, we are going to be going about 25 to 30 minutes with the battery at 130 to 140 miles an hour,” former racecar driver Michael Andretti told CBC News in Beijing, where he had a Formula E team. “Five years from now, we’ll probably be going 200 miles an hour with a battery that is half the weight that goes two or three times farther. That is what competition does.”