While there was a curious lack of rally cars on the show floor of the 2019 New York International Auto Show, there were still a few race cars to drool over.
Despite the critics and naysayers, Formula e is sticking around. Even better, it seems to like New York City, and for the second year in a row set up a course in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn for the final two races for Season 4. There was a little less hoopla this time around, and New Yorkers flocked in the heat (and, a first for Formula e – rain!) to the 2.373km track – even if my NY brethren are still unclear on how to properly walk over the track stairs.
Because of the huge emphasis on being Green, the series ran shuttle busses to two main subway stations to encourage people to take public transportation. The track for the electric race cars is set on the large parking lot of the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, with the narrow cobblestone feeder streets blocked to traffic. The series attracts a curious mix of race fans, techie types, and curious people just looking for something interesting to do on the weekend.
The behind-the-scenes technology is fascinating. Formula e uses 18” Michelin tyres designed specifically for the series, and can be used in both dry and rain conditions. Unlike Indy Car or Formula 1, a good portion of the sponsors are tech companies that also partner with the teams. Speaking with Patrick Hurley, Vice President and General Manager of Acronis Americas, he told me that each team generated hundreds of gigs of valuable information each day. That information needs to be saved and protected on site. Acronis partners with the Renault e.dams team to store data ranging from simulations, video feeds, and telemetry.
Most importantly – there was racing. Earlier in the year at the New York International Auto Show, inaugural champion Nelson Piquet Jr. did donuts in the Panasonic Jaguar Racing formula a car, and he was back in New York for the season finale. Last year Formula 1 driver Sébastien Buemi couldn’t make the NY race, but this year ended up winning the Pole in New York driving for Renault e.dams.
Much to the delight of the drivers, the track was changed this year – longer, wider in spots, with more turns. The longer straight into Turn 7 and out of Turn 10 actually allowed for the chance to pass, making the race more competitive and exciting. “Formula e started something completely new so all the tracks were very conservative. All the Formula e tracks are becoming faster speeds, and longer straights, less chicanes, so for this year the chicane here is quicker, and the new part allows you to have a slightly longer straight, so that’s what we need. We need longer straights, we need a little bit more fast corners,” said Lucas di Grassi, “…if you make a track without overtaking points, for example Paris, it’s very difficult to overtake. Short straights with not really much space it becomes less of a race.”
Starting out in 11thposition, Lucas di Grassi (Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler),worked his way up over the race. It looked like the race would finish under a yellow flag after Alex Lynn crashed, but with about five minutes to go the course went green, and di Grassi took the checkered flag followed by teammate Daniel Abt and Sebastien Buemi.
After the champagne spray, Jean-Eric Vergne, TECHEETAH was crowned the season champion. “I can’t believe it – what a crazy race – god it feels good… I have waited the whole season for this. When I crossed the line I honestly didn’t know I had won. My engineer told me, ‘I guess we’ve done it,’, so I said, ‘what do you mean?’ Then Lotterer went past me and clapped, so I knew something was up. When I found out I was speechless. I enjoyed the race, but obviously, it was very tough. Some drivers were quite hard and overconsumed energy to try and not let m e by. It was actually really complicated, a real fight unlike in Zurich – today, the drivers were tougher!”
SATURDAY GALLERY (Sunday race results and gallery follows):
Sunday’s qualifying took place on a wet course after some morning rain – then the course was completely close as a thunderstorm blew through. Not the sort of electric we were looking for, but it passed over fairly quickly and the drivers headed out to the starting grid on time. TECHEETAH’s Jean-Eric Vergne crossed the finish line first, with Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler’s Daniel Abt and Lucas di Grassi in second and third, respectively, and narrowly winning the team title over TECHEETAH.
The next season should prove to be the most interesting year for the series with the Gen 2 car. Using a new battery from McLaren Applied Technologies and Atieva will allow the drivers shed their range anxiety, running the entire race in the same car – no more car changes halfway through a 45-minute race. Season 5 starts in Saudi Arabia December, 2018.
The Chairman of the Board sings that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Formula e certainly has made it by doing something no other racing series has, and that is successfully hold a closed-course street race within New York City. And Gotham certainly rolled out the figurative red carpet for the Qualcomm New York City ePrix – a ribbon cutting to open the track, Sir Richard Branson [Virgin Racing] turning on the lights to the Empire State Building, and Alejandro Agag – Founder and CEO – ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange with first season champion Nelson Piquet Jr. Yet to really make an impression on jaded New Yorkers, the weekend of racing would be a double-header – rounds 9 and 10 on the Formula e calendar.
In a conference call with the media before race weekend, Agag and team owner Michael Andretti talked about how the race finally came together for New York City. The series pointedly holds races in cities to promote electric cars and sustainable technology, and the logistics of finding a site in NYC proved itself to be difficult between subways, traffic, accessibility, and power supply. Agag explained, “We go to places where cars are really a problem”. Location after location was looked at, including Liberty State Park across the river in New Jersey, “But we wanted it in New York City, not New Jersey,” said Agag. When the daughter of a New York City official was impressed after coincidentally attending a race in Paris, they suddenly had an enthusiastic ally in city government to ultimately find the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal site. Located in Red Hook with an incredible view of the Statue of Liberty and downtown Manhattan, the temporary track was set up on on the terminal roads with the terminal itself being used for the exclusive VIP club as well as the media center.
Agag is not shy about Formula e’s agenda. Formula e is like every other series in that the impetus to be in motorsport is still race on Sunday, sell on Monday. “We wanted to on the ground floor of new technology,” said Michael Andretti of his team’s involvement, “You’ll see the tech on the road in 10 years. Competition pushes everyone to push the tech further, faster.” Sustainability is just as important as the tech; the race cars are zero emission vehicles, and the Michelin tires specially engineered for Formula e cars are recycled after the race. (Sorry, trophy hunters, no autographed tires for you.) The e-Village next to the race has a dj with booths touting solar panels, electric cars, and autonomous car tech. Incorporating digital technology in innovative ways helps to draw tech-savvy viewers from outside of the usual motorsport crowd – new for season three is “Fan Boost”, a way for fans to vote for their favorite driver through a phone app. On race day, the three drivers with the most votes can use the extra surge of power strategically during the race – blurring the lines a bit between gaming and live racing.
Many people comment that the races must be boring because the cars are so quiet – and hearing roaring engines is one of the cool things about racing, right? Well sure, but the cars are louder than you may think. Granted, there is no constant roar; you hear the TIE fighter like whoosh about twenty seconds before the car appears. The upside is that the tire squealing is much more apparent, and every tight turn sounds like it must be a crash because every bump is heard – but it’s just the usual racing and rubbing. Yet Formula e is still dogged by the perception that it is not “real racing,” especially because in its current format, driver switch cars halfway through. Seeing it in person dispels that myth – the races are pretty cool to watch, with cars reaching speeds of 140 mph and as much bumping as any other series. One security guard started laughing during the practice session, saying, “This is crazy!” Translated from New Yorker, it means “This is really cool.” Spotted over the weekend was Leonoardo DiCaprio, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, and even Magnus Walker checking out the races.
So – to the races! Fortunately, the sun came out after a rain-soaked practice Friday. The circuit was very similar to the narrow Hong Kong circuit with tight chicanes. The current leader, Sebastiaen Buemi, was unfortunately racing in WEC 6 Hours of Nurburgring the same weekend as the NYC ePrix. Taking his place on the Renault e.dams team was Pierre Gasly. Its’ Mahindra Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist’s first season with Formula e, and he was one to watch as placed third in his second race. Alex Lynn, standing in for Jose Maria Lopez on the DS Virgin Racing team, grabbed pole position in his first race in the series. Ultimately, Techeetah drivers Stephane Sarrazin and Jean-Eric Vergne placed 3rd and 2nd, respectively, and DS Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird took the win.
Round 10 on Sunday was a sweltering hot day. Sam Bird took P1. Yellow flags came out several times as cars kept hitting the wall at Turn 5. Mahindra racing claimed two positions on the podium – Nick Heidfeld and Felix Rosenqvist, and once again, Sam Bird was in the number one spot on the podium for DS Virgin Racing.
The future of the series looks brighter than a recyclable fluorescent bulb – with Volvo’s recent announcement that they will soon only manufacture electric cars exclusively, it will be interesting to see what manufacturers will join Jaguar, Renault, Mahindra, BMW…
The final two races of the season will be in Montreal, Canada – another double header July 29 and 30, 2007.