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Iced Batteries and Screaming Cars: We Spent A Weekend With a Formula E Team in Paris

Pic Credit: author's own

Motorsport. The spectator sport featuring vehicles you will never afford, running on fuel that's quietly causing the end of the world. But the bit when they spray champagne on the girls at the end is really sexy.

To a generation who mostly live in cities, to whom car ownership is no longer a rite of passage or a success statement, a lot of motorsport has started to feel a bit burnt out. Yet an action plan to re-invigorate this fast fading area has come from the most unlikely of places: the ruling body itself. The FIA are the leadership behind motorsport's biggest classes - including Formula 1. They've set up an entire holding company, partner infrastructure and league specifically to cater to electric racing - Formula E. As a measure of their commitment, even the sport's official media handles are titled FIA Formula E. This isn't supposed to be a spin off - Formula E is intended to become the industry leading sport within a decade. Having already spoken to the DS Virgin Racing team briefly before, last weekend we headed over to Paris to witness the race from the pits and see exactly what the situation is down on the ground. Here's what we learned.

Existing motorsport fans: They do make noise. They're also more exciting to watch.

Picture credit: Author's own

The most obvious takeaway from being at the event: Formula E cars are noisy. Not quite as noisy as F1 cars, granted, but by no means silent. It's an odd sound too - the general consensus among all camera crews there was "Like a TIE fighter" although jet, or helicopter turbine would also fit. There's also the fact that the races all take place in city centres - in Paris' case, the historic central monument known as Les Invalides. The races are only one hour. The tracks are only about 2km long, so wherever you stand, there's cars every few seconds. The corners and bends are narrow and it's a city centre: there's potholes and varied surfaces everywhere. Add to this the fact that Formula E cars have a linear torque curve - that means they go from zero to full speed near instantly and the race is a series of screeching corners, bumps and spin-outs on hairpins. Small wonder then that as yet there's been no one team that's established a series lead over the others.

This is attracting a new crowd. On purpose.

The marketing, the advertising, the commentary around Formula 1 is a worship of fuel engines. They're sexy, they're grunting. You've got cylinder diameter, exhaust size, number of valves, all the Freud you can eat. Formula E has gone guns blazing to showcase electric motors, but takes a different approach. The pits are open: members of the public can watch from feet away as cars scream in to be pummeled by dry ice in order to cool the batteries down. The battery percentages are displayed on the televised footage so people can debate whether to use reserves now or wait later in the race. In fact in the build up to the race parts of the entire track are open, people can wander around, taking pictures next to the cars or talk to the drivers, most of whom spend time teasing each other semi-seriously in the build up to the race.

Loic Duval of Dragon Racing appears on a scooter halfway through a DS Virgin Racing team track walk specifically to wind up Brit driver Sam Bird. Picture Credit: author's own

All this hasn't attracted a whole lot of motoring enthusiasts - there's a notable absence of motoring journalists present. It does however attract hordes of curious students, young couples and general weekend wanderers who find themselves turning left out of the shops and walking into a racing track. Selfies fired.

DS Virgin Racing are looking way beyond Formula E, as are many other teams.

Pic Credit: Author's own

We spent a lot of our time in the DS Virgin Racing pits, which felt like being on the film set of a sci-fi movie. In place of chunks of engine and people running around with tyres, there were a tonne of flashing lights, alarms, laptops and just dry ice everywhere. In between frantic calls and team radio chatter (DS Virgin Racing drivers Sam Bird and Jean-Eric Vergne took first and third in qualifying. Vergne went on to take second place on the podium whilst Bird - who had sat at second for almost the entire race, spun out with 6 laps to go and ended at 6th.) the team all have different ideas behind where Formula E will go. For group CTO Sylvain it's the speed in which innovations happen that will drive the sport forward. "The latest generation aren't interested in cars. They're interested in tech. This is more directly translatable. Formula E is half car half IT. Modifications are not expensive. Anything we learn here - efficiency, speed, engine braking, is mostly software led. It could go from track to market within one year." You buy a cheap electric runaround, you rent a budget electric car on holiday and it's got acceleration based on what was learned at a race just last season.

For current Virgin Formula E team Principal Alex Tai, Formula E opens two avenues. One has little to do with motoring and everything to do with engines. Virgin has its sights firmly set on electric commercial aircraft. There already exists engines powerful enough for the job - the problem is battery life. Formula E - with its focus on battery preservation (teams are allowed just two per race, and in a few seasons time, that'll drop to just one) leads the way.

The second reason is conservation based. "60% of the world live in cities. In a few years time, we'll look back at petrol cars and the city pollution they caused the way we look back today at smoking in restaurants." Sexy in a throwback kind of way perhaps, but in the grand scheme of things, odd that it persisted so long.

The challenge: is making it sexy.

Steps have been taken to remove elitism, to remove sexism, to remove pollution from motorsport via Formula E. It happens on city doorsteps, it's proactively open to the public. The Fanboost system - which is undergoing a re-work - means spectators can literally hit a button on their phone or sent a tweet to open up extra engine power on their favourite drivers cars mid-race. But it's not quite sexy yet. This became one of the primary conversations around the bars and cafes surrounding the track. Remove all the roaring engines, champagne grandstands and bikini-clad placard holding women and you may be fighting the good fight, but it does feel that the sport is missing something.

That will change. Our perceptions of Formula E cannot help but be coloured by our understanding of Formula 1. Electric whines, apps, software updates and a focus on low-pollution. Sure, it'll take a while for Formula E to have sporting mass-market sex appeal. But hey, they said that about computers back in the 90s too. There's races in Berlin and London through the summer. They're fast, they're central and they're becoming bigger with every installment. Get there, before the crowd does.