Phwom, phwom, phwom … in quick succession, they blasted past. Zach and I turned around, a jolt of adrenaline shooting into our veins at the sound, heads whipping around so fast as to risk the very structure holding our heads upright. Again… phwom, phwom, phwom … but this time, we were prepared and caught a glimpse of the BMW i8 just as it ripped around the corner in the front, tires screeching in defiance as the extreme forces being applied by the motor and engine of the plug-in hybrid to propel the car forward simultaneously threatening to tear it from its tenuous grip on the asphalt of the corner.
We glanced at each other from the shade of the underpass and we realized what this Formula E thing was all about. It was the day before the official race and the racers were taking advantage of practice time to get familiar with the track, the weather, and the current setup of their cars.
I had spent the two weeks prior to the Long Beach event catching up on the first 5 races of the season, and when streaming the races online, the cars sound a bit like pissed off RC cars, which I now realize was extremely understated … having now heard, no — felt — the manic supercars tearing around the track at 140 miles per hour / 225 kilometers per hour from a mere 5 feet away.
It was Formula E, and we both realized in that instant that we were in for more than we had bargained for … and that was a great thing. While neither of us were die-hard race fans, my pre-work for the race had primed me with an understanding of which teams were which and I had even picked a favorite team – Venturi. In the weeks previous, I had watched Venturi battle it out against the team that was currently leading the pack, and not coincidentally selected by my oldest son, Asher (6), who chose Renault for exactly that reason – he is über competitive and he thought they seemed to consistently come in at the front of the pack. On the flip side, my youngest son, Grayson (5), selected his team (Abt) because he liked the colors of its car.
The adrenaline from our initial trackside encounter carried us into the pits, where we roamed through the stables for each of the teams, watching them dutifully strip off the nose cones and wheels, carefully running through all of the pre-race checks that would ensure the highest chance of success on the track the following day.
Roaming through the pits, the jocular atmosphere was light and fun. The Venturi team celebrated a birthday, while others were absent, leaving their supercars to be assembled later like Lego creations devised by some mad scientist. I recalled from my reading that each of the cars is configured in a completely unique fashion in various motor and gear combinations that reminded me just how young this sport is. No specific layout reigned supreme but all were pushing the technological and physical limits of electric vehicle propulsion systems to new extremes in every race.
It clicked for me in that moment that, while these supercars are packed with carbon fiber, super-light batteries, and motors that likely cost more than my car, this tech is the same as the EVs we see on the streets. The dots connected for me, envisioning a push from the current two-car system — where racers charge through the first half of the race in one car then instead of refueling, as their Formula 1 peers would, or recharging like I would (which was deemed too risky to attempt in the short time of a pit stop), they actually jump into a completely new car that presumably could be tuned differently, handle differently, and obviously would come complete with a fresh set of tires to replace the ones shredded in the first series of laps.
Ideally, the races could be completed with a single car, but batteries and charging technologies aren’t quite there yet. The money, the ideas, the creativeness, and the innovation in this sport was pushing tech forward that I cared about. I had never really been into Formula 1 racing, but the allure of Formula E latched right onto me. I do love EVs … I do care about pushing battery technology forward towards lighter, more energy-dense, faster-charging batteries. I do care about charging and how we might implement some crazy mix of supercapacitors, in-road wireless inductive charging, and good old-fashioned conductive charging to crank more power into an EV. This is the good stuff.
As we exited the pits, I had a smile plastered on my face as the sun set on the day and we headed off to our hotel. (Editor’s note: I think he also had sunstroke.)
We returned the next morning to an overhauled race park. Fans were out in force, picking up race flags to wave for their favorite driver or team. I snagged two for my boys, as I knew they would be eager to watch the race with me when I returned home and this bit of fan memorabilia would make their day.
We made our way through the crowds towards the track and could hear the very same cars out on the track in the distance. No practice today — this was qualifying. Racers were vying for top position in the early hours of the day to secure a spot at the front of the pack at the start of the race. It was here, this was real.
As the afternoon arrived, the anticipation of the crowds ramped up, fans heading towards the grandstands to secure the best seats. We headed towards turn 5, the corner that we were tipped off would be the scene of the most action-packed turns, where we met up with fellow CleanTechnica contributor Chris Dragon and his wife Murrah to take in the action.
These seats were fantastic and we were able to see several turns of the track, a huge monitor streaming other areas of the race along with an audio broadcast, calling out the highlights of the race as they unfolded on one area of the track or another. I was enthralled as the laps buzzed by, and before I knew it, the 41 laps were over with Team Abt securing 1st and 3rd with my very own Team Venturi driver Stephane Sarrazin securing the highest finish of the season in 2nd.
Wow. We stumbled out of the grandstands with the masses and floated around in the crowd gathering in front of the podiums as the adrenaline seemingly evacuated our bodies, leaving behind a sleepy afternoon haze as the sun lazily drifted down towards the earth for the night.
We closed out the night with a stop at a local vegan restaurant where Long Beach local, long-time EV aficionado, and CleanTechnica contributor Nicolas Zart zoomed by on his Mahindra GenZe electric bike. We chatted for a bit at the café in the waning light as the drive home started weighing on me and we collectively realized that the long day in the sun must come to an end. What a day….
All Images credit Kyle Field
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