MINI Electric Picked For Rome E-Prix Pace Car

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Using an efficient vehicle for a pace car is nothing new, but it’s good to see the tradition of using something both sporty and efficient is still alive. It’s 2021, so it damned well better be, right? This time, it’s the MINI Electric Pacesetter, and it’ll be used as the pace car for the Rome E-Prix.

“The ABB FIA Formula E World Championship is the top electric racing series as well as an efficient way to promote urban sustainable mobility,” said Todt. “The new Official Safety Car – the MINI Electric Pacesetter – is a case in point. As safety is one of the FIA’s top priorities, we’ve collaborated with BMW Group and Formula E to develop a car model to play this key role. I have had the pleasure to test it in Rome last weekend and its first outing has met the expectations. It has reminded me of nice memories as I started to compete in Rally in a Mini Cooper.“

Some Quick Historical Perspective

A Pontiac ad featuring the Indy Pace Car.

One of the first things I thought of when I saw this was the 1984 Indianapolis pace car, the Pontiac Fiero.

While we wouldn’t consider a vehicle like the Fiero to be a green car today, it was about as green as vehicles came in the 1980s. It was built to have a low drag coefficient, and 4-cylinder versions with a high gear ratio could get as good as 50 miles per gallon.

It was built on the same chassis as what was sold to the public, but had improvements. It had a much better front bumper, which would appear in the limited edition pace car replicas and then 1985 and later GT and SE models. It also came with a vastly improved version of the 4-cylinder engine that put out more than double the power. To keep that engine cooled down, they added a roof scoop that directed air into the engine bay behind the driver.

This was basically the only time that a vehicle built for efficiency really took a starring role in racing like this. The public and race fans tend to be more excited by muscle cars and other sporty vehicles on the track, and that’s what they almost always get.

With Electric Racing Comes Electric Pace Cars

With Formula E, this changed, and now efficient but sporty vehicles are the norm instead of the exception, because that’s what is actually doing the racing on the track. And it’s cool.

BMW is the official vehicle partner for Formula E, so it is choosing the vehicles to serve as “safety cars” (basically the same as a pace car), medical cars, and rescue cars. They previously used a BMW i8 for the pace car, and that vehicle will continue to make some appearances in the role alongside the MINI. They’re using a variant of the i3 for medical and rescue roles. This team of efficient BMW vehicles is now dominated and capped with electric drive.

BMW’s safety, medical, and rescue cars, with the Mini up front. Photo provided by BMW.

About the MINI Electric Pacesetter

“We approached the project both in terms of safety and handling as if we were building a racing car, and started with the body in white of the MINI Cooper SE,” described Rudolf Dittrich, head of vehicle development at BMW Motorsport. “The result is a car that sets standards in braking power, cornering performance and agility. And it is precisely these areas that are crucial on the narrow street circuits in Formula E.”

The company’s press release says that instead of taking an existing street car and modifying it to serve as a pace car, they started with a custom build from the beginning. Only the body and powertrain come from the stock vehicle, but they did make some modifications to squeeze a little more power out of it. Brakes are very similar to what comes on a MINI John Cooper Works GP, but the rest of the components were replaced with motorsports components. Tires are also a lot sportier than what most people would drive on the street.

One totally new feature is a Kevlar (ballistic vest material) guard under the vehicle’s battery. This is to protect it from getting damaged on curbs should the vehicle need to go over them.

By using carbon fiber and even some 3D-printing to build modified parts for the MINI, the company was able to reduce weight by 130 kilograms (almost 300 pounds). The safety car contains all the modules required by the FIA for passive safety. In the interior, the driver has all the required systems such as radio, GPS, transponder, and the control panels for the amber roof lights and other lights used in this role.

This probably gives the interior an appearance that’s like a cross between a race car and a police car.

EVs Are Letting People Have Their Cake & Eat It, Too

An old saying that floats around among automotive enthusiasts is, “Good, Fast, Cheap. Choose Two.” What they’re saying is that you can’t have a vehicle that’s good (reliable and comfortable), fast, and affordable. You can get two of those, but not all three. Vehicles that are both good and fast are going to be expensive.

A similar thing happened in the past with efficiency. You could pick a vehicle that was fast, but it would beat everything but the oil companies (who were going to take a lot of your money driving a car like that). Efficient vehicles were awful vehicles like the 3-cylinder Geo Metro or the Ford Fiesta. You could get great gas mileage, but expect to suffer. I knew one guy who had a Metro and it couldn’t maintain 70 MPH on the highway if he turned the air conditioner on. Some people sacrificed everything for efficiency, and others sacrificed everything for performance.

EVs are starting to change that landscape, though. As annoyed as I’ve been with my issue-plagued Nissan LEAF, it’s more efficient than the Geo Metro of yesteryear, but with far better performance and comfort. The vehicle wasn’t cheap, but people are now picking up cheap used EVs for as low as $10,000 (and cheaper if you’re willing to put up with a degraded battery).

We aren’t far from the point where people will be able to get a vehicle that’s good, fast, and cheap. And that’s exciting!

Featured image provided by BMW

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1761 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba