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Watching drivers hit 200mph and feeling the basso thump of V8 engines hit your stomach makes Formula One on race tracks the boldest show on earth. But wait, what’s this? The cars racing in front of me are on the streets, not a track. And the only noise they make is an electronic ‘schmeee’ that makes them sound like Star Wars attack fighters. Oddest of all, it is (whisper it) fun. Welcome, sports fans, to Formula E.

Although it is a race, the cars look like F1 single-seaters, and the series shares a name with its noisy high-octane twin, Formula E is not a rival to Formula One. “No one can compete with F1 and anybody who tries will fail,” says Alejandro Agag, the flamboyant Spaniard who is chairman of the race series. “What we are doing will complement F1.”

It will also complement the auto industry as a whole. The brands that run the Formula E teams, including Jaguar, BMW, Audi, Nissan, DS Techeetah, Mahindra Racing, and NIO, see the 14-race series as a great way to way to develop and promote electric cars. New research shows that many youngsters are no longer interested in driving, regarding cars as expensive, impractical, and harmful to the environment. Vehicle ownership in the developed world could decline by more than 20 per cent between 2020 and 2040, says Norbert Rücker, Head Economics and Next Generation Research at Julius Baer. What better way to lure millennials into the showroom to look at a different kind of car – an EV (electric vehicle) – than by presenting them at Formula E races?

Wild cats
That is exactly what Jaguar is doing. Pride of place on the track on the day before the first race of the 2018-2019 Formula E season in Saudi Arabia went to Jaguar’s racing I-PACE EVs. They compete in Jaguar’s new eTrophy, the first international race series for electric production cars. “You can register, turn up with your car and a helmet and race,” says James Barclay, Team Director of Jaguar Racing. For mere mortals, there are ordinary test drives in road-going versions of the iPace. I grab my slot and – if I may suspend journalistic detachment for a second – YAHOO! The I-PACE is instantly the best EV I’ve driven.

We’ve taken real-world learnings from our activity in Formula E and applied them to our production cars to make them the kind of cars you feel you want to drive, not that you ought to drive.

Jaguar’s James Barclay

In Dynamic mode, rather than Comfort or Eco, it is thrillingly fast – 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds. (Top speed is 124mph.) At 2.1 tonnes, it’s heavy (batteries weigh a lot) – but that doesn’t affect its handling because the lithium ion cells line the floor, giving it a very low centre of gravity. The two electric motors, at the front and rear, mete out power to each wheel for precise cornering. I can throw the car around like a Mini Cooper with no fuss, next to no body roll, and, since it’s electric, no noise. Better yet, it’s guilt-free since, going downhill, I use regenerative braking – as the brakes kick in, they turn the engine into a generator – and reclaim much of the energy I used up going uphill. When I get out, all I can think of is that I’ve been driving the first high-riding, luxury sports car and I want – no, I need – one.

“That’s no accident,” says Barclay. “We’ve taken real-world learnings from our activity in Formula E and applied them to our production cars to make them the kind of cars you feel you want to drive, not that you ought to drive.”

What learnings? “The construction of the hardware, such as the e-motors and inverter. We need to keep them as small, light, and efficient as we can. The more efficient it is, the better the energy consumption and the better the range.” Materials are important, too, says Barclay. “We learn a lot from reducing weight in the race car. The lighter the car, the longer it will run on a single battery charge.” His race car engineers also maximise efficiency through software, control systems and cooling systems. After every race, all the data that he and his team have gathered are sent to Jaguar’s 8,500 engineers in Oxfordshire and the West Midlands. “What we do on track is a test bed for electrification technology.”

Jens Marquardt, BMW’s Director of Motorsport, agrees. “What’s happening in Formula E is like the early days of motorsport,” when innovations such as the disk brake emerged on racing cars and were swiftly introduced in road cars, he says. “The experience Formula E creates will have an influence on what we do next in production.” And, he hopes, on sales. Battery-powered vehicles account for just 1.2 per cent of car sales worldwide at the moment. But, thanks to initiatives such as Formula E, manufacturers expect that figure to jump tenfold by 2025, to about 11 million cars.

Gripping developments
It’s not only the carmakers that use Formula E as a test bed. Michelin, the series’ tyre provider, has created a new Pilot Sport tyre this year. The technical gains from racing tyres, notably weight reduction, are “fundamental to the development of tyres used by plug-in sports cars to increase their range,” says Serge Grisin, Michelin Motorsport’s Formula E Programme Manager. Another third party, ABB, the Zurich-based electrical and industrial equipment manufacturer that is Formula E’s title sponsor, has invented a charger that can zap enough power into a battery for about 120 miles of driving in just eight minutes. That’s almost as quick as filling a tank with petrol.

To drive home their message that electric cars are not only the future but also fun, Formula E races are run on circuits in city centres. “Staging the races in the city centre makes everything more accessible and brings home the relevance of what Formula E is doing,” says Jérôme d’Ambrosio, who drives for Mahindra Racing. “It helps the spectators to see a direct comparison to the driving they do every day – though hopefully not at those speeds!”