I went to a motor race on Saturday 2nd July, and it may not be the one you’re thinking of. The weather was impeccable, with the sky a perky blue and the pits occasionally glistening from a passing summer shower. There were all of the usual models, including car aficionado Jodie Kidd, and if one drew closely to the tracks, one could, surely enough, get high on the smell of burnt tyres and hot brakes like any self-respecting Formula One fan.
The circuit, however, is curiously silent. Conspicuously absent, too, is the scent of fuel. I am not at the Austrian Grand Prix, as you may have guessed by now, about to witness Lewis Hamilton take a lead poll in a dramatic, rain-hit qualifier, but at the Formula E World Championship in otherwise good-natured Battersea Park, London.
Sanctioned just three years ago by FIA to promote clean energy, Formula E is not the kids’ game you imagine it to be. The grid here boasts some serious pedigree, with many drivers having just come back from Le Mans 24 hours’ race. I’m talking Luca di Grassi, Sebastien Buemi and Jean-Eric Vergne, but also a few members of outright motor dynasties – Bruno Senna, nephew of three-time Formula One world champion, Ayrton Senna; Nelson Piquet Junior, son of also three-time Formula One world champion Nelson Piquet and Nico Prost, son of four-time Formula One world champion Alain Prost.
The technology is still fledging, of course. At 140mph, the maximum speed of a Formula E hardly beats that of your average road car, by contrast to a record 230mph in Formula One, and drivers still have to submit to the tedious exercise of switching single-seaters mid-race due to limited battery capacity. But these are early days for the three-year old e-car. On the morning tour, I am told by an engineer from the Virgin DS garage that cars are evolving at a dizzying pace, as confidence in the safety of the vehicle picks up and competitors are given new liberties to design their components with each passing season. The circuit is a giant lab for motor manufacturers, where their decisions not only make or break a car’s performance, but could crucially end up pioneering the everyday e-car of tomorrow.
Little wonder, then, that entrepreneurs and celebrities are flocking to back the technology. Business magnate Richard Branson, who could be seen sauntering along the pit lane, is one of the series’ foremost fans and has poured millions into his DS Virgin Team. Such was his enthusiasm, in fact, that he went on to predict last year that Formula E would be bigger than Formula 1 by 2020 – drawing howls of indignation from 2009 Formula 1 World Champion Jenson Button. Actor and environmental poster boy Leonardo DiCaprio is also the co-founder of Monaco-based team Venturi. I wouldn’t have minded toasting to the future of clean energy in his company in the E-motion VIP building, but sadly couldn’t spot any wolves of Wall Street in Battersea Park.
I console myself about Leo’s absence with a glass of Mumm champagne – one of Formula E’s most devoted corporate sponsors – and I am positively showered with the drink all day. The Grand Cordon is intensely Pinot Noir, complemented with the subtlety of Chardonnay and a dash of the fruity aromas of a Pinot Meunier. The Grand Cordon has a new bottle, too – an item inspiring almost as much intrigue around me as the forthcoming race. It is a fine, long-necked object, indented with a red ribbon which replicates the sash of the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest civil award. Naturally its designer is no less than Welshman Ross Lovegrove, known for his work for Sony and Apple, and who has exhibited in some of some the world’s greatest museums, including the MoMA and Guggenheim in New York.
A little before 4pm, the race was finally about to commence. We had been mustered on a stand overlooking the starting line, our backs turned to the Thames and, rather sureally, a 1984 Japanese Buddhist Pagoda. When at last the lights turn green, the cars flash by us with a singular, high-pitched noise – to me, a louder and more elaborate version of a child’s electric car, and to others, the whistle of a jet aircraft. The cause of the sound has long mystified traditional Formula One commentators, but we now know that it is the combination of a road noise, electric motor whine and of aerodynamics package. Richard Branson swears by the electric roar, claiming it allows spectators to enjoy a conversation and a drink while watching the race. Mumm Champagne’s Formula E Ambassador and former Formula One driver Jean-Eric Vergne, however, confesses to me that he can’t help feel a pang of nostalgia for the groan of a fuel-driven engine (read our full interview with Vergne here).
60 minutes, a few shattered wings and 33 laps later, Nicholas Prost comes out as the incontestable victor. The Frenchman from the Renault E-dam team has led from start to finish in the 2.92km circuit, while second-placed Bruno Senna trailed behind by 5.24 seconds. Jean-Eric Vergne, who collided with di Grassi over the second-half of the race, achieves third position. “For me it was a stroll in the park — the car today was just amazing!” Prost tells CNN. It is funny to see a new generation of Prost and Senna standing side by side on the podium of what is a new chapter for the motorsport. The three winners seem to enjoy the Mumm champagne as much as I did, and shower their fans generously in the late afternoon light, to the beat of a dramatic bass.
Final approval permitting, next year’s finale will take place in New York, while additional races are planned for Hong Kong, Marrakech and Montreal next season. And, in a telling reversal of roles, Formula E might literally pave the way for Formula One by inspiring world cities to host motor sporting events closer to home. Now, if that isn’t the future….