Craig Murto: Formula E hopes to create spark

Nelson Piquet Jr. became the sixth different driver to win in six FIA Formula E races when he won last weekend on the streets of Long Beach, California.

This is the inaugural season for the electric racing series, which includes many world-class drivers with experience in Formula One, Sports Cars and even NASCAR. The Long Beach “ePrix,” as it was billed, attracted a large crowd of spectators to watch the electric cars join F-5000, F1 and IndyCars as open-wheel machines that have raced on the course since 1975.

Winners at Long Beach in the past have included names such as Andretti, Lauda, Villeneuve, Unser, Zanardi and Franchitti. Piquet’s Formula E win came 35 years after his father scored his first F1 victory, at the same circuit.

Lucas di Grassi, Sam Bird, Sebastien Buemi, Antonio Felix da Costa and Nico Prost won races before Piquet Jr. wore a replica of his father’s helmet on his way to victory at Long Beach, the second round of the series in the United States following a race on the streets of Miami.

Once you get past the fact that the cars sound like slot cars or electric radio-controlled cars, the racing isn’t bad. But there are a few peculiarities about the series that either make it stand out, or hurt its credibility, depending on your point of view.

The first interesting aspect is that each driver competes in two cars during one race. The batteries don’t keep enough charge for a full race distance, so drivers pit and swap cars. A more conventional approach would be to have cars pit and swap battery packs, but apparently the way the batteries are integrated into the cars’ design doesn’t allow for quick battery changes. Swapping cars obviously means that it would be more difficult for a paraplegic driver such as Alex Zanardi to compete.

The series regulates electric current in the same fashion that F1 regulates fuel flow. Buemi had the pole, but the points were taken away and he received a 10-spot grid penalty for using too much current during qualifying. And during the race, Daniel Abt received a drive-through penalty for exceeding allowable current. I dislike this as much as I dislike F1’s fuel-flow regulations. Just give the teams their batteries and let them race; if a team uses too much current and drains the battery it’ll run out of battery and not finish the race. Allowing teams to race regardless of power usage will lead to technological development, as engineers strive to find a way to go faster and longer on the available stored energy.

The final oddity in the series is the “fan boost,” a 5-second 40-horsepower boost given to three drivers to use in both of their cars during the race. The fan boost is determined by on-line voting. It is so gimmicky and silly that it harkens back to early computer games that gave players a limited number of “nitro” boosts.

As interesting as this series is, it’s misleading to call it “green.” First of all, manufacturing batteries is a dirty business full of toxic waste and environmental hazards. Secondly, it’s only as green as the original power source. Unless the electricity that charged the batteries came from hydro, wind or solar, it’s not green at all.

There’s always an energy loss when transferring from one form of energy to another. It takes more electricity to charge your cell phone battery than the power stored in the battery to run your phone. It’s physics. Since most electricity is generated by burning coal, in most cases it would be “greener” to burn coal in your car than to drive an electric car. It would certainly be more efficient.

Formula E has four more events scheduled to complete its inaugural 11-race season. They’ll race at Monaco, Berlin, Moscow, and finish with a doubleheader in London. Time will tell whether fans truly are excited about this series, or if novelty alone drives the inaugural season.

Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame member Gary Stuhler has a lot of racing seasons under his belt, most at Hagerstown Speedway. Last weekend he scored his 132nd victory on the Maryland half-mile. At Winchester, Jamie “The Jet” Lathroum scored the win.

Shenandoah Speedway’s season opens Saturday night, featuring Late Models and the Virginia Sprint Series. If the weather’s nice, be sure to support a local track, where you can still hear the roar of the engines as the cars compete.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.