Virgin enters 2014 Formula E championship: worth a watch?

Published: 05 December 2013

Sir Richard Branson will back a Virgin-entered car in the 2014 Formula-E championship, it’s been announced today (5 December 2013). It’s the ninth confirmed entry for the all-electric racing series, which gets underway in September 2014. But is this high-profile entry enough to make the championship credible to motor racing fans?

Why on earth would you want to watch Formula E – that’s ‘Formula Electric’?

Could it be better than Formula Petrol or Formula Diesel? The unorthodox marketing ‘hook’ of the newest FIA-sanctioned open-wheel racing category is unique in many ways, not least in its emphasis on what’s driving the wheels over who will drive them.

>> Click here for the full specs of the 2014 Formula E car

The category’s aiming to draw in younger audiences through social media and, by staging races in mega cities including London and Rio, and on the streets of Miami, lure city dwellers who wouldn’t venture to remote race tracks. The acceleration of the Spark-Renault-Spark SRT-01E – the 2014 control car – will be similar to watching a GP2 car. Yet it’s more relevant than traditional race series, say its key players, ahead of its kick-off in September 2014.

‘It’s a category in tune with the trends of the 21st century,’ Britain’s Lord Drayson – of 2013 electric land-speed record, Le Mans and political fame – tells CAR. Drayson was the first to sign up as a team owner for the series, and his theory is backed up by former GP2 team owner and Formula E CEO, Spaniard Alejandro Agag. As head honcho, Agag is quick to point out that the new category’s hardware – from McLaren, Renault and Williams – makes Formula E the ‘technology child’ of Formula 1. ‘We hope that Formula E technology flows into road cars,’ he says. ‘That’s our objective: that we can be the test bench for electric technology that can then be applied to electric road cars.’

Wait a minute, though: isn’t that the role of Formula 1? After all Sebastian Vettel’s RB9 already has brake energy regeneration (KERS) and, from 2014, will use electric power only to trundle down the pitlane. Does this make the 2014 Formula E racer – a control car, with a Dallara chassis – the F1 machine of the future?

Drayson is adamant: internal combustion in the nose is set to nose-dive. ‘Electric will always win,’ he says. ‘You’ll see more and more electrification in other categories,’ he says, adding that, ‘electric drivetrains are going to be more prevalent than the internal combustion engine.’ As a clean sheet of paper, the development Formula E offers, Drayson suggests, is in contrast to the slow and matured technology of Formula 1 and even the hybrids that are winning Le Mans – and it’s something that neither category can match. ‘These categories have a rich heritage, so they have to evolve – they can’t have sudden change,’ Drayson says.

Agag is less provocative: ‘The pinnacle of technology is, and will remain, F1.’ Yet think about it: with F1 becoming greener and cleaner, is it inevitable that it will be an electric series in years to come? Surely it can’t remain petrol-powered, can it? And when – not if – F1 moves away from internal combustion, where does that leave Formula E?

‘I see it as a long-term category,’ Agag says. ‘The question is: which technology will prevail? There are other technologies that store and even produce electricity that fall within the scope of our licence with the FIA, such as fuel-cells, supercapacitors, and others – maybe those technologies are the ones that will prevail, but as long as they power an electric motor, they fall within our licence.’

No-one knows exactly what will power Lewis Hamilton Junior’s F1 car in 2034, but chances are that one of these technologies will be in the frame. Formula E expects to make a good fist of race-to-road innovation, and it might prove adept at attracting new businesses and sponsors into motorsport, because it ticks the ‘sustainable’ box while pushing the development envelope. It’s squeaky clean and hi-tech.

‘I think electric technology is in its infancy, so there is more space for development,’ says Agag. ‘Everything has to be done’. Exciting then, but also massively daunting: Formula E has lots to do to win over sceptics, from the irony of causing city congestion on race weekend to the odd notion of potentially silent cars being made artificially noisy.

‘The launch of the FIA Formula E Championship is exciting news for racing fans but also for those that believe in developing the great electric cars of the future,’ said Sir Richard Branson. ‘The need to create fast, dependable and durable race cars will help to accelerate the sector and showcase electric cars to a large global audience. With races around many famous city centres, I am expecting a lot of spectators, plenty of fun and some sparks flying as the competition hots up.’

>> What’s your take on Formula-E? Will you be cheering for the Virgin team come the first race in September 2014? Add your comments below

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