Denial would be pointless. The passing silver projectile looks like a conventional racing car, but sounds like something from Scalextric’s yet-to-be-announced 1:1 range.
We’re at Issoire, France, the private test track that nestles next to the wonderfully diverse car museum of former rally amateur Auguste Turuani, who from the mid-1970s competed in many a World Championship event under the pseudonym ‘Tchine’. Inside you’ll find everything from a Ferrari 328 to an Alpine A110 via an NSU Prinz, while outside the new Dallara- Spark Formula E car glides through a Michelin tyre test. It’s part of the final preparatory process before teams take delivery of their productionised electric racers, for which official testing begins at Donington Park on July 3 (little more than two months before the first scheduled race, in Beijing).
At Le Mans last year, Michelin introduced slick tyres that could be used in the wet – to a certain point. For Formula E, it has developed an all-weather tyre that looks like something you’d ordinarily see on a BMW 3-series, yet feels very different. The man at the helm is former Williams F1 tester, Le Mans Series champion and Sebring 12 Hours winner Emmanuel Collard. “Despite its appearance,” he says, “it’s a proper competition tyre with none of the sidewall movement you’d feel on the road.
“The whole exercise has been quite surprising. The car feels just like a traditional single-seater, a Formula Renault or F3 perhaps. It’s a little short of power, but then I’m here testing tyres so it’s important to have a decent battery range and we’re not running to full potential. It’s stable under braking, has good aero balance and feels very good through quick corners – the only thing missing is engine noise, but you soon get used to that. It takes perhaps three laps, after which you don’t really notice.”
Looking on is Alain Prost, for whose long-defunct F1 team Collard once also tested. The four-time world champion – who has committed to try a Formula E car at some stage, although he hasn’t fixed a date – is a partner in e.dams, one of 10 teams committed to the new, all-electric series that will take place in city centres around the world.
“If we have spectacle and sport,” Prost says, “I don’t see that noise matters so much. In F1 there was a time when eight-, 10- and 12-cylinder engines were competing together. Sitting in the pits, you could identify some cars by sound alone as they passed, but we live in different times. After a few races, people will get used to it.
“I’m not negative about the noise. I know there are going to be arguments, but I think things should be left in their natural state: if you have a championship for electric cars, why make things artificial?”
For the 2014-15 season all teams will use identical equipment, but from 2015-16 they will be free to develop their own ideas. “One-make rules work in some categories,” Prost says, “but you couldn’t have them in F1 or it wouldn’t be F1 any more – you need competition, technology and development. Formula E will be like that from the second year. Drivers will have to manage the energy – a new kind of motor racing – but we’re very optimistic that batteries will improve from year to year, and that’s the key. We want the outside world to see how much progress is being made.
“If we put on a show and develop useful technology, I believe it will be a success.”