Racing lines: October 2017

Electric racing is a fine idea, in keeping with the zeitgeist, but it’s time to draw inspiration from history to make it truly relevant

Change. Along with death, taxes and yet more Ed Sheeran singles, it’s one of life’s less palatable inevitabilities. Whether it’s truly something to fear depends on its extent and your outlook, but it’s fair to say most of us find shifts in the status quo upsetting.

That’s never truer than in motorsport. When you’re passionate about something, any deviation from what you’ve come to know and love can be vexatious in the extreme. Which brings me neatly to the thorny issue of Formula E.

As this is a historic racing column you might expect me to be an internal combustion zealot. I’m the first to confess few things bring me more pleasure than hearing a fabulous racing car being wrung out through the gears. It doesn’t matter whether I’m driving or watching. That sound and drama make my heart beat faster and my soul soar.

In which case you might be surprised to learn that, when it comes to electric road cars, I’m a big fan. They offer something fresh, sustainable and routinely deliver a level of performance that makes a mockery of all but the wildest hypercars. At least in terms of acceleration to 100mph, which is where most of us get our road-car kicks. It’s a magical, endlessly impressive sensation and very much feels like the future.

Motor racing has always been the pinnacle. The place where cars are at their most extreme and highly developed. Formula 1 has its ups and downs, but the cars have always been beyond anything you or I could imagine driving. My beef with Formula E is not that it’s different or challenges the norm, but because it represents electric cars so poorly.

Everyone knows showroom-spec Teslas have been out-accelerating supercars for years, while offering a real-world range that will get most from A to B without the need to recharge the batteries. More excitingly, NextEV’s NIO EP9 all-electric 1341bhp, 194mph hypercar kicked Porsche, McLaren et al by setting a blistering road-car lap record of 6min 45.90sec around the Nürburgring Nordschleife. Given NextEv also competes in Formula E, it’s telling that the nascent Chinese car maker still feels the need to commission a road-legal monster to break records on a 90-year-old track.

So how about this for an idea? If Formula E is the future of motor sport, rather than offer us an embarrassing, slow-motion approximation of present day F1, why doesn’t it look to the past and give us a 21st century redux of motor racing’s wildest and most enduringly inspirational category, Can-Am?

By truly pushing the boundaries engineers would be free to indulge their ultimate fantasies, while manufacturers could express the individuality of their brands and massage their prodigious egos by creating the kind of cars we’ve never seen before. Incredible, outlandish machines driven by the brightest drivers of the day. Mind-blowing technology. Big prize money. Bigger kudos. Winner takes all.

We know the Porsches, Audis, Jaguars and Renaults of this world have the means to commit to a new kind of no-limits racing, but do they have the will? I suspect new-age brands like NextEv do, even if it is via the white-label engineering services of Britain’s RML Group – covert creator of the record-breaking NIO EP9. If a pure EV company engaged in the battle, then why wouldn’t Elon Musk put his creative energy and resources behind a Tesla motor sport programme? He’s leading the space race, so why not try the pace race? Or how about British tech pioneer James Dyson, who’s eponymous firm is also working on an EV? And then there’s Adrian Newey, F1’s most successful designer.

It’s no secret he has long craved a fresh challenge. That’s why he’s leading the Aston Martin Valkyrie hypercar project and why he explored designing an America’s Cup yacht a few years back. Hell, he even designed a fantastical Red Bull concept racer for the PlayStation game Gran Turismo. With his unrestrained genius backed by the bovine energy drink’s vast spending power, who knows what could be created?

Motor racing has long been an accelerant for innovation, just as it’s the eternal go-to marketing platform. With most major car brands scrabbling to make the transition from petrol and diesel to battery power, it’s no wonder they’re grabbing Formula E with both hands. Sadly you don’t need to be an industry insider or rabid cynic to recognise it offered Jaguar a soft entry back into an FIA championship (something the Leaping Cat had avoided since its F1 misadventure), and gave the embattled VW Group an expedient means of withdrawing from its LMP1 programmes and diverting funds into its dieselgate war chest without being seen to turn its back on motor sport. One wonders if the same goes for Mercedes as the EU investigates accusations that the big five German car brands operated a cartel that has manipulated methods of diesel engine development since the 1990s. Either that or it finally dawned that DTM has disappeared up its own diffuser.

When originally conceived Formula E was great but, like most tech-based ideas, the desire for first-mover advantage means the reality soon gets overtaken by the very technology it sought to champion. Unfortunately that has proved to be the case with FE cars, which look increasingly ponderous and joyless to drive. In a world where battery-powered road cars are already faster than their internal combustion equivalents, this makes no sense to me. The oil crisis killed Can-Am. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a revived version provided the inspiration for thrilling zero-emissions racing we can really relish?

Dickie Meaden has been writing about cars for 25 years – and racing them for almost as long. He is a regular winner at historic meetings