A look back on FIA Formula E's first ever round at Long Beach.
My hometown of Long Beach, CA put on its best beach face for its first FIA Formula E race, held the day before Easter. The weather was glorious, the crowds - plenty of crowds - enthusiastic and the competition for the inaugural Long Beach ePrix pretty much guaranteed a return visit.
For me, the initial fascination came in watching the eVillage come together, perform and pack up in the space of four days. Teams were allowed to unpack their cars and begin prep work for the one-day event on Thursday and had a shake-down run to make sure they’d done their jobs right mid-afternoon Friday. By Sunday morning at 8AM all the cars were being placed on 18-wheel trailers for transport to the next race at Monaco.
The event began in earnest early Saturday morning with three free practices for the ePrix and another for the student race that pitted local schools against one another in competition. The kids, by the way, had constructed their little electric-powered cars in a single day the week prior to the ePrix and their competition was just as fierce as that for the 20 cars entered in this sixth race of the inaugural Formula E season.
Qualifying, as with any series, was tense and terse. After four quick sessions amongst five cars each in the field of 20 entries, the pole sitter was denied because he, Sebastien Buemi of the championship leading e.dams Renault team used more than his allotted power. That gave pole to Daniel Abt of Audi Sport ABT who earned a drive-through penalty for doing the same thing during the race!
FIA Formula E has widely promoted its #FANBOOST program that gives extra race power to three drivers voted by fans. That went to winner Piquet Jr, to runner-up Jean-Eric Vergne (JEV) and to Sam Bird. Bird had a horrible day at The Beach, going wheel-to-wheel with Buemi at the first turn chicane and having immediately to switch to his second car. Other “technical problems” caused his eventual retirement. Vergne finished 1.705 seconds behind Piquet, who claimed never to use the extra power allotted to him.
The Formula E cars face challenges with overheating; in qualifying the engineers try to keep the motor cooled but in the race it’s the battery pack that’s susceptible to overheating. Piquet noticed his battery temps getting higher as the race went on and elected not to use Fan Boost to make an even bigger gap to JEV. His driving a smart race was the key to his success on the day.
There have been plenty of naysayers kvetching about the series; that’s what they do. It’s smart to remember that this racing technology is in its infancy and that the races are, in fact entertaining. At Long Beach, the crowds appeared to enjoy the competition and were threading through the eVillage when cars weren’t on track to discover electric motorcycles and offers from the local power company, in addition to informative booths from Formula E partners Michelin and DHL.
FIA Formula E initial partner Qualcomm displayed its wireless charging units that have pads (currently up to 20kW) an electric car can connect to wirelessly, rather than having to plug directly into the wall. Sure there’s a small wall unit, but the pad can be placed below a vehicle and is connected by flexible hoses to the wall unit. People in the paddock just walked over the pad like it was nothing - but within a few years I’m sure most pure electric and hybrid vehicles will use these units. In addition, there are plans for pads to be placed in roadways for continual charging. Now that’s interesting, isn’t it?
A field deep with talent
When you think of all the driving experience in this field, which includes Formula 1 drivers, World Endurance Championship and other endurance racers, NASCAR drivers, IndyCar drivers and, generally, highly proficient open- and closed-wheel pilots, it’s easy to understand the allure for them. They get to be at the forefront of technology, to advance a new type of motor racing and to use their inherent skills to meet the demands of this formula, which isn’t easy to do.
And these talents get to race hard and comparatively fast for relatively short spurts, while enjoying being in the car for much of a single day. There’s very little downtime or even much time to discuss the car with an engineer. There are always demands on driver times but they do participate in an autograph session between the second and third practices (in this case).
Many of the professionals that are part of this new sport are enjoying the challenges. Nigel Beresford, who has quality engineering time in Indy cars (in particular) is with Dragon Racing. He convinced one of the most proficient mechanics, semi-retired (kinda, sorta) Rick Rinaman to join the team for the American rounds. As customary, they worked extremely well together. It’s like this throughout the paddock and that certainly impressed me.
Good friend and mechanic extraordinaire Timothy Bumps came to see the event as a spectator. “That was a good event,” he said. “I had a great time. I’d definitely attend another one. Interesting mix of an F1-type crowd and younger people.” Of course there were others who hated the fact that they could talk with one another (I loved that aspect - listening to corner workers bark info was a nice change) and decrying the lack of passing. Maybe they were located in the wrong part of the track? I saw plenty of interplay.
A friend who is reintroducing himself to motorsports after a career in macro photography said he and his entire family, including a young kid in the “terrible twos” enjoyed the race and the entire event. The youngster, who’d not been known to have an affinity for racing remarked, “I love race cars” on the way home and wanted to ride karts in the kids’ area.
Neighbors with no passion for racing came up the hill from the racetrack thinking about attending the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for the first time. The entire vibe was positive.
While the technology is young and still needs some updates, these will come with time. The excitement is being part of the start of this technology and watching Formula E mature to become a very important part of motorsport. I don’t doubt that will happen, thanks to the backing of the FIA, car manufacturers and some truly proficient teams.
This race marks the first of three weekends of racing at The Beach; next week is the first race of the year for Formula Drift and the 41st Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach takes place the following weekend. The inaugural Long Beach ePrix was a definitive success if you look at the product on-track, the scores of attendees and the reaction of participants. I sure hope Formula E returns again next year.