Formula E: Debut is promising, but room for improvement

Too-tight Beijing track did not highlight the car's strength.

Aside from the fact that the Beijing, China track was far more suited to karts than cars, the Formula E series put on an interesting show in the series debut, which aired at 3:30 a.m. ET on Fox Sports 1, a time when most viewers have either fallen asleep without turning off the TV, or are searching for something on Cinemax.

The broadcast itself left much to be desired, with lots of ambient noise, both from the rather substantial crowd and the cars – how much of that is motor, how much is gearbox? – that at times it seemed hard to pick out anchor Jack Nicholls and very competent commentator Dario Franchitti. An expectedly self-congratulatory introduction led to the 20-car lineup and the rather fragmented start. Commercials just appeared.

The cars themselves don’t look particularly happy, especially on bumpy portions of the track. The battery alone weighs over 700 pounds, so weight distribution is obviously an issue. I don’t really get the tall, treaded Michelin tires – the cars seem not so much to turn smoothly as to skitter. It’s nice that there is only one tire for wet or dry conditions, but there really isn’t a lot of rubber on the road. They appeared to be a handful in the dry – it looks like the vast majority of the braking must be done in a straight line – and I suspect in the rain, they would be brutal.

Eclectic lineup

The driver lineup is an eclectic one, and with two American teams – one fielded by Michael Andretti, one by Roger Penske’s son, Jay – it would have been nice to see an American driver in the debut race. Speculation was that Andretti might have an American, but his last-minute selection was Charles Pic, who likely won some sort of virtual auction for the seat. Maybe by the time they get to Miami and Long Beach.

As for the race itself, there were some passes, but the tight track fought any sort of fluid driving, so most were abrupt. At times, the Formula E cars reminded me a bit of the NASCAR Camping World trucks at Eldora – yes, they work, but not that naturally.

Gentleman drivers, anyone?

The 25-lap race required a car swap, due to battery life – the driver screams into the garage, leaps from one car into an identical one, with a few engineers to help buckle him or her in. If you have to change cars, maybe you should change drivers, too – an opportunity for well-funded gentleman drivers to compete. Or not. Anyway, it looked sort of awkward and undermanned.

And speaking of awkward and undermanned, that last-lap “pass” by Nick Heidfeld, who pulled out on the single bumpiest section of the track to try and dive-bomb leader Nicholas Prost in a super-tight, 90-degree lefthander – it was almost like the TV director shouted, “We need something for the highlight reel! Go for it!” And he did, just as Prost was setting up for the turn. They touched wheels, Heidfeld went head-first into the barrier, and for a long moment, there seemed a very good chance the Formula E premiere could end in tragedy.

But under his own power, and with little help from a slow-moving safety crew that looked as though they weren’t briefed until just before the green flag flew, Heidfeld climbed from his overturned car and made a beeline for Prost, and there was lots of shouting and hand-waving as each likely blamed the other. We aren’t sure – the jagged TV coverage never offered up an interview. Seldom has a broadcast seemed so arms-length and  disconnected to the actual event. While they talked up the “Fan Boost,” which allows fans to vote to give three drivers a little electric boost, in pre-race, we heard little about it afterwards.

The crash led to a surprising victory by a surprised Lucas de Grassi, a nice guy and a good first-win ambassador, as the next race isn’t until November 22, and Audi Sport ABT’s de Grassi is just the guy to talk up the Malaysian race. And second-place Andretti driver Franck Montagny brings fans, too.

For a first event, the Formula E debut was never less than interesting, but there’s work to be done. These cars do not lend themselves to a narrow little track with slow, sharp turns – they will look far better on a circuit that flows, with lots of rhythm and less chicanes.

The entire experience could use a shot of Red Bull – both the promotion, and the series itself.

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About this article
Series Formula E
Event Beijing ePrix
Track Streets of Beijing
Drivers Nick Heidfeld , Franck Montagny , Michael Andretti , Dario Franchitti , Lucas di Grassi , Roger Penske , Charles Pic
Article type Commentary
Tags andretti autosport, fan boost, fox sports 1, jay penske, michelin