As high-performance race cars sped around Donington Park in central England last month, the open-wheel Formula E cars buzzed, whooshed, and whirred past at 160 miles per hour and a mere 80 decibels. Instead of the typical sound of engines screaming, these cars made about as much noise as a dishwasher.
That’s what happens when you power race cars with batteries.
Backers of Formula E, an environmentally friendly, fully electric auto racing series, are betting that the quieter cars will be the sound of motorsports’ future and its hourlong races will change perceptions of electric vehicles.
The backers include a diverse list of bold-faced names; British billionaire Richard Branson and actor Leonardo DiCaprio are investing in European teams. Also putting money behind Formula E is Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck, who listened intently at the recent private test session.
At 80 decibels, the cars were a far cry from their faster, gasoline-fueled Formula One cousins that reach an eardrum-rattling 147 decibels at full throttle. Grousbeck called the experience “really exciting and much better than I had feared.” He had worried that the electric cars would be too quiet to create a true auto racing atmosphere.
The moment Formula E cars took the rain-slickened Donington Park track, the series’ official Twitter feed announced: “A new era of Motorsport has begun.”
After watching the muted shakedown at Donington, Kyle Moyer, director of racing operations for the Andretti Autosport team, said: “We could have a normal conversation and the cars are going by. It’s like ‘The Jetsons.’ This is how the future was supposed to be when I was a little kid.”
A report commissioned by Formula E and done by Ernst & Young, a global professional services firm, predicted that the race championship “will help contribute to the additional sale of 77 million electric vehicles worldwide” between 2015 and 2040.
“If, thanks to the championship, we are able to deliver technologies that change the game of electric cars, make an improvement, that would be really what we’re looking for,” said Alejandro Agag, chief executive of Formula E Holdings. “It’s not about performance. It’s about technology.”
Agag, a Spanish-born businessman and former politician, also wants Formula E to be about millennials, targeting them as the core audience. To engage younger fans, Formula E plans to push interactivity. Leading up to each race, fans will be able to vote for their favorite drivers through a variety of social media platforms and apps. Then, twice during each race, the top three vote-getters will be able to use a power boost, an extra amount of energy that will last about five seconds and make it easier to pass other drivers.
“Fans can really give a push to a favorite driver and have an effect on the end result of a race,” said Agag.
The Donington Park test runs marked the first time teams tried out the electric cars together. The inaugural Formula E season will start in Beijing in September, then continue with nine stops spread across Europe, Asia, North America, and South America.
Grousbeck said he “would love to have a race in Boston,” but added that Formula E hasn’t talked to anyone with the city about bringing in a race or any architects about designing a street track along Boston roads. For now, Grousbeck remains focused on what fans will see in the season opener.
“When there are 20 cars going around a street course at once, it’s going to be more than enough noise,” Grousbeck said. “It will be racing. It’s going to be a show.”
Through Causeway Media Partners, Grousbeck and 25 other investors — roughly half who are part of the Celtics’ ownership group — poured $21 million into Formula E last December. Causeway is one of six major investors in Formula E. Grousbeck launched Causeway Media Partners a year ago, along with fellow venture capitalists Bob Higgins and Mark Wan, who is a co-owner of the Celtics and the San Francisco 49ers, and raised approximately $125 million. Then Causeway looked for opportunities in sports media and entertainment and made Formula E its first investment.
“I think it’s a necessary step for motorsport to connect with people who are concerned about the environment but still want to be entertained,” said Grousbeck. “We’d like to be a big part of motorsport, alongside Formula One, moving the sport to an environmentally more appropriate place.”
Grousbeck provides Formula E with valuable ties to US pro sports, particularly the NBA. Inspired partly by the entertainment he saw at an NBA game he attended with Grousbeck, Agag hopes to create “this sound identity of Formula E that people will recognize,” featuring concerts and DJs on race days.
Already, some big names have signed on. The two American entries in the race series are Andretti Autosport, led by former IndyCar and Formula One driver Michael Andretti, and Dragon Racing with owner and president Jay Penske, son of legendary race team owner Roger Penske. Nearly all the Formula E drivers on board have Formula One or IndyCar experience.
By investing in the overall Formula E venture rather than a specific team, Causeway is betting on the appeal of the race series and the future value of its broadcast rights.
“We don’t want to have a stake in who wins or loses a race,’’ said Grousbeck. “I get plenty of that with the Celtics. I’ve done a team for love because I do love the Celtics. Now, we’re making investments for money.”
Formula E will make two American stops in 2015, Miami in March and Long Beach, Calif., in April. Beyond the United States and China, the first season visits Putrajaya (Malaysia), Punta Del Este (Uruguay), Buenos Aires, Monte Carlo, and Berlin, then concludes in London, where Formula E Holdings is headquartered. The cities for the inaugural series were chosen because they were major world capitals, offered scenic, iconic locations, or both.
In year two, Formula E hopes to add one more city in Europe and one more in Asia. It is likely that American expansion would come in the third season, with New York City and Silicon Valley among the short list of potential candidates. Eventually, Agag sees the championship stretching to 18 races with 12 total two-driver teams.
Last week, Formula E leaders and driving teams got a sense of the race circuit’s potential fan appeal when the public watched preseason testing at Donington Park for the first time. Still, until the inaugural season starts, it is hard to know whether fans will embrace race cars that look fit for Formula One but do not come close to that championship’s 200-mile-per-hour speeds.
Designed as a complement, not a competitor, to Formula One, Formula E faces a great unknown: Can auto racing be compelling when it is less about pushing the boundaries of car performance and more about pushing electric car technology?
From what he has seen and heard, Moyer believes it can be, especially with quality drivers, top-level teams, and fan-friendly street courses already involved.
“Everybody still wants performance,” said Moyer. “But with the green initiatives and everything that’s happening, we’ve got to do something. Is racing going to take a lead in [sustainable vehicles]? I think so.
“If you said, ‘I’m going to buy an electric car,’ everybody is like, ‘Oh, what’s so fun about that? You’re going to putz around town.’ Now all of a sudden, that’s a race car doing 170 miles an hour and you’re going to look at it differently.”