NASCAR & Auto Racing

Fan Boost adds intrigue as ePrix makes stop in Miami

Key Biscayne: Scott Speed, front, races on a paddle board with fellow ePrix driver Jerome D’Ambrosio.
Key Biscayne: Scott Speed, front, races on a paddle board with fellow ePrix driver Jerome D’Ambrosio. Miami Herald staff

The aptly named Scott Speed will spend Saturday racing Formula E cars around downtown at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.

But when it comes to water sports, Speed opts for caution.

“What’s the slowest one that won’t tip over?” he asked when choosing which paddleboard to race three of his Formula E competitors with Wednesday at the Boater’s Grill in Key Biscayne. Speed won the friendly competition, meant to serve as a lighthearted preview of Saturday’s Miami ePrix, slow, steady board and all.

And he could still emerge victorious if he has the same problem with his car Saturday.

That would require Speed benefiting from what race organizers call the Fan Boost, an online competition that will provide certain drivers with mid-race power-ups.

Fans have from 10 days before the race to an hour before Saturday’s 4 p.m. start to vote for their favorite drivers, with the top three earning two five-second boosts of 50 kilowatts for their electric cars.

That’s a 33 percent increase on the typical race maximum for this championship series. Drivers estimated the difference to be between 30 and 40 kilometers, or 18.5 to 25 miles per hour.

Think of it as Super Mario Kart, with only the most popular drivers allowed to snatch up mushrooms. Take that, Wario.

“It can certainly help you get a position or lose a position,” said Antonio Felix da Costa, who won the Buenos Aires ePrix in January without the aid of the Fan Boost. “The jump is so massive.”

Each driver will operate two cars over the 39-lap race. Since electric batteries are too heavy to replace quickly, drivers will switch cars mid-race when their first one stalls. Fan Boost winners will receive five-second jumps for each car to use at their discretion.

But wait, how fair is that?

“As a sportsman, I felt that way in the beginning, thinking it’s not fair,” said Jerome d’Ambrosio of Dragon Racing. “But then again, you want to be fair to the fans, as well.”

“You have to live within your time,” d’Ambrosio continued. “Fans don’t want to just watch the race, especially the young ones. They want to be part of it somehow. With this sort of action, fans aren’t just watching, they have a say in the race. That’s a huge difference. It’s a huge breakthrough in bringing sports and entertainment together.”

As the only participating American, Speed seems like a likely candidate to improve upon his Fan Boost ranking during the days leading up to Formula E’s U.S. debut. Miami is the fifth stop in the 10-race international series that next travels to Long Beach, California.

But Speed has some work to do, as he currently sits 17th in the 20-driver field. Andretti Formula E teammate Jean-Eric Vergne (France) leads the rankings, followed by Bruno Senna (Brazil) and Nick Heidfeld (Germany).

Then again, maybe Speed is better off without the extra headache. He’s the least-experienced driver in the field, having only tested Formula E cars once previously. Much of the rest of the field has participated in the first four races of the series.

“It’s a steep learning curve,” said Speed, who is the last American to race in Formula One and also has NASCAR experience. “It’s hard when you tell a race-car driver that he can’t use all the power.”

The differences for engine drivers adjusting to electric cars range from preparation to ambience to race management.

“Unlike normal racing, you can’t come into the pits with fuel left in the tank,” Speed said. “Otherwise, that’s just speed you’ve left on the track. So it’s very much a management game of making sure when you come in the pits you have no energy left.”

Electric cars were billed for urban racing because of their quieter, more efficient nature. Fans on Biscayne Boulevard won’t hear the loud revving or smell the distinct gasoline scent of engine racing. It’s an adjustment for the drivers, too.

“You hear a lot of wind,” Speed said. “The noise in a normal race car — maybe it’s because I’ve done it my whole life — it feels a lot easier. This feels like you’re going quite a bit quicker.”

Now factor in the Fan Boost, and just like that, a Formula E driver might find him or herself going quite a bit quicker than before. Fair or not, drivers see it both as a marketing initiative and a possible strategic advantage.

“You gotta go get the mushroom,” d’Ambrosio said. “You gotta go get it.”

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