NASCAR & Auto Racing

Electric car series, set for Miami debut, has ties to past and eye on future

Michael Andretti speaks to the media at AmericanAirlies Arena on Friday, March, 13, 2015, the day before Miami ePrix in downtown Miami.
Michael Andretti speaks to the media at AmericanAirlies Arena on Friday, March, 13, 2015, the day before Miami ePrix in downtown Miami. Miami Herald staff

For a new auto racing series, FIA’s Formula-e possesses several nomenclature tethers to historic speed: a Piquet (son of), a Senna (nephew of), a Prost (son of), an Andretti as owner of a racing team and one of the companies that organized Saturday’s Miami ePrix through downtown Miami.

That Andretti, Michael, reached back over a century in automotive history to describe a possible future for the electric car series having its fifth race Saturday.

“We’re at the ground floor of this technology. If and when we get the manufacturers more involved with … this series, I believe the learning curve is just going to go like that,” Andretti said, sweeping his right hand toward the 400 level of AmericanAirlines Arena. “I believe in five years, we’re going to be going twice as far, twice as fast. And it’s all going to be because of the competition you have on the racetrack.

“That’s what auto racing did in the beginning with the automobile. That’s what’ll happen here with the electrical side of it.”

The battery behind the series’ creation, Formula-e CEO Alejandro Agag, concurred and said he was pleasantly surprised that eight manufacturers wanted to be involved with the series next year. He expected two or three.

“A manufacturer in Formula-e is the one that does its own whole powertrain battery-motor-inverter,” Agag said. “They don’t need to make the whole car. They don’t need to make a chassis because we want to focus on the development of what’s important for the electric cars. Next year, we’ll start seeing these different powertrains and these new technologies.”

And, in five years, Agag hopes drivers will be down to one car per race. The batteries powering the cars in this inaugural year of the series requires drivers to change cars in the middle of the race. Each two-driver team prepares two cars per driver.

Then again, Agag said optimistically, who knows how fast technology moves. He mentioned the “brick-style” early cellphone Gordon Gekko uses in 1987’s Wall Street, then held up his BlackBerry — “much smaller and 100,000 times more powerful, only 25 years later.”

(When Michael Douglas’ Gekko extolled the virtues of greed, Formula One’s top drivers were Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell. Formula-e’s series includes Nelson Piquet Jr., Bruno Senna and Nicolas Prost. Not a Mansell, however.)

For all the environmental do-goods, the series pays attention to bottom-line business. Agag believes the United States is the most important electric car market, so the series has two U.S.-based races, in Miami and Long Beach.

Also, the series wants to connect with the under-30 crowd. Agag threw out the idea of a video game setup in which fans watching at home could drive a shadow car alongside the actual Formula-e cars in the broadcast on their TV or computer screen.

“Going after the millennials is very important for the future of our sport,” Andretti said. “Most other series, our demographics are getting older and older. This is something the kids are going to have to pay attention to because they care about the environment.”

The FanBoost concept — extra power going to three drivers selected by fans through online voting — might be a Nurburgring-sized offense to old school gearheads. Then again, they’re not necessarily on the series’ A list of fan targets.

(Leading the FanBoost voting for the Miami ePrix are France’s Jean-Eric Vergne of Andretti Formula E; Mexico’s Salvador Duran, driving for Amlin Aguri; and Bruno Senna of Manindra Racing).

Although the series’ single-day concept gets trumpeted as making the series a less disruptive civic house guest, it also appeals to the generation raised expecting ever quicker gratification to satisfy ever shorter attention spans. Practice, qualifying and the less-than-an-hour race will all happen on Saturday instead of practice Friday, practice and qualify Saturday, race on Sunday.

That shrinks drivers’ margin for error. Jarno Trull, a longtime Formula One driver and 2004 Monaco Grand Prix winner, said the mistake in practice that previously could be fixed by qualifying now ruins the whole trip.

Former Formula One driver Vitantonio Liuzzi thought his wife did some ruination on their Miami trip when she planned for them to leave before Saturday’s race, which he would have liked to watch to end their vacation. Then, Trulli learned his second driver, Michela Cerruti, was pulling out of Formula-e participation. Trulli contacted Liuzzi upon reaching Miami on Tuesday.

“I’m obviously happy because this is the best way to stay here,” Liuzzi said. “It will be really important for me to stay away from the walls, to do as many laps as possible. Typical strategy they use for a city circuit — Monte Carlo, Singapore — do as much mileage as possible to get used to the track. For me, the biggest question mark will be the car, understanding the car reaction and braking. We have not had such a long time to learn. But it’s a big challenge, and I like it.”

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