It all starts much like any other race. Eighteen brightly colored purpose-built showcases of motorsport technology take the grid, filled with characters you probably know- names like DiGrassi, Senna, Piquet and Prost. There's a generously sized VIP area as well, boasting a few famous faces, and more champagne sipping one-percenters than you'd care to think about, their trophy wives doing their best not to seem bored. The announcers hype the crowd over a PA system, and regardless of ticket price, we all come to our feet as the grid lights move from red to green. The cars take off, but not in the way you've come to expect.
Apart from the sound of air rushing over the open-wheel race cars and the occasional squealing tire, Formula E is almost completely silent. No big-displacement roar. No turbo induction noise. Not even the whine of straight-cut gears. Yet somehow, it feels much more mechanical. Without the scream of 100 decibels overshadowing each pivoting suspension link, disguising every flex of the bodywork, Formula E allows viewers to be more in sync with the inner workings of the car. For those of us who grew up on Nikko and Carrera RC cars, it's a familiar soundtrack, as the relatively quiet electric motors whirring in the background provide us with our only indication of throttle input. From just outside the venue, you can hardly tell anything is taking place at all. And this is a trait that Formula E is using to it's advantage.
For 2016, the series set up circuits in ten different cities around the globe, the majority of which use completely bespoke routes around local landmarks. The London stop is comprised of the streets around Battersea Park, and Paris is configured around Les Invalides, a clustering of buildings that hold museums and monuments pertaining to French military history. In other words, places that uninterested locals would outright reject, and a typical motorsport series would likely never be allowed to participate.
So what's it like to actually attend? Well, as mentioned earlier, it's different. The lack of engine noise and transmission whine does away with the need for ear protection, making Formula E a much more family-friendly race series than your traditional championship. As such, more of them are in attendance than you'd expect, including young children that otherwise wouldn't be deemed "old enough" to tag along. This ability to hook spectator at a younger age will certainly pay dividends for the long-term prospects of Formula E, as does the social media-assisted "Fanboost," which overclocks the car's battery to give fan favorites a temporary burst of power.
But just because the noise levels are kept to a minimum doesn't mean that the racing is any less exciting. Once the checkered flag had waved in Long Beach, the top four finishers were separated by less than two and a half seconds- much closer than anything Formula 1 has put together in years. Considering that Formula E cars are downright quick- 3 seconds to 60mph and top speeds of 140mph- and require a pitstop to change cars (think of it as re-fueling rather than switching to a freshly charged racecar) this is an incredibly impressive feat.
We've been to our fair share of races spanning many different disciplines, and it seems like Formula E might be the first we can safely say was universally enjoyed. Rather that seeing a mix of enthusiastic fans and their guests who merely seemed to tolerate the indulgence, faces in the crowd all seemed to have cheerful looks, even as the on-site monitors experienced technical difficulties. With the series still working through trackside issues and the technical limitations of race vehicles, we think Formula E might just be posed for a breakout run in a few year's time. But for the time being, the FIA's money will certainly keep the young series afloat, bringing motorsport to those unable or unwilling to venture to a proper circuit. The motorsport world will be all the better for it, even if we don't immediately realize it.
FIA Formula E resumes action this weekend in Paris, France.