Why Roborace will be the dullest race series ever
The idea: 20 identical driverless robot cars will compete as a prelude to Formula E's 2016-2017 season, which should kick off in October in Beijing. Series founder and CEO Alexander Agog would clearly like most of the current Formula E teams to back Roborace, having added a hint-hint to that effect in recent interviews. One of the teams will also be crowdsourced: Forget that brain tumor kid on GoFundMe.com who needs an operation to live – send your money to back a robot car!
Here's the corner Formula E has painted itself into: It has insisted that no support series use any petroleum products. Consequently even hybrids can't be considered. Last March, at the Formula E race in Miami, the opening act was a few electric kart-like vehicles, presided over by a man who looked like a harried shop teacher wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and a plaid tie.
So now, with Roborace, Formula E figures it's on to something. Not everyone agrees, including Lucas Di Grassi, winner of the most recent race and the current points leader. Di Grassi, in a tweet that oddly has disappeared, said that a large part of the excitement about motorsports is that an actual human is driving the car. And he went on to tweet that he predicts epic fail, and he'll be happy when it happens.
Likely Di Grassi got a stern talking-to from Agag, but since Di Grassi has a firm Audi factory ride in the World Endurance Championship EC P1 car, he may not care.
This is not the first time Di Grassi has refused to toe the party line. He told me earlier this year that Formula E – with its mid-race pit stop where the drivers dash to the garage and hop into an identical car for the second half of the race – simply highlights a major problem with electric cars: limited range. Formula E says it will eventually have the technology to run a whole 50-minute race with one car, but now every team must have two – a 20-car field actually requires 40 cars, which are all pretty much the same except for the paint. And, for now, the fact that they have drivers.
While the city and the series proclaimed the Miami race a great success back in March, the organizers pulled the plug on returning to the city this season. The only other race in the US was in Long Beach, where they drew a good crowd, mostly because there was free admission. That may not be a sustainable business plan.
Personally, I won't miss Miami. I went as a race fan – stood in line, bought a ticket, mingled. The fans who turned out for the race on Biscayne Boulevard for the most part had no idea what they were about to see – they were just in the neighborhood and heard the loudspeakers.
That's the only noise you hear, at first, as well as blaring music from a disc jockey positioned a couple hundred feet away from the crowd. You could hardly see him, or his three or four gyrating dancing girls, who sometimes continued to gyrate long after the music stopped. You can't hear the cars from five feet away. And when they are racing, there's an uncomfortable, amplified whirring sound from the electric motors.
When the cars are pushed very hard into corners, which is rare, the tall, narrow Michelin tires squeal like a 78-series Cornell mud and snow tire from Pep Boys, mounted in the back of a Chevrolet pickup. Even at that pitiful sound, the Formula E crowd would dash to the fence to get a glimpse of the tire-squealer, since it was the lone audible sign someone was doing something.
Eventually it was over. Ex-Formula One driver Scott Speed, who now drives in the Red Bull Global RallyCross series, took second place, and he had never driven a Formula E car before, which speaks to either how good Speed is, or how easy the cars are to drive. Or to how bad his competition might have been.
The victory celebration for winner Nicholas Prost, son of four-time F1 champ Alain Prost, was held on the courtyard around the huge American Airlines Center, at least 150 feet from the nearest fan. Only the media was allowed up there.
Ah, the media: You very possibly read what a wonderful event the Miami race was, because the series did a superb job of feeding and transporting journalists, and giving them access to the drivers and teams, and supplied a cloistered vantage point for them to watch the race. Those motorsport journalists should step out of the press box and buy a damn ticket and sit with the fans. You'll learn a lot more than you will at the media buffet.
As for what I wrote about the Miami Formula E race: Nothing, because the website I was working for had been courting the series since it was appearing in the site's home city, trying to figure out a way to get some money out of them. It did not seem to work; they didn't even get invited to the initial press conference a few miles away. Anyhow, I didn't write a review of the race because they didn't want a discouraging word about it.
And now, robot cars? So the whole problem with racing has been the racers, is that it? Can't wait. But I will write about that one.
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