As Formula E Comes to Miami, Critics Question Whether Electric Race Is Really Green

The all-electric Formula E race series comes to Miami March 14.
The all-electric Formula E race series comes to Miami March 14.
Courtesy of Formula E

Electricity surges through a spinning blue Earth. A wind turbine whirs majestically under a perfect puffy cloud. A girl runs her hand through a wheat field bathed in golden light. And a sleek racecar is unveiled as engines rev and fans scream. "The race to the future," a faraway voice announces, "is about to start."

That's the way Formula E, an all-electric spinoff of the madly popular Formula 1 car racing series that's coming to downtown Miami March 14, sells itself: ecological, graceful, and ahead of the curve. That hype has attracted international television deals for a tour of ten high-profile cities, celebrity backers -- including Leonardo DiCaprio -- and big-name drivers.

But not everyone is so impressed. Even before the first tire hits Biscayne Boulevard, Formula E has inspired myriad criticism. Residents who remember the old Miami Grand Prix are unhappy that a major part of downtown will be closed off for a full day on a busy weekend. A local electric-racing champion says the series opted for flash over sustainable design. And public-space advocates balk at organizers' presentation of the race as a triumph of the green movement.

"There's nothing green about it," says Peter Ehrlich Jr., a local environmentalist. "How do you justify calling something green and then applying to destroy a five-acre waterfront site?"

See also: Mayor Regalado Pushes for Formula E to Stay in Miami

Electric cars have actually been around since even before Henry Ford's Model T. One English inventor, Thomas Parker, built a rechargeable, battery-powered carriage in 1884. A Chicago company produced an electric-gas hybrid in 1911. But as the internal combustion engine rose to prominence and gasoline became widely available, the slower and less powerful electric vehicles were overtaken by cheaper and more powerful gas models.

Despite a recent resurgence of interest and high-profile models like the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster, electric cars remain, on the whole, expensive and novel -- less than 0.5 percent of global car sales.

The people behind Formula E want to change that. The series was conceived three years ago by Jean Todt, a 66-year-old French racing legend, former Ferrari CEO, and the romantic partner of actress Michelle Yeoh, the Bond girl from Tomorrow Never Dies.

Todt is president of Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile. The FIA oversees Formula 1, a $1.5 billion global racing behemoth that attracts hundreds of millions of television viewers each race. Todt, after a legendary career in traditional motor­sports, wanted to turn his attention to sustainability. He saw a new, electric series as a way to both entertain and inspire climate-change action, according to Luca Colajanni, Formula E's communications chief. So Todt created Formula E. "Todt is a man who comes from racing," Colajanni tells New Times. "So he knows how much motor sports can be a driving force for technological development. This is the basic concept of Formula E."

Todt, unsurprisingly, moved fast. He appointed Alejandro Agag, a successful Spanish businessman and former politician, as Formula E's CEO. Within months, the series was developing racing logistics, locking in backers, and considering host cities. After a ten-month design period, the battery-powered Spark Renault SRT_01E, which has a top speed of around 150 mph and accelerates from 0 to 60 in roughly three seconds, debuted as the car for all ten teams. (In future seasons, teams will be able to design their own cars.)

To attract a younger, more diverse audience, the series also decided to race in city centers rather than existing suburban stadiums. The first race was held last September in Beijing. That was followed by Putrajaya, Malaysia; Punta del Este, Uruguay; and Buenos Aires. Five cities, including Moscow and Monte Carlo, will follow the Miami race.

In Beijing, the race ended with a spectacular crash. On the last lap, after driver Nick Heidfeld tried to pass on the inside, he was clipped by Nicolas Prost. Heidfeld's car was sent flying up a barrier. It flipped twice and shattered. Afterward, the men nearly broke into a fistfight on the track. Both were unharmed, but the crash silenced any impression that a non-gas race would be tame.


Mayor Tomás Regalado at the Miami ePrix announcement
Mayor Tomás Regalado at the Miami ePrix announcement
Courtesy of Formula E

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado heard about the developing series in 2012 and traveled to Madrid to lobby Agag. "Personally, I am a fan of the car races," says Regalado, who fondly remembers the old downtown Grand Prix of Miami, a race that was run downtown from 1983 to 1993. "I was very intrigued by this concept of Formula E."

Organizers were "dazzled by the skyline and the water," says Regalado, and soon expressed interest in a Miami race. In April 2013, city commissioners voiced early support. In March 2014, Formula E announced Miami as a location, and this past October, a course was finalized: For 39 laps, drivers will loop around American Airlines Arena and Biscayne Boulevard between NE Sixth and NE 12th streets. A 12-foot barrier spanning the route is already in place.

For the city, Regalado insists, the race is a great deal. Organizers promise 25,000 unique visitors and $10 million in local economic benefit. They will pay for everything, including off-duty police and fire wages. They will also provide $1 million in improvements to downtown streets and sidewalks, he says. Formula E also agreed to rent Museum Park for $72,000 and Parcel B, the area behind the Triple A, for $22,000.

"They are not getting help from the government," Regalado says. "This is the first sport that is not asking for money. I'm proud that I was very instrumental in bringing Formula E to Miami."

Critics, though, say the race's use of Parcel B is particularly egregious. When the Miami Heat won a county referendum to build American Airlines Arena in 1996, the team promised to convert the waterfront plot behind the stadium into a green park. But the park still hasn't been created -- and to advocates, Formula E's use of the land as a pit lane smacks of both hypocrisy and political gamesmanship. "It's a depressing, ongoing struggle for a public space," says Greg Bush of the Urban Environment League.

Ehrlich, a board member of both the Urban Environment League and Scenic Miami-Dade, is outraged that race organizers, while presenting the event as pro-environment, were granted permission by the county to pave areas of the parcel. "Converting Parcel B into a high-testosterone race-course staging area is the opposite of 'green-friendly.' "

Miami ePrix map
Miami ePrix map
Courtesy of Formula E

The series has also drawn the ire of race fans. The cars are virtually silent, a huge turnoff for traditional motorsports lovers, and in an effort to engage a younger audience, organizers introduced a much-mocked system called "Fanboost" -- where the driver who receives the most social media support actually benefits from additional horsepower to his car. "Can we all boycott fanboost?" one fan wrote on Reddit. "Fanboost is the worst thing I have ever heard of in racing," another commenter wrote. "Why give a new series a reason to suck?"

Because the current car batteries used by the series can last for only about 25 or 30 minutes -- half of the hourlong race -- Formula E also decided to implement a "car swap," where each driver switches to a new vehicle halfway through the race.

If the idea of the series is to drive innovation, some argue, why is the series settling for two cars -- and double the production costs -- instead of seeking to develop a better battery or at least implementing a less resource-heavy battery swap instead of car swap? "Formula E's car swap instead of battery swap takes a good opportunity for development and trades it for something completely gimmicky," Raphael Orlove writes on the motoring blog Jalopnik.

Clifford Rassweiler is another critic. The 54-year-old longtime professional racecar driver was among the first to beat gas vehicles with an electric car and founded the electric racing team ProEV. He also questions the wisdom of the series format and car designs. Because organizers were intent on using cars that look cool, he says, they opted for a design that amounted to "baby Formula 1 cars" -- sexy, wide, open-wheel racecars with big tires designed for top speed for one lap. "Which is totally the wrong car for an electric car."

By opting for flashy design with cars that can't even finish a race, Rassweiler contends, Formula E undercuts the electric technology cause. "It makes electric cars look incapable," he says.

Colajanni, the Formula E spokesman, says the car-swapping was a necessary temporary solution. By season five, he says, the goal is to have stronger batteries that allow for an entire race with a single car. "One of the reasons we created Formula E is we feel the competition can increase the speed of the technical development."

Colajanni also emphasizes that Formula E is committed to remaining as green as possible. The cars, for example, are transported on cargo ships rather than by air, to save on emissions, and the calendar was scheduled to minimize travel. (The next stop is Long Beach, California.) He says the series' promises of contributing positive action on climate change -- one survey claimed 77 million new electric cars sold because of the impact of Formula E -- are sincere. "We think we can make a contribution," he says.

But for critics like Ehrlich, the race is a loss before it even starts. "The promoters applied to kill trees and grass," he said. "Commissioners voted to let them kill trees and grass."

Last week, Miami commissioners unanimously agreed to host the race for another five years.

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