When the new Formula E championship got under way in Beijing, McLaren was there, powering every car on the grid. Writer Robin Swithinbank reports on the successful start of this futuristic all-electric race series

Maybe one day I’ll be able to say ‘I was there’ – trackside in Beijing for the inaugural Formula E race in September 2014. By the time the lights went green in China’s capital, $100m had been invested into the 10-round championship. It felt like the start of something big. 

Since returning from China, people have asked me what the race was like. And will it work? The straight answer is that it was impressive. Seriously impressive. Ok, so the one-make single-seater used by all the teams isn’t anywhere near as fast as a Formula 1 car; and yes, the high-pitched whine it makes when it drives past is certainly unusual. As with many new things, it’s going to take time to get used to.

But common consensus around the paddock was that the concept behind Formula E is future-relevant, and future-proofed. As the world’s first fully electric race series, it’s glamorising electro-mobility, identified as the most likely sustainable source of automotive engineering over the coming years. With many car manufacturers now developing electric vehicles – McLaren Automotive included – the timing of Formula E couldn’t be better, and it’s got some big names behind it. 
The founder is Alejandro Agag, the Spanish former MEP and one-time chairman of English Premier League football team Queen’s Park Rangers. He has summoned that nine-figure investment from a number of private backers, and secured the support of a dozen former Formula 1 drivers, a roster of technology specialists including McLaren Applied Technologies, and a good smattering of high-profile sponsors, among them TAG Heuer, the series’ official timekeeper. 

McLaren’s involvement in Formula E builds on a programme that stretches back to the conception of the McLaren P1™ road car. Peter van Manen, Vice President of McLaren Applied Technologies (the division responsible for pioneering McLaren’s expertise and experience in other sectors) has overseen the involvement in the new series. ‘We started developing electric motors and controllers several years ago because we couldn’t find anything in the marketplace which was small enough and powerful enough for what we wanted to achieve in the McLaren P1™,’ he explains. The resulting electric motor weighs just 26kg and delivers 176bhp in the McLaren P1™. ‘That’s more than double the sorts of power densities you see in most automotive electric motors,’ says van Manen.


As the specification of the McLaren P1™ was being finalised, Formula E was just being created, and McLaren Applied Technologies agreed to help develop and supply the new race car’s powertrain. Unlike the v8-powered road car, the Formula E racer wouldn’t have any kind of internal combustion engine. ‘An electric racing car is quite different from a hybrid [like the McLaren P1™],’ van Manen explains. ‘The electric motor has to do everything, reacting instantly to driver demands – which means you have instant torque, instant braking. Its responses can be quite sharp, so it’s highly strung.’

A challenging car to drive fits well with Agag’s vision for his new electric series. This charismatic 44-year-old, who flips between Spanish, French and English with extraordinary ease during the half-hour interview, is clearly an enthusiast. ‘Honestly, I’m here for the motor racing – it’s what I like,’ he says. ‘Of course, we think everybody needs to take responsibility for what’s going on [with the environment]. I worry – I have four children – but I’m not a tree hugger. I think it makes sense for everybody to do something related to sustainability and to the environment in their own space. My space is motor racing, and as consequence I want to do motor racing in a cleaner way.

‘I also think it’s good for business,’ he continues. ‘Many companies feel a responsibility to do something good for the environment, and to propose a sponsorship option that ticks both boxes – a true sport that’s on television, but at the same time does something for the environment – I think it’s a very good option.’

Agag has been undeniably smart. Aside from the miracle of creating something from nothing in a little over two years, he’s also made sure that each of the 10 rounds will take place on street circuits in some of the world’s most iconic cities.

Beijing provided a spectacular canvas for the first race. It’s colourful, hot, surprisingly modern, cosmopolitan even, and huge – the latest population estimate is a staggering 21 million (more staggeringly, it’s only China’s third largest city). Somehow, Agag convinced the Chinese authorities to allow him to build a track around the Olympic Park, in the shadows of the awe-inspiring Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube aquatics centre. 

The race itself made for good viewing, too. The night before, Agag had said rather portentously: ‘we have discussed the spectacle with the drivers a lot, but it’s completely useless. They all want to win. What do you tell them? There’s going to be contact for sure, but not too much, I hope.’

Sure enough, after 25 laps of wheel-to-wheel action, the race ended with a headline-grabbing smash on the final corner of the final lap. Race leader Nicolas Prost sent Nick Heidfeld’s car spiralling through the air and into a wall. Formula E’s first YouTube moment could have ended in disaster.

But it didn’t – instead it provided fuel for the global news outlets, and the social media that Agag has said he will use to measure Formula E’s success (according to the FIA, more than one billion social media posts were recorded around the race).

The next race will be in Malaysia and isn’t untilNovember, although the schedule picks up after that with stops in cities including Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Berlin, and finally London, where the series concludes on the last weekend in June 2015.

What was it like and will it work? It was great, and yes, it really could. And for what it’s worth, when it all kicked off I was there.



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