Motor racing is set for an electric makeover that will see a new generation of green cars speeding at 220 km/h around urban racetracks - at least until their batteries go flat.
Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E Holdings, says the global championship, which has been authorised by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, motorsport's governing body, will help finally make electric cars popular.
“That is one of our main objectives,” he said, “to change perceptions of people about electric cars by running championship that is sexy, that people like, and where they see people racing without breaking down.”
Formula E is planned to start in 2014 with 10 races staged worldwide between about May and November.
Organisers hope for all the races to take place in city centres, potentially stretching from European capitals such as Paris, London and Rome to more far-flung locales such as Moscow, Beijing, Sydney and even Morocco's ancient city of Marrakech.
Rio de Janeiro is the first city to come on board.
Agag said New York was another priority, although no formal talks had been held, and several other US cities could be involved, including Los Angeles.
“We want this to have quite a strong American DNA because, despite what everybody says, America is still the home of innovation.”
Agag said he wanted races inside cities partly for the spectacle and partly to exploit what he says is a major advantage of the electric cars over Formula One's scream machines: relative quiet.
“We have noise, but it's a very moderate noise. The spectators will still have the emotion of watching the race with that noise there, but you won't hear that noise two kilometres from the circuit.
“So it's ideal for city centres, where noise pollution is a very serious problem.”
The big unknown is whether racing fans - who generally thrive on Formula One's extremes of speed and noise - will embrace Formula E.
The prototype vehicle developed by France's Formulec has a maximum speed of 220 kmh and accelerates from zero to 100 km/h in three seconds.
That's not quite as fast as the monstrous Formula One cars, which can hit 100km/h in less than two seconds.
The most crucial statistic, though, is battery life: 25 minutes.
That means that instead of Formula One's pit-stop ballet of tyre changes, Formula E drivers will change batteries. Or, rather, they'll hop out of their cars half way into the one-hour race and get into other ones.
To make things more interesting, the second car will be waiting 100 metres away.
“The drivers will have to sprint. It will be very spectacular on television,” Agag said.
Tyre changes, which Agag criticised as environmentally unfriendly, won't take place at all.
At the end of 10 races there'll be a champion, while each race winner stands to get about €400 000 euros (R4.3 million) in prize money.
Agag says he hopes traditional racing teams - McLaren has already expressed interest - will be joined by big brands such as Google or Coca-Cola, as well as electric car companies, in creating the 10 teams.
“It's a great occasion for companies to put their money where their mouth is. Many companies speak about environment, the problems of sustainability. This is a very good opportunity to show their commitment,” he said.
The broader impact, Agag hopes, will go far beyond the race track. Ordinary drivers who are still unconvinced by the emerging technology will see “that electric cars are a valid option for their daily lives” - AFP