Formula E's All-Electric Race Is Coming to Brooklyn This Weekend

Emission-free competition is gaining around the world, on and off the road.

Racers on the grid.

Formula E

It’s all happened very fast. In 2011, the head of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA, the governing body for Formula One) and Spanish businessman Alejandro Agag met in a Paris restaurant. What was to become the first international electric street-racing series, Formula E, started as a series of notes on a napkin. But, my, how it’s grown. 

Today, Formula E is mainstream, fielding teams from Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mahindra, Mercedes-Benz, NIO, Nissan, Renault, and Porsche. The races are truly international, occurring for the 2020-2021 season (the seventh) in Saudi Arabia; Rome, Italy; Valencia, Spain; Monaco; Puebla, Mexico; London; Berlin; and—July 10 and 11—in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Other races have taken place in Beijing; Long Beach, California; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Miami; and Moscow.

There are 12 teams with two drivers each for the single-seat cars. The circuits, often in the city center, are 1.2 to 2.1 miles long. The reigning champ is Antonio Felix da Costa from Portugal, who drives for DS Techeetah, a Chinese team. 

The cars have battery packs (standardized for all the cars) developed by Atieva, a division of startup Lucid, which is challenging Tesla in the performance EV space. The new packs enable cars to complete the whole race—prior to the 2019-2020 season a car change was necessary halfway through. Formula One cars reach 60 mph in 2.5 seconds; Formula E is close behind with 2.8 seconds. The top speed for the electrics is 173 mph, not quite as fast as Formula One. 

Atieva Formula E battery pack


The teams make their cars competitive with subtle tweaks to the suspension and other components. And, of course, driver skill matters. The series has been attracting top drivers. 

Formula One is high-profile racing, but it’s also a big polluter, estimating its impact as 256,551 tons of carbon dioxide, the principal global warming gas, in 2018. It’s certainly not all from driving—45% of the impact is from moving the cars and teams around the world. Formula One said it wants to be net carbon neutral by 2030, and have sustainable races by 2025—but it’s unclear what that looks like. 

Six-time F1 champ Lewis Hamilton opined in 2019, “F1 is only implementing it [net carbon neutral status] in 10 years’ time and I don’t fully understand why that doesn’t change sooner. These large corporations that have a lot of money and power behind them and can definitely make change happen quicker, but it's not their number one priority.”

Formula E’s impact is 75% from freight (moving cars and parts around), with business travel (12%), spectator travel (6%), food and beverages (4%), and the actual events (3%). As Formula E has grown, its emissions have too, from 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in season 1 to 45,000 tons in season 5. Obviously. It’s aiming for carbon neutrality, too. 

Let’s also look at NASCAR. The cars burn gas at five miles per gallon, so with 40 cars competing for 500 miles the consumption is 6,000 gallons. Since each gallon emits 20 pounds of CO2, a race weekend produces 120,000 pounds. Then multiply by 35 races per year to get 4 million pounds annually. 

Most forms of racing are dirty and determined to remain so. Racers are protesting moves by the EPA under President Biden to enforce the law against car parts companies that disable emissions equipment. According to Kory Willis, who runs the racing shop PPEI Custom Tuning, “This will 100 percent eliminate racing within 10 years. Every drag strip across the country will be wiped out. No circle tracks, no sprint cars—it all ends.”

Now even carmakers such as McLaren are looking at electric racing. McLaren may be the one supercar producer that isn’t showing an electric vehicle, but it is planning to race on batteries. In June, McLaren said it would enter Extreme E in 2022. That’s an off-road electric series, also run by Agag, that’s promoting sustainability in the sport, with competition in some pretty grueling environments (Greenland, Saudi Arabia, Senegal). The teams are male/female, with Molly Taylor (Australia) and Johan Kristofferson (Sweden) in the lead with 71 points. 

The Extreme E racers are four-wheel-drive electric dune buggy-type creations with no tailpipe emissions. That’s not McLaren’s usual fare, but racing CEO Zak Brown says, “This new venture is true to our roots of participating in a variety of categories, innovation and bravery. Extreme E is paving new ground in motorsport as a force for good in confronting some of the biggest challenges facing our world today and in the future.” 

The Baja 1000 off-road race in Mexico is a bit extreme for electric vehicles so far, though companies such as Lordstown Motors have entered (but dropped out of) shorter events. One competitor, New York-based Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus, is planning to tackle the Baja with a zero-emission hydrogen vehicle next year. 

Racing has traditionally been about winning. It still is, but a new element has been added—sustainability. Starting with the 2020-21 season, Formula E has become an official FIA World Championship and is no longer a novelty. Still to come after New York is London (July 24-25) and Berlin (Aug. 14 and 15). The Brooklyn event will be run on the streets of Red Hook, London at ExCeL, and Berlin at the Tempelhof Airport.