The battery pack is half-full
Formula E finale proves an all-electric series can be a world-class motorsport championship
A handful of fascinating stories revolving around the world of electric cars came to light as we charged into the final weekend of July.
First, there was the ubiquitous Elon Musk introducing the long-awaited Tesla Model 3, the "mainstream" EV that looks exceedingly promising for the electrification movement at large.
Hot on the heels of that announcement was another by Panasonic, the exclusive battery supplier for Tesla. In an interview with the Nikkei, the company's executive vice-president in charge of automotive- and electric-parts business, Yoshio Ito, admitted that Panasonic could not keep up with the accelerating demand for EV battery packs: "It is unrealistic to try," he said.
A world away, in downtown Montreal, the Panasonic Jaguar Racing Team was preparing for the final race of the FIA Formula E Championship. Although the Jaguar brand does not have an EV in their road-going fleet yet – indeed, not even a hybrid – the company committed to the electrified race series last year as a test bed. It took on teams that have been involved in Formula E since the inaugural season in 2014-15, and the drivers Mitch Evans and Adam Carroll finished in 12th and 14th places in the points standings.
James Barclay, team director for Panasonic Jaguar Racing, was disappointed that the team struggled, but recognized the value of that struggle: "All we have learned has gone into the design, build and development of our new Jaguar I-Type," he said.
The Jaguar I-Pace, as the all-electric SUV will be called when it hits the market in early 2018, debuted at last year's Los Angeles Auto Show and is now on tour, stopping in Toronto last week before motoring (silently) to Montreal.
"We're doing things with electric cars that you wouldn't believe, things that have never been done before," Barclay says. "We were the first premium brand to commit to the series. And we're going to be the first to come out with a premium vehicle."
Barclay is splitting hairs a bit with all the talk of being first: Jaguar is the first global premium brand to commit to Formula E at a corporate level, for sure. But both the Renault and Citroën DS brands have been involved from the first season. In addition, Audi and BMW have thrown support behind customer teams from the start and both will assume corporate control over their respective Formula E activities starting next season.
Both Porsche and Mercedes-Benz announced that they, too, would be charging into the series. In doing so, Porsche cancelled the Le Mans prototype campaign, a hybrid-engined effort, and Mercedes left the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM), the top series in Germany.
In the Formula E hospitality suite, representatives from Audi and BMW seemed bemused at the sight of all the Panasonic Jaguar Racing team paraphernalia. If the sheer number of logos alone dictated success, the British team would have walked the championship in its maiden season. BMW countered over the course of the weekend by giving VIPs rides around the circuit in the i8 plug-in hybrid. Audi saw its top driver, Lucas di Grassi, grab the championship title after Renault's top man, Sébastien Buemi, suffered a disastrous weekend.
In a curious way, it's been good for Panasonic Jaguar Racing that the first season has been such a challenge. It's provided validation that the championship is a legitimate one that relies on high levels of execution from a technological and sporting standpoint.
Years from now, the final weekend in July may be considered the tipping point for electric vehicles – or, at minimum, at least one of the major tipping points. The FIA Formula E finale in Montreal proved that an all-electric series can be a world-class motorsport championship.
The action on the city streets is relatively quiet (apart from the tires squealing and the transmissions clunking into gear), but it's heated. So, too, is the scene in the hospitality lounge as team directors, manufacturer representatives and race fans alike muse about what the future may bring next.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.