BEIJING (AFP) – Motor racing takes a huge step towards an environmentally friendly future when the first-ever Formula E race takes place in Beijing on Saturday involving some of the sport’s most famous names.
Echoes of the greatest Formula One rivalries of the past will be reincarnated when the next Senna, Prost and Piquet generations lock horns to the unique soundtrack of the jet-like whine of electric racing cars.
As well as backing from the auto industry, the new motor racing championship, using 150mph (225kph) cars powered solely by electricity, has received high-level endorsement from Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio and British tycoon Richard Branson.
With alternative, environmentally-friendly fuels on the rise, the symbolism of the new formula’s debut in the shadow of the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing – a city regularly blanketed by choking pollution – is unmistakable.
But it is the involvement of some of the most revered names in F1 that is most likely to ignite passions among motorsport fans.
The son of French racing great Alain Prost, along with the nephew of his fiercest rival, Brazilian Ayrton Senna, will be lining up on the grid, along with Nelson Piquet Junior, whose father raced alongside them in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“These guys will be really fighting for victory, they will racing at their maximum,” said Alejandro Agag, the chief executive of the company behind the series.
Both Piquet and Bruno Senna are experienced Formula One pilots, while Nicolas Prost was appointed test driver for the Lotus F1 team last year.
They are among 20 drivers who will be racing in 10 teams in Formula E, which has been developed by motorsport’s governing body, the International Automobile Federation (FIA).
For the first season, the drivers will use identical vehicles, a collaboration between F1’s Williams, McLaren and Renault.
But from next year teams will be able to design their own cars and “showcase their own electrical energy innovations”, the organisers say.
After Beijing, Formula E will move on to nine more street circuit races around the world, including in Los Angeles, Miami, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro and Monte Carlo, scene of F1’s Monaco Grand Prix, with the season’s climax in London in June.
Each driver has two cars, and will transfer to their second vehicles at the pit stop during the roughly hour-long races, as there is no way to quickly replace or recharge the batteries.
Prost is racing in the E.Dams Renault team, which was established by his four-time F1 World Champion father and Jean-Paul Driot, founder of motorsport team Dams.
Senna has been signed up by Mumbai-based Mahindra Racing and Piquet will be driving for home favourite China Racing.
Among the other former F1 racers on the grid is Jarno Trulli, who has competed in 256 Grand Prix, making him the fifth most experienced driver in the sport.
DiCaprio adds a touch of glamour to the Championship as one of the four founders of the Monaco-based Venturi team, while Richard Branson has thrown his considerable financial muscle behind Formula E by setting up his own organisation, Virgin Racing.
The involvement of high-profile personalities was a “positive surprise”, Agag said, adding: “Many are attracted by the sustainability issues involved with this kind of racing.”
But last October, four-time F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel criticised Formula E as “not the future”, partly because of its expected lack of noise compared to the roar of petrol-powered cars screaming around a track.
But Agag said many motorsport fans would be pleasantly surprised by the “really cool sound”, a whine which he likened to a “jet engine”.
“We think this is not a replacement for Formula One, but a complement to Formula One,” he said, before adding pertinently that “technology will dictate the future”.