How the city of light took a battery-powered motor race into its heart

Last Saturday in Paris you needed a ticket to a motor race to get into the streets around Les Invalides, the 17th-century monument where the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte rests beneath a gilded dome. Three Metro stations were closed for the day and the wide Esplanade des Invalides, which leads to the splendid Alexandre III bridge over the Seine, had all-but disappeared under a temporary pit lane and rows of tented VIP suites.

Hidden among a forest of barriers and hoardings were the traffic lights at the corner of Avenue de Tourville and Boulevard de la Tour-Mauberg, where on any normal day I might cycle through or wait at the red light. But today the streets were closed to let 18 high-speed racing cars go rocketing over the junction again and again. This was the first-ever Paris ePrix, a motor race for low-slung single-seaters that look very much like Formula One cars with their aerofoils and logos, but are powered by electric motors instead of V6 engines. It’s called Formula E, and Paris has taken it very much to heart.

Its the ‘E for electric’ factor that allows this two-year-old championship to invade Paris and 10 other city centres around the world, including London this July. ‘It’s a bit like Monaco every weekend’, according to the French driver Nicolas Prost (son of Alain, four-times Formula One champion) ‘You’re always in the middle of the city.’

It offers the thrills of F1 (though the top speed is 140mph instead of 185mph) with little noise and no emissions. I stood close to the track as the cars hurtled by and all I heard was a high-pitched whistling with a flat undertone of tyres on tarmac. When I stepped away for a few paces this modest sound was easily drowned out by the commentary from a giant TV screen.

Lucas di Grassi’s champagne celebration    Photo: BRIAN HANCILL

You can’t please everyone and I’d heard someone on the morning radio carping that the Paris race was guilty of ‘la glorification de la vitesse’, which made the presenters chuckle. If there’s one thing Parisians appreciate it’s a spectacle and the ePrix certainly qualified.

As in all motor sport, a sensible spectator visits the trackside to taste the atmosphere then finds a TV to make sense of it all. Most of the crowd had gathered in front of a giant screen behind the winners’ podium, but as the afternoon turned chilly I found a place in the Mumm VIP tent, where it was also possible to test F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim: ‘Too much of anything is bad, but too much champagne is just right.’

The screen revealed another quirk of Formula E: battery management as a competitive sport. Listed alongside each driver’s name and placing was his remaining power percentage, just like the top of your iPhone screen. The rules governing how many kilowatts a car can use are complex, but every steering wheel is dominated by a big digital readout showing that same percentage and everyone has to change to a second, fully charged car halfway through the race.

Formula E expert Anne-Charlotte Remy told me while our champagne flutes were topped up that by the time season five rolls around in 2018 the technology should have advanced far enough to dispense with the second car. She also talked me through the Fan Boost, a bizarre concept which gives three drivers a three-second burst of extra power in the later stages of a race. Yes, three whole seconds. In a nod to the X Factor school of audience participation, the three names are chosen in an online vote.

By far the coolest-looking man in the tent was a tall, white-bearded figure in an elegant black frock coat. This turned out to be Ross Lovegrove, a charming Welshman who gently plays down his world renown as an industrial designer. His connection to the ePrix? He has designed a handsome new champagne bottle for Mumm called Grand Cordon, one with no paper label and the company’s iconic red sash transformed into a finger-wide recess in the glass. Its first public appearance in Europe would come when the race winner sprayed its contents across the podium later.

‘No, I don’t mind it being unveiled in such a frivolous way,’ he smiled in reply to my rather dumb question. ‘Champagne is all about celebration, after all.’
The man who finally mounted the podium and showered the crowd from a giant bottle of Mumm Grand Cordon was 31-year-old Brazilian Lucas di Grassi. The 45-lap race had ended in a slight anti-climax when one driver crashed and a safety car led the field round the last few circuits. That left Lucas in first place, reinforcing his lead in the 2015-16 drivers’ championship.

I’d already decided he was one of the good guys after he gave a speech in the Mumm tent earlier in the day. There was a staged moment for the TV cameras when he took up a shiny silver ‘sabre’ to decapitate one of Ross Lovegrove’s new champagne bottles. He got it first time, then stayed around while his wife had a go and, very sweetly, filmed her on his phone like a normal person. Can you imagine Lewis Hamilton doing that?

So, even though British driver Sam Bird came in sixth and is still in the championship running, I know who I’m backing in Formula E . Go Lucas!

And next time my bike is held up at that red light on Avenue de Tourville I’ll think of the ePrix and remember the day, when after hours of patient research, I discovered that F. Scott Fitzgerald was right!

This article was originally published HERE on the Spectator Life website on April 27, 2016.