Story by Paul Blaufuss
Photo Credit GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/ Getty Images
Mid 1970â€™s. Upstate New York. Glorious orange, red, and yellow fall foliage framing familiar powder blue guardrails. Sleepy eyed and anxious.
Finally the words all had waited for: â€œ The track is open for practice.â€ A March and other various cars on track.
Then the moment all came for. A Bat-black-mobile blur. Silver helmet. Mario. Sidepods as one with the tarmac. First lap by at speed, barely lifting. Orange racing gloves effortlessly flicking left and right in the esses, heads snapping in the wake. Ground effects, it was called. An invisible witches brew, concocted by the Wizard of Coventry.
The Magicianâ€™s cart pulled the Red Horses that day.
Technology, ingenuity, and racing have always been inextricably bonded. As it was 100 years ago, it still can be today. From the first rear view mirror, to todayâ€™s exotic materials, electronics, fuel and tires. Racing has always been the catalyst, motivation and proving ground for technological innovation. And this has always been the appeal to me of racing in its purest form. How fast one could run or throw a ball mattered not. The best ideas, concepts, design, execution and fabrication key. The best racing minds have always won.
Fast forward 40 years. In todayâ€™s world, spec-type racing has become more and more common in almost every major racing series. Cars have become more and more equal. Parts and materials purchased from major teams and manufacturers. Today, money wins. Human ingenuity and creativity have been seemingly stifled.
My long ago dreams of a glorious Formula 1 career never came to be. So it was one recent early morning that I found myself wandering downstairs at a ridiculously early hour; a result of cubicle induced stress and caffeine fueled insomnia. Careful-quiet so not to wake the Queen B and the two princesses. Fumble in the dark for the television remote. Wonder what is on? Infomercials. Click. Professional arm wrestling. Click. Then, wow. whats this? Racing from Singapore (I think. It was late and I was tired) Need to check this out, I said to myselfâ€¦
Flick to Channel 157. Just in time for pre-race interviews.
Hmmm. Looks interesting. Street circuit. Jam packed grandstands full of excited fans The cars were appealing; open wheel and attractive. They appear as what IndyCars might have looked like, had they been redesigned with aesthetics in mind.
My interest peaked. I made some coffee and settled in.
The team and driver lineup was also intriguing, from what my blurry memory can recall. Teams were present from Audi, Andretti Racing. Virgin and Mahindra. The driver lineup would stack up favorably vs. the current open wheel field: Jarno Trulli, Oriol Servia, Luca di Grassi. Nick Heidfeld, Bruno Senna, Jean Eric Vergne, Sebastien Buemi and Nick Prost were some names I scribbled. Pit road interviews included Alain Prost, Michael Andretti and Jean Todt.
This Formula E stuff is obviously serious business somewhere out there.
The race started. Close nose to tail racing. I could not hear the announcers well; so I turned the volume up as high as I dared. And up once again, until the sound reached the family waking danger level of loudness. Oddly there was little sound from the circuit itself, other than a familiar hum. And I have heard that sound before.
Then it all came back to me, as treasured memories do. That soundâ€¦., and with it the accompanying smell of mini tire rubber and model oilâ€¦the old AFX slot car track in my parentâ€™s basement. (I had an awesome recreation of the old Nurburgring.) No one in the â€˜hood could beat my 6 wheel Tyrrel. My secret: a few weeks lawn mowing money and a cross town bike ride was all that was needed for racing domination. The local hobby man fixed me up with high power magnets and extra sticky rear wheels. And so I was the King of the Karussel and Master of the Mini Flugplatzâ€¦â€¦.
Even there and then, money and technology ruled the day
And so suddenly it hit me; now I get it. Formula Eâ€¦â€¦the E stands for Electric.
The race flowed on; close racing nose to tail, in parade order. Sporadic passes here and there on the tight circuit. Hard to discern if any pass was due to driver skill, or simply an artificial increase in amperage. The performance of the cars was clearly spec-equal; driversâ€™ effort and ability seemingly unable to coax extra performance.
Mid race pit stops were next. All cars stopped for a 5 minute break to replace control units and fresh batteries.
The parade then resumed. Again close racing,with little activity of consequence. Two laps left. Go time. Banzai moves everywhere. Last lap, tight left hand corner. Desperate movesâ€¦ late braking and dives. Wheels, tires and debris strewn everywhere. The winner? Someone in the latter half of the field who manged to snake through the debris and cross the finish line first.
This was clearly a different style of competition. The mechanic, cam shaft, cylinder head, and metal fabricator apparently replaced by the electrical engineer, the CPU and the programmer. Speed generated by computer chips in spec equal cars. Is there still any room for human ingenuity? Or has all racing become the output of an antiseptic computer lab in this brave new world?
For as long as civilization has existed, so has competition. There is an innate desire in every human being worth their salt to prove their ideas, skill, ability and creations against others. The Romans once raced Chariots, and the Victorians horses.
And today we race cars. In the future? Who knows, possibly Star Wars land speeders.
I do wonder what tomorrow may bring. Will cars still exist? If so what will they look like and how will they be powered? Will auto racing as we know it become a quaint reminder of days past? Will the auto mechanic become the saddle maker, candle dipper, weaver, or blacksmith at the local living history museum, reminding future generations of times long gone by?
And if cars do still exist, will we be free to own, operate, and race them?
As for today, what do we make of Formula E? Is it the future of racing? Does the human element still matter? Has racing become solely an engineering exercise? Is a driver even needed at all? If not, why not just race R/C cars and not risk human injury?
Is this the future of racing? And if so, will anyone care to watch?