Auto Racing Goes Green

France's Jean-Eric Vergne races during the Formula E qualifying session at the Long Beach ePrix auto race, on April 4. The FIFA-sanctioned circuit just wrapped up its inaugural year of professional racing of electric vehicles. Jae C. Hong/AP

Electric vehicles are just starting to appear on streets and highways in large numbers, but already they're being raced professionally. Formula E—a motor racing championship sanctioned by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the governing body for Formula One, the world's most popular auto racing series—wound up its inaugural year in late June with back-to-back races over two days on the streets that encircle London's Battersea Park, drawing crowds of around 60,000. The London races capped a nine-month, 11-race competition held in 10 cities, including Beijing, Berlin and Monte Carlo.

"We did not know if we would succeed, and there was an 80 percent chance of failure when we started this," says Alejandro Agag, the Spanish businessman who launched Formula E three years ago as a way to attract a younger, greener audience to motor racing. "Everywhere we have sold out," Agag says. "Every race has been packed." TV audiences have been strong too—Fox Sports in the U.S. recently extended its contract through 2020—and Agag claims that the championship "is going to be profitable soon."

Agag and other investors ponied up about $65 million to launch Formula E, and he lined up such big-name sponsors as Visa, Michelin and Virgin. British billionaire Richard Branson, who heads Virgin, is also a team owner, as are actor Leonardo DiCaprio and legendary F1 racing families Andretti and Prost. Renault and Audi each fielded teams this year too, and Agag says he thinks other manufacturers will get involved soon.

In its initial season, each team drove the same car: the Spark-Renault SRT 01E. Its electric drivetrain is built by McLaren Automotive, and its battery packs were created by Williams Advanced Engineering —both long-standing F1 teams. In Formula E's second year—a 10-city circuit that kicked off October 24 in Beijing and will end next July in, again, London—each team has the option of designing its own power plant.

The first season's car was capable of winding around a track at a top speed of 140 mph, and could zip from zero to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds. Because high speeds drain batteries quickly, each driver needs to change cars halfway through the hour-long race. But Agag says battery technology is improving so fast that by year five, pit stops will be eliminated.

Agag hopes Formula E will help promote the benefits of electric motoring to more people, including skeptics who still consider EVs as pumped-up golf carts. "There is still widespread belief among consumers that EVs are slow," says Paul Nieuwenhuis, an auto industry expert at the Cardiff Business School. "This should help combat that myth." And it may be working. According to Agag, one large automaker polled fans at the gate after the ePrix in Miami, and 99 percent of respondents said the race made them more likely to buy an EV.