To many motorsport fans, the excitement of Formula One is in the sound of roaring engines and the thick smell of petrol.
The forthcoming Formula E electric car racing series, by contrast, will bring only clean air and the high-pitched whine of fossil-fuel-free vehicles.
This week, Leonardo DiCaprio lent his backing to the 10th and last team on the grid for the inaugural Formula E championship, which is due to begin in Beijing in September 2014. Its organisers hope the event will help to raise the profile of electric-car technology and encourage manufacturers to invest and innovate in the sector.
The 39-year-old actor has co-founded a team with the businessman Gildo Pallanca Pastor, who owns Venturi Automobiles, an electric car-maker based in Monaco. Last week, Richard Branson’s Virgin Racing announced that it would field a team, alongside established motorsport names including Drayson Racing and Andretti Autosport.
The Beijing race will be the first of 10 to take place in major cities around the world, including Kuala Lumpur, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, Berlin and London, where the debut Formula E season will conclude in June 2015.
The race series is being overseen by the Fédération International de l’Automobile (FIA), which administers Formula One, the World Rally Championship and several other motor-racing events. Formula E also has the backing of the European Commission, which has previously called for the motor-racing industry to embrace electric-car technology. Several major motorsport firms have already invested in Formula E, including Renault, Michelin and McLaren.
Each of the 10 teams will have two drivers. The races will each last around an hour and each driver will make two mandatory pitstops per race. Instead of switching tyres or replacing the car’s electric batteries during those stops, the drivers will swap cars altogether, buckling themselves into a fully charged vehicle.
The first vehicle to be unveiled and approved for racing was created by Renault in collaboration with Spark Racing Technology. The Spark-Renault SRT_01E is powered by lithium-ion batteries and has a top speed of around 140mph; Formula One cars frequently top 200mph.
For the first year of the series, each of the teams will race in vehicles with similar specifications. From 2015, the event will be an “open championship”, allowing manufacturers freedom to develop new drivetrains for their cars and thus encouraging innovation.
Alejandro Agag, the chief executive of Formula E holdings, welcomed DiCaprio’s participation, telling the BBC: “Very few environmental leaders have helped more than [DiCaprio] to spread the message of sustainability around the world. Having people like him and Richard Branson – global ambassadors for the environment – is a privilege for our championship and will greatly help us to spread the use of electric cars in cities around the planet.”
A long-time environmental campaigner, in 2001 DiCaprio was the first major Hollywood star to purchase Toyota’s mass-market hybrid car, the Prius. In 2008 he added a Tesla Roadster to his electric fleet and in 2011 took delivery of the very first hybrid electric Fisker Karma sports car.