ESPN sent F1 editor Laurence Edmondson to Valencia, Spain to try out a Formula E car first hand ahead of the new 2019/2020 season.
Prior to climbing into the car, I was warned several times about the make-shift chicane on the start-finish straight. The Circuit Ricardo Tormo outside Valencia is primarily a bike racing track, but it has become the venue of choice for Formula E's pre-season testing in recent years and undergoes some annual modifications as a result.
For the rest of the year it is a compact but flowing circuit -- way faster than the tracks Formula E visits during its racing calendar -- and the concrete chicane midway down the pit straight is necessary to simulate the tight corners Formula E drivers come across on the streets of Hong Kong, New York and London. The warning from my driver coach, Formula E's safety car driver Bruno Correia, couldn't be clearer: "Don't try to be a hero".
With those words ringing in my ears, I get suited up, pull on my helmet on and enter the garage. This Formula E car that greets me is something of a workhorse for the all-electric series -- used to offer journalists and VIPs a feel for what it's like to be a real-life racing driver. But although the car will never race, its Gen 2 bodywork is identical to those racing in Saudi Arabia this weekend and its electric motor is still capable of a power output of 200kw (270bhp). Weighing just 900kg, the car can go from standstill to 60mph in just 2.8s and has a top speed of 174mph. For a journalist without a racing licence, it's more than enough.
The controls couldn't be simpler. Accelerate, brake, steering wheel and, if you need it, a second gear at the pull of a paddle. The good news is you can't stall as you pull out of the garage, but that doesn't help temper the nerves as I awkwardly clamber over the futuristic bodywork and into the cockpit.
There's no nice way to put it, but at 1.85 metres and 85kg I'm not a good fit. My feet quickly come across the pedals as I lower myself into the cockpit, so I have to jam my knees up against the top of the monocoque to bring my helmet and sightline below the halo. It feels claustrophobic as the six-point harness is tightened over my shoulders and that's before the steering wheel -- which was removed to allow me to climb in -- has been put back in place. The wheel itself has a number of dials that I'm told not to worry about, but sits so close to my chest that I'd be unable to identify one from the other even if I had to.
Being electric, the car isn't fired up but instead switched on. I'm told to apply pressure to the brake pedal, pull first gear and ... well, that's it, away I go. No dramatic fire up, no rumble from an engine behind me, just foot on the brake and pull a paddle. With my heart pounding against the seatbelts, I'm wheeled out of the garage and instructed to head off down the pit lane.
The transmission sounds like the chain on a roller coaster as it engages and disengages at low speed. The clattering and jerky drive as I crawl down the pit lane does nothing to settle the nerves, but it's simply the cars way of telling me it's not happy at this pace. The transmission has been designed for full throttle and hard braking, not the delicate inputs of a tentative journalist.
The lack of engine noise is evident from the surprise on the face of team members and camera men as they turn to see a car in motion in the pit lane. Today is supposed to be a rest day during Formula E testing, and it appears the memo that a car has been devoted to journalists has not made it to all the teams as they relax outside their garages. That bad news for me is that there's still enough of them to make up a significant crowd if I make a mistake at the temporary chicane on the pit straight...
Accelerating out of the pits and the clunky noise of the transmission gives way to a whine from the electric motor. The noise can only be compared to a TIE Fighter from Star Wars and combined with the kick you get in the back under acceleration, my mind tries to convert the whine into the revs from an internal combustion engine. But unlike in a petrol racing car where you would quickly come across the redline and pull the next gear, the acceleration in this two-gear Formula E car is seemingly endless. The next thing I know, I'm out on track and the noise of the electric motor has been cancelled out by the wind rushing around my helmet.
The first lap and a half is tentative and a few things become apparent. So cramped is the cockpit, that as I add steering angle, my hands knock against my doubled up legs, making for an unwanted distraction mid corner. It's also clear that the braking potential of the car is far greater than anything I have experienced before. The regenerative braking Formula E drivers carefully manage with lift and coast tactics to recover battery energy isn't even a consideration for me - I'm way too early on the brakes into every corner and the battery read-out on my dash never dips under 97 percent. With no prior experience of the car or circuit, I'm simply unable to override the part of my brain that keeps yelling "BRAKE!" as I approach each corner and as a result, my entry corner entry speed is always way lower than it needs to be.
The one thing I don't at any point is the halo. The chunky piece of titanium and carbon fibre sits directly in front of you, but not once did it become a distraction. Although its sat no more than 20cm in front of your eyes, they don't have the time to focus on it as they search for the next apex or corner exit. Given the safety benefits, it now seems odd that anyone raced single seaters without one.
As I start my second lap, the pit straight chicane gets the respect it deserves. Rather than attack it, I back way off on the approach and probably look like a learner driver pulling out of a junction for the first time as I cautiously thread my way through the concrete barriers. But on the faster, flowing parts of the circuit there is more margin for error and a bigger invitation to push...
As the speed increases, the car feels like a giant go-kart - responsive to inputs and lively under braking. On the final in-lap my braking gets later, the steering more aggressive and the acceleration harder. But just as the confidence grows inside me, it gets instantly stripped away as the car slews sideways coming out of a separate chicane at the top of the circuit.
Time seems to slow down and for a millisecond all I can hear is tyre squeal and all I can see is the car spinning in my mind's eye. I do my best to catch the slide, but the steering wheel snaps out of my hands and turns full-lock into the slide. Before I know it, and to my absolute disbelief, the car has righted itself and I grab the steering wheel again as it centres. When I realise the car is still facing the right way and completely undamaged, I kid myself that I had proper racing-driver experience, knowing full well that I've just been incredibly lucky.
Heart-rate peaking, I try to regain my composure as I guide the car back to the pits without further incident - happy I've done something exciting for the camera, but even happier it didn't end up in the barrier. Returning to the garage and I'm asked about the tyre squeal, which was audible form the pit lane, and whether I'd had an "incident". In response I chose the word "moment", but admit the difference between the two was a matter of luck rather than judgement.
While the Formula E car is far from the fastest racing car on the planet, it certainly won my respect and admiration. Most of its performance loss to other single seaters comes from the tyres and downforce, but the power is still on a similar level to lower formula cars and that makes it exciting to drive.
Trying to race one while monitoring power modes, battery life and regenerative braking deserves respect -- especially when you consider how tight most Formula E circuit are. The frenetic racing remains the series' party piece, but having had a first-hand experience I can confirm the cars are serious pieces of kit that deserve respect. If electric vehicles are the future of racing, then there's plenty to get excited about.