In July 2012, Alejandro Agag invited former Formula One driver Lucas di Grassi to a café in downtown Zurich to discuss an idea. Over coffee, Agag, the 42-year-old co-owner of the Queens Park Rangers football club in England, former member of the European Parliament and CEO of Formula E Holdings, laid out his vision for a new racing series using electric-powered cars. He made it clear that this would be no parade of Priuses. The cars, Agag said, would be as sleek as F1 machines. They would race on downtown streets in major cities around the globe. And they would be true high-performance vehicles. The Formula E cars would be able to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 2.6 seconds—far quicker than the stock cars of NASCAR—and would have a top speed of 170 mph. The batteries would last for only 25 minutes before needing a recharge, so each driver would have two cars during the race and switch vehicles at pit stops.
Di Grassi was sold. "I've always felt electric technology will be the future of racing and the future of the automotive industry," says Di Grassi, 28, who after signing on with the venture has spent the past six months track-testing a prototype for the new race car. "The technology we develop will one day be mainstream."
In Los Angeles on Monday—Earth Day—Agag officially announced that Formula E's 10-city, four-continent debut season in 2014 would include a stop in L.A.. The series will have 10 teams with two drivers each, and the events will be one-day affairs: a practice session in the morning, then qualifying, followed by a one-hour race. Each driver will be required to pit twice. "Because we are going to be racing in city centers, we need to get in and out quickly," says Agag, a native of Madrid. "And these cars have very low noise. You can hear the wind blow over the skin of the car and can hear the tires grip the street. It's very different from Formula One."
Last weekend Agag sent a team of Formula E executives to Long Beach, Calif., where IndyCar was competing, to talk with drivers from that circuit about the new series. Agag plans to woo NASCAR drivers as well.
"The idea is that we want more electric cars on the streets," Agag says. "We're starting with lithium ion batteries and electric motors, but who knows where the technology will go from there? I do know that sponsors want clean energy."
So does Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who lobbied Agag to stage a race in the heart of his city. "We have built 121 public chargers for electric cars," Villaraigosa says. "Formula E is symbolic of Los Angeles going from the city of smog to the city of sustainability."
Of course, it remains to be seen if this series will succeed. But it's intriguing to ponder the possibility of a new sound track for open-wheel racing—from a high-pitched shriek to a whisper of wind—and all that such soft noise would mean for the environment.