The Andretti family has been racing for generations. So it’s a big deal that Michael Andretti, a retired auto racing legend and son of the famous Mario Andretti, has thrown his weight behind racing electric cars.
Andretti’s racing team, Amlin Andretti, is one of ten original teams recruited by Fia Formula E Championship to create a race car circuit based on electric cars. The first season began with a race in Beijing in September 2014, and it ended in its tenth city in London in June 2015. The idea is to develop technologies for electric vehicles and promote clean energy and sustainability.
The championship series is now entering its second year. I caught up with Andretti at the 2016 International CES, where Andretti promote the championship series with a racing simulator.
“They asked us to get involved. We felt quite honored by that,” Andretti said in an interview with VentureBeat. “We’re very excited about the series. We’re just at the ground level of this electric technology. We feel that racing is going to help push that technology faster. For us, as a racing team, it’s exciting to be involved with something like this that’s so new and see it accelerating, the technology changing every day.”
“It was something that was brought to us, gosh, back in 2013. At first we were skeptical. Would they be able to pull it off? As time’s gone on, we’ve gotten more and more excited,” he added. “We were very impressed with how they were able to build the cars, get the cars running, do a full race, get the venues, get the sponsorship, and get this whole thing going. It’s a huge undertaking. We’re impressed with what’s been done. They’re getting so much support wherever they go because of the technology — being electric, being green.”
He said that it may be five or 10 years before electric vehicles can do the same thing as internal combustion race cars.”I feel like racing may accelerate that. A lot of what we’re going to learn on a race track will end up in your road car,” he said. “Especially if more manufacturers get involved in the series. They’ll start pushing each other and developing quicker to beat the other guys.”
Right now, the cars can go about 150 miles per hour and get 25 minutes on a charge. The battery is the biggest limitation today, Andretti said. But in a couple of years, the batteries should be able to last the length of a full race, and in three years, the battery life should be doubled.
“At first, it was about understanding how you race an electric car,” said Roger Griffiths, team principal at Amlin Andretti, in an interview. “We have to educate our drivers about what is the best driving technique to save energy. We send them on the simulators prior to every race. It’s a very engineering-driven race team. It’s a very interesting challenge to manage the amount of energy you use per lap.”
Andretti, who won a record 42 CART races himself, said he is retired from driving.
“I’m too out of shape to drive. You have to be in really good shape,” he said.
For fun, I tried driving on a track on a Formula E simulator myself. I couldn’t get around one of the turns, and so I came nowhere near Andretti’s track time. But the video gives you a good idea of what it’s like to drive an electric race car. I drove in a VirtualGT sim racing cockpit that currently sells for $15,995, not including the displays and the PC powering it.