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No Gas Guzzlers Here; Beijing Hosts First All-Electric Car Race

German driver Nick Heidfeld of Venturi Formula E Team. The all-electric cars can go from zero to 60 in under 3 seconds, and reach top speeds of over 150 mph. (EPA/Landov)

Some of the world's top race-car drivers put the pedal to the metal in Formula E this weekend, the first-ever all-electric automobile race. It was held in the Chinese capital, the first of 10 cities that will host the races between now and next June.

The championship is aimed to generate interest in — and boost sales of — electric cars.

The Formula E race cars are low to the ground, somewhere between Formula 1 and Indy cars. They've got aluminum and carbon fiber chassis, and can go from zero to 60 in under 3 seconds, and reach top speeds of over 150 mph.

Clearly, these cars are not your father's Prius.

On Saturday, 10 teams with two drivers each competed on a narrow track set up around Beijing's iconic Olympic stadium, more commonly known as the Bird's Nest. The race covered about 50 miles, or 25 laps around a circuit that was roughly 2 miles.

Outside the pit stop of the Amlin Aguri team, where mechanics swap tires, is driver Katherine Legge. She is a Briton who has settled in Indianapolis and raced twice in the Indy 500.

She explains that the Formula E car batteries only put out 28 kilowatt-hours, so drivers have to use two cars to finish the race. They have to conserve energy while going as fast as they can. They also use the brakes and the clutch to charge the battery on the fly.

"You've got lots of dials and switches and knobs and things to turn on the wheel, and paddles to pull," she says, "and so you have to be patient, and also forward-thinking as a driver as well, to try and manage the amount of allotted energy that we have."

Because of the heavy weight of the car's battery, it steers differently from other cars. And less engine noise means drivers get less information about the car's performance.

Training for Formula E has meant a lot of time and commitment for the drivers and their teams.

"It's important to be seen as green and viable," says Legge. "By being here, I've shown how committed I am to the concept. I believe in it, and I think everybody here believes in it, and I do believe it will be a success.

"It feels special to be part of something completely new, something that may help define the future," says Nick Heidfeld, a seasoned German driver for the Monaco-based Venturi team.

"What we're trying to show to the world is electric vehicles can be fast, they can be sexy, they can be cool," adds Jim Wright, who manages Venturi's business side.

"And we want the next generation — I guess guys who are in their teens now, teenagers — their first car that they buy, we want that to be an electric vehicle," Wright says.

It's no coincidence, he adds, that Formula E's first leg is being held in China. It's the world's biggest market for automobiles, and the government sees electric cars as part of the solution to the country's pollution problem.

But professor Song Jian, of Tsinghua University's automotive engineering department in Beijing, says gas is still cheap enough in China that motorists don't have to think much about conserving it. Until battery technology is more commercially viable, he predicts, even the most progressive government policies won't get people buying electric cars.

"Formula E may help young people understand the technology," he says, "but it may not do much to boost sales. After all, race cars are a far cry from what ordinary consumers buy."

"Sure," he adds, "you've got Formula 1 racing. But how many young people go out and buy Formula 1 cars?"

There were a couple of crashes on Saturday, but no serious injuries. Team Audi took first place. In the coming months, the races will be held in cities including London, Buenos Aires and Miami.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You've heard of Formula 1 racing. We report this morning on Formula E. That's the name for a race entirely featuring electric cars. The first-ever Formula E race took place over the weekend in Beijing. A total of 10 cities will host such races between now and June. The racing circuit is meant to encourage you to buy an electric car. NPR's Anthony Kuhn was at the track in Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: On Saturday, 10 teams with two drivers each competed on a narrow track set up around Beijing's iconic Olympic stadium, which folks here call the Bird's Nest.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORMULA E RACING)

KUHN: Clearly these cars are not your daddy's Prius. The all-electric Formula E race cars are low to the ground, somewhere between a Formula One and an Indy car. They can go from 0 to 60 in under three seconds, and reach top speeds of over 150 miles per hour. Mechanics are swapping tires in the pit stop of the Amlin Aguri team. Driver Katherine Legge is a Briton who has settled in Indianapolis and raced twice in the Indy 500. She explains that the Formula E car batteries only put out 28 kilowatt hours. So she has to use two cars to finish the race and she has to conserve energy while going as fast as she can.

KATHERINE LEGGE: You've got lots of dials and switches and knobs and things to turn on the wheel and paddles to pull. And so you have to be patient and also forward-thinking as a driver as well, to try and manage your - the amount of allotted energy that we have.

KUHN: So tell me what this means for you. I mean, why would a racer, a gas-car racer, want to get into this Formula E business?

LEGGE: I think it is the future. There is more and more interest in electric technology. And to be in at the beginning, where we're showcasing what is possible with electric vehicles, I think it's very important.

KUHN: Jim Wright handles commercial affairs for the Monaco-based Venturi team. He says Formula E is targeting a new demographic.

JIM WRIGHT: What we're trying to show the world is electric vehicles can be fast; they can be sexy; they can be cool. And we want the next generation - I guess guys who are in their teens now, teenagers - their first car that they buy, we want that to be an electric vehicle.

KUHN: It's no coincidence, Wright adds, that Formula E's first leg is being held in China. It's the world's biggest market for automobiles, and its government sees electric cars as part of the solution to the country's severe pollution problem. But Professor Song Jian of Tsinghua University's automotive engineering department in Beijing says gas is still cheap enough in China that motorists don't have to think much about conserving it. And until battery technology is more commercially viable, he predicts, even the most progressive government policies won't get people buying electric cars. He says Formula E may help young people understand the technology.

SONG JIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: But, he says, it may not do much to boost sales. After all, race cars are a far cry from what ordinary consumers buy. Sure, he adds, you've got Formula 1 racing, but how many young people go out and buy Formula 1 cars?

(SOUNDBITE OF FORMULA E RACING)

KUHN: There were a couple of crashes on race day, but no serious injuries. Team Audi took first place. In the coming months, the race will go on to cities including London, Buenos Aires and Miami. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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