Lessons from a failed Tesla Model S racing series

In November 2017, I was in the south of France, strapped into a bucket seat and sitting behind the wheel of a Tesla Model S modified for racing. I was trying to make a video about a daring starter racing series called Electric GT, which had ambitions to become the first motorsport focused on race-ready versions of all of the automakers’ flagship electric vehicles. Much like the series itself, the video didn’t work.

At the last minute, organizers changed the time the press would have to drive the Tesla, in part because of what they said was a larger-than-expected turnout, but also because it was the first day to drive the Tesla. test for the few pilots who would participate. in the series. But there was a bigger problem: the car was not running.

Well he work, but only up to a point. By this time, the people behind Electric GT had done most of the really tough issues of starting a racing series: finding funding, securing the support of a governing body (in this case, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, or FIA), signing up to a few teams. But he never got Tesla buy-in, which created a big problem that somehow didn’t materialize until that November day.

All electric vehicles have software that manages how the battery disperses energy to (and recovers energy from) electric motors. And it is written with the understanding that these cars will be used like most cars: as daily drivers and over a series of years. Driving very fast and repeatedly can wear out these systems, so the software discourages this type of driving. In fact, it will limit the power output if things get too hot.

This software is one of Tesla’s best-kept secrets, and the organizers of the Electric GT… just had no answer for it. As I and other reporters pressed them repeatedly, it became clear that their best solution to Tesla’s battery management software black box was not to crack it, but to try and live with it.

Back in the car, this is what it looked like: A ride in the Electric GT Tesla was a lot of fun. It was quick, and a large rear wing and grippy racing slicks made cornering not too much of a chore despite the weight of the car. But as soon as I lined up the car on the main road right away and started pressing the accelerator for the second lap, all the fun evaporated. A message appeared on the screen to warn you of the battery temperature and the power has been reduced by approximately half.

Electric GT racing Tesla.

Electric GT said it plans to manage this by shortening its runs – maybe only about seven laps – and it would be up to the drivers to push hard enough to win, but not so hard that they triggered the battery management software. It might not have been a very popular idea, as the professional pilots at the event spent a lot of time talking in hushed tones about this issue.

If you squinted hard enough, you could almost see a parallel to how the pioneering all-electric racing series, Formula E, performs unlike Electric GT’s Teslas. In this series, cars have a certain amount of power that they can use per race, and drivers have to be careful not to push too hard on any given lap, otherwise they risk draining their battery before the start. end of the race. But in Formula E, the batteries are designed for racing, software and everything, so that the balance is well found and the tolerances more tolerant. And, of course, it doesn’t work with a battery that uses software that is controlled and kept secret by a private company.

I experienced running Formula E earlier in 2017, months before the Electric GT event, when I got the chance to drive the original series car in Mexico City. While the race-modified Tesla couldn’t do two laps, Formula E had created an electric racing car that was so capable that I accidentally stayed an extra lap without any issues. And it was on a professional race track, nothing less: the same Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez where Formula 1 competes (albeit with a different layout).

The Formula E car was fast, fun and a bit terrifying to drive, and proof that, done right, electric racing was possible at the time. The series only cemented this idea by launching a much better performing second-generation car. I drove this one in 2019, and aside from a few extra thrills, I walked away knowing I wasn’t even approaching the kind of performance it can truly deliver. It’s no wonder, then, that Formula E has recently completed its seventh season and has more participating manufacturers than any other major motorsport.

Despite its failure, Electric GT has come to a fairly significant turning point in the 10 years since The edge has been around. He arrived just in time to try to capitalize on Tesla’s growing popularity. But, like many of the world’s biggest automakers, it had yet to figure out the technological side of things.

The Chevy Bolt was pretty much the only capable electric vehicle that wasn’t made by Tesla during Electric GT’s soaring existence. I once had the chance to run the Bolt in a small autocross setup in a parking lot, and while it was definitely not designed for this application, the instant torque from its electric motor did allow to spend a fun little afternoon.

Everything else has been compromised, however. BMW offered futuristic looks with the i3 but had to sell a version with a two-cylinder gasoline engine just to be able to offer around 200 miles of range. Ford, Toyota, Honda and Fiat have struggled to find buyers for their own initial short-range electric vehicles, derisively referred to as “compliance cars” – the implication being that they were created only to appease them. regulators and not to advance technology. in a significative way. These electric vehicles were never really widely available and, more importantly, they did not have the kind of performance that would inspire the competition.

The brief existence of Electric GT also coincided with when these automakers began making big, if vague, promises to go electric. Billions of dollars began to be stolen, full lines of electric vehicles were teased – looking back, it’s easy to imagine how the organizers got caught up in it all. If you don’t think too critically, it looked like a bunch of flagship-level EVs were looming on the horizon, the ones that would look great on picturesque race tracks in the competition version.

NYC ePrix of Forumla E in 2017.

These promises have finally started to come true, as evidenced by electric vehicles like the Mustang Mach-E, Mercedes-Benz EQS, Porsche Taycan and others that are about to hit the market. But they happened too late for Electric GT.

That doesn’t mean we’ll never see this first true series of flagship electric vehicles go head to head. There is obviously a desire to see which ones are faster – a simple search on YouTube shows result after result of people pitting Teslas against Taycans or some other combination. Elon Musk asks Tesla staff to spend time driving Model S sedans on the Nürburgring to prove how capable his cars are. And Electric GT wasn’t the only series trying to follow in Formula E’s footsteps when it comes to all-electric racing. There’s a series of electric motorcycles, a series based entirely on smart electric cars, and a series of “electric touring car races” that in many ways try to do what Electric GT has failed to do. to accomplish – although the biggest global automaker it has attracted so far is Hyundai.

Motorsport was born out of the desire to prove what automobiles could do when they were still new and unknown. A little over a century later, we are in a similar position with electric vehicles. The more automakers go electric and deploy high powered electric vehicles, the easier it will be for someone to pit them against each other on a racetrack. When that happens, they will no doubt learn from the mistakes of Electric GT.

Photograph by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

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