As much as powertrains, drivetrains, and garish jackets, sound is a crucial component of motor sports. In fact, fans of Formula 1, the world’s richest and most popular motor sport, have complained that the cars in this year’s season are too quiet (video).
What then will petrolheads make of the sound of Formula E, the new racing championship for electric cars? Quartz traveled to the third day of test drives at Donington Park in the British Midlands, where Formula E and its teams are based, to find out. Everyone at the racing track had an opinion, unprompted.
John Neil, a 59-year-old building surveyor and motor sports enthusiast from Derbyshire, described an electric race car as “the fastest milk cart in the world,” a reference to a classic Benny Hill sketch. Liana and Dave Hunt, a young couple with a 3-year-old racing fan, Eli, and an 8-month-old baby, Haiden, said they appreciated a car race that was quiet enough to bring a baby to. But it was Ash Kennard, a freshly minted mechanical engineering graduate, who summed it up best: “They sound like they’re from the future.”
Bruno Senna, a driver for the Mahindra team (and a nephew of the legendary Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna), says it takes some getting used to. Drivers generally use the engine’s sound to figure out when to change gears, he says; “Now we have to look at the dashboard.” Karun Chandok, his partner on the Mahindra team, compared the experience to using “a simulator on mute.”
The sounds that electric cars make, or should make, are a contentious issue. Alejandro Agag, the promoter of the Formula E championship and a self-confessed petrolhead, told Quartz in April that he was keenly aware of the importance of sound in racing. But he is convinced that people will come around to the sound of the Formula E cars .
Agag compares the sound of electric race cars to the pod racers in the movie Star Wars: Phantom Menace. To this writer, it sounds more like a high-pitched, low-flying plane. But judge for yourself. The video above shows a Formula E car whizzing past the pit lane, while the one below shows several Formula E cars taking a turn (though you need to ignore the sound of the wind).