WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York

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WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

EMOTION was where the “VIP” experience became literal. The exclusive club — picture an airplane hangar retrofitted with upscale amenities — offered a haven of indoor comforts at an outdoor event on a hot July day: complimentary food, refreshments and swag, its own bathrooms, and a constant stream of both live and digital entertainment. Formula E’s emphasis on cutting-edge technology made the digital entertainments particularly memorable. At one end of the club, Usain Bolt appeared as a recorded hologram, moving around and striking poses so that people could step up into the hologram booth and have a photo taken with him even though he wasn’t actually there. At another, people used virtual reality headsets and gloves to manipulate objects and move around within spaces that didn’t physically exist. For all that very cool innovation, however, the EMOTION amenities we would come to appreciate over the course of the two-day event were among the simplest: air conditioning, comfortable chairs, and abundant cold drinking water.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

The Cars

After about an hour of exploring the club, Ariel and I headed out to get our first exposure to the actual motorsports. The first stop was for track rides in a BMW i8. I still wonder how the company determined the protocols for the ride — my driver threw the car around the track with just enough exuberance to convey something of what the car could really do, but not so much that it would scare me. (You can see the effects of the lap here). It was still sufficient to leave a lingering impression. Having never ridden in a hybrid more sophisticated then a Toyota Prius, but liking the concept, getting to experience firsthand what a six-figure hybrid could do was a singular experience. I can’t remember feeling that kind of fresh-eyed appreciation for the potential of a car since I was teenager and I got to drive a late model sedan after years of borrowing my mother’s minivan.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

Qualifying began soon after that, around noon. We sat in the EMOTION (VIP) grandstands in a spot that offered an extremely good view of one corner of the track we’d just ridden in the BMW. It gave us the chance to see how smoothly and quickly a Formula E car could execute the turn under ideal conditions, clipping the rumble strip on the inside edge at the beginning of the turn and just barely missing a rub against the outside wall at the end of it. It was interesting to watch in its own right — watching a true expert do almost anything usually is — but it also gave me a useful frame of reference for later, when all the cars would be on the course at once and fiercely jockeying for position. Meanwhile, in the lulls between cars hitting the turn, Ariel and I discussed the virtues of German watches under $2,000.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

After qualifying, we had a brief lunch at the EMOTION club and headed over for a walk of the pit lane and a garage tour, easily among the most special of the special accesses I enjoyed on that trip. Formula E vehicles don’t have sufficient range to make it all the way through the race, and it’s not practical to change the batteries while the race is running (rumor has it that will change in future years), so instead of drivers needing to pit to change tires, they needed to pit once per race to change cars. That meant that all over the pit garages, racing teams were scrambling to prepare two identical vehicles for each driver, and we got to go behind the ropes and be mere feet away from them while they did it.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

Up close, the cars appear small, but are all the more striking for it. That something with that much performance should come without a size to match is jarring, and the fact that the cars had to be frequently hooked up to blowers full of dry ice to keep their batteries cool emphasized the impression that there was a serious force being kept at bay inside those small packages.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

By current rules, all the cars share the same body shape, but they still managed to have their own character, largely because of their branding. Formula E sponsors feature the familiar mix of auto companies and race teams, so names like Virgin, Jaguar, Audi, and Mahindra took the most prominence. But Formula E is a technology event as well as an automotive one. Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Samsung, and Panasonic all sponsored cars; God only knows what Qualcomm paid for the title rights to the event. These are companies that specialize in building up their brands with products that are difficult for the naked eye to discern — most people can’t spot the structural differences between a Samsung or a Qualcomm microchip — and similar skills were in play in the cars that bore their names. The bright contrasting colors and the designs they made up kept one mindful of the differences in drivers and powertrains that it might otherwise be possible to forget.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

We would see the cars again soon after, when we walked over to the starting grid, another VIP perk. The cars were all entirely assembled by this point, one for each driver positioned according to their qualifying times and seemingly ready to go. But still the crews made frantic checks, and still we gawked. Perhaps, for the gawkers, it was mainly about the anticipation building up. With every step — from watching the individual laps of the qualifiers, to seeing the cars being tested, assembled and prepped in the garages, to now seeing them on the actual track just minutes away from launching — the prospect of actually watching those things haul off in competition against each other got more real and more immediate.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

The cumulative effect was apparently showing on Ariel and me, as a woman passing by with a camera crew — having no idea who we were — asked if we could provide a sound bite on our race experience for her. We agreed. It was only hours later that we would discover we had been on the jumbotron, literally serving as exemplars of race fans to thousands of attendees while we all waited for the big event. The wait ended a few minutes later. Race officials cleared the track, and we headed over to watch the race.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

The First Race 

We wound up in the standing area of the EMOTION grandstand, only about 30 feet from the area where we’d watched qualifying. That gave us a great view of the same 90-degree turn we’d seen the drivers take independently. We were pretty far along the track, and weren’t high enough to see the start, so our first experience was hearing the cars approaching, followed almost immediately by watching them overtake us.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

There has been some grousing among hardcore speed-freaks on the internet that Formula E cars are speed-capped at 140 mph, but they look more than fast enough when they stream past in a tight pack. The tracks and the turns on Formula E create close confines and the scoring system gives drivers an incentive to fight for every position, so the jockeying is intense. The margin of clearance could often be counted in inches, and it was sometimes miscalculated, resulting in cars rubbing each other or clipping the outside wall. The sound of the cars heightens the tension. The engines don’t roar with the raw power of internal combustion, but they emit a high-tech whir that conveys urgency. The closest analog to the sound I can think of — and it took me a long time after the race to place it — is the Batpod from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies. When a bunch of cars are howling by at once, crowding and jostling one another while turning sharply and at speed, it is difficult to agree with the position that the cars’ capabilities aren’t exciting enough.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

The first day’s race ran for about 45 minutes — a little over a minute per lap for 43 laps of the 1.2-mile track. Sam Bird of Virgin Racing secured an early lead and held onto it for first place, averaging around 60 miles an hour (an impressive figure given the twists on the track). It secured him a landmark victory as the winner of the first modern professional motor race in New York City.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

For his standings toward the season championship, however, the advance was significant but not definitive. In the FIA system that Formula E follows, the top ten finishers all receive points relative to their position, and the season champion is determined by the total number of points drivers accrue across all the season’s races. That provision made every position in every race potentially decisive for a driver’s overall standing. Bird had less than twenty-four hours to rest on his laurels before the competition would start anew on the exact same track.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

Sunday, July 15 – Downtime

Our schedule for the second race day was lighter than the first. The race itself had another qualifying round and a slightly longer ePrix (49 laps instead of 43), but there were fewer peripheral activities. Qualifying began at 9:00 am and the second ePrix was scheduled to wrap up by around two in the afternoon, which left less time for other pursuits. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sunday was also the day Chris Hemsworth, a TAG brand ambassador who portrayed Formula 1 legend James Hunt in the 2013 movie Rush, visited the track. His movements and activities — including driving his own lap in a Formula E car, had everybody buzzing, and would undoubtedly have distracted from other activities on tap.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

Ariel and I spent the morning back in the EMOTION club, hanging out with a few TAG Heuer representatives who were taking a break from the manic pace the weekend demanded of them. (John joined us but, ever attentive to his duties, only after snagging the requisite pictures of Hemsworth.) I enjoyed these little moments. Over the course of the trip, I got to spend time with a lot of TAG people — including the president of TAG North America and innumerable marketers, event coordinators, and other reps. The conversation inevitably turned to TAG’s relationship with Formula E and/or the watch market. TAG’s people of course provided great insight into both, but in doing so, they also consistently conveyed a sense of enthusiasm about their brand and its activities that is charming and somewhat infectious. That tended to make me better appreciate the unique characteristics of a trip as their guest. So we chatted about how things had gone and were going, watched some of the live acts playing the club, passed around the helmet Hemsworth had worn during his lap on the New York track, and generally marveled at the ability to take it easy for a little while amid so much activity.

Then it was time to head out for the second race.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

The Final Leg 

Ariel’s flight home was earlier than mine, so I walked with him to the entry checkpoint and saw him off. Just before he left, I returned the watch he’d lent me for the weekend and put my own back on — I couldn’t have found a better symbol for the weekend coming to an end if I tried.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

Having enjoyed special access all weekend, I decided to watch the second race from the free public viewing areas. Most of the people in the VIP facilities had, by definition, a stronger-than-average level of investment in the event, and I was curious to gauge the interest-levels and experiences of the general public who attended because it was worth gambling a little time to check out a new event. I walked through the Allianz eVillage — an open-air activity center that provided countless entertainments for people before and after the race, most of it helping to acquaint people with Formula E and showcase participating companies’ innovations in electric car technology — and found a spot by a section of the track that prompted drivers to zigzag left and then right very quickly.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

In the lead-up to the first race, I’d heard many people express a concern that the event was underpublicized — I had the same suspicion myself — but it appears not to have needed any more exposure than it got. The 18,000-capacity event reportedly sold out, no mean feat for an auto race being held in a city where most households don’t even own a car. And the spectators I watched the second race with in the free section seemed very enthusiastic. One man, evidently a big Formula 1 fan, patiently explained race basics to a group of new friends who clearly didn’t know anything about the sport but were interested enough in Formula E to attend and were now eager to learn. People all seemed excited and happy as they shuffled around the chain link fence to get the best view they could. Kids sat on shoulders. Pretty much everyone oohed and awed when the cars started whizzing past with that futuristic whirr that underlined their speed.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

I couldn’t see as much of the track or the overall race action from my position on Sunday as I could the previous day, but as a trade-off there was a moment, just when the cars hit the sharpest curve of the zigzag, when they came very close to my position. Every single time the cars hit that spot, for 49 consecutive laps, the crowd tensed, the briefness of the moment making everyone respond to it all the more. And we wound up at ground zero for one of the most dramatic moments of the day, when Jérôme d’Ambrosio spun out and clipped the wall at the beginning of the turn (you can see it happening starting at around 2:40 here. The crowd was stunned; d’Ambrosio was unfazed, gunning the car right back into the swing of things like nothing had happened.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

Sam Bird would win this race, too, making a sweep of the weekend and generating tremendous buzz. (After the last two races of the season in Montreal two weeks later, his team would place fourth overall, as would he as an individual driver.) By the time he was at the podium, I was meeting my car for a trip back to LaGuardia and then a first-class flight home.

In the coming weeks, I would read many accounts of the event. A few people, mainly Formula 1 partisans, found it wanting, but there were far more commentators who considered the weekend a big success and a landmark for the sport. I agree solidly with the latter. The race was definitely well attended, and in a way that is impossible to quantify, the attendees in all the areas I visited seemed to be having a great time and developing an interest in both the sport and the technology that powered it. Formula E, moreover, gained a lot of media exposure, which was one of the great benefits of bringing it to New York.

WINNER REVIEW: TAG Heuer & aBlogtoWatch Formula E EPrix Race In New York Feature Articles

That said, I’ll admit I’m biased, and my own experience wasn’t just atypical, it was unique. I not only got to see and do many things most people didn’t, but I had the added bonus of not having done anything to earn them, which made it all a bonus. That inevitably put a rosy tinge on everything, and I will remember the trip that way, aided by the photographs you see here and a box of swag TAG Heuer very kindly sent me after the race. When this article is published and the last part of the experience comes to a close, I might commemorate it by adding a TAG watch to the roster — it’s a perfect memento, and I’d love to have an enduring conversation piece that I can use to recount the story of the trip. tagheuer.com

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