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"It Was Like a Desert of Ice" – Lucas Di Grassi Tackles the Arctic in Formula E Machinery

Formula E frontrunner Lucas di Grassi recently drove one of the series' electric-powered cars on the Arctic ice caps of Greenland. We spoke to him about the unique and bumpy ride.

by Jim Weeks
14 September 2016, 2:55pm

Formula E frontrunner Lucas di Grassi has broken new ground by driving one of the series' electric-powered race cars on the Arctic ice caps of Greenland.

The demo run was organised to highlight the unprecedented levels of sea ice that have broken away from the Arctic in 2016, with the earth experiencing the warmest year on record. A short film of the event has been released, while a 48-minute documentary will premiere at the COP22 climate change convention, which takes place in Marrakesh in November.

"The idea behind having a race car running on the ice caps for the first time in history was to show that Formula E is promoting technology that will help to prevent them melting," explained Di Grassi, who finished as runner-up in last season's Formula E championship. "So, when I heard about this project, I was really excited.

"There were a lot of complications, as you can imagine, in putting a race car on an ice cap. It's not the easiest thing to do and a lot of problems had to be solved. But, when the car was running, it was just magical. It was like a desert of ice and I had a lot of fun doing doughnuts; it was an amazing experience."

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High on the list of complications was the surface. Watching the film, it's clear that Di Grassi is getting a bumpy ride on the ice, at times being bounced about inside the cockpit. The Brazilian confirmed that it was not the smoothest drive of his career.

"The surface was not flattened or anything – it was the raw ice," he says. "And of course these cars – even if you make the suspension as soft as possible, or the car as high as possible – it's still a race car, so it was extremely rough and I had a lot of vertical impact. Some parts even broke during the run, but we managed to keep it going until the very end."

From a technical perspective, too, there were challenges to overcome. Chiefly, it is no mean feat to transport a car and support crew to a remote Arctic location.

"You have to keep the car within the right temperature window: for the tyres, for the batteries, the motors and so on," said Di Grassi.

"But I think the biggest challenge was just to get the car there – to fly it to a place that was six or seven hours away from the next village, which had only a few hundred people. It was a few hours by boat to the nearest airport, so it was literally in the middle of nowhere. The helicopter had to do a lot of fuel runs and there had to be very specific planning for the logistics."

32-year-old Di Grassi has raced in Formula One, and now combines his Formula E seat with a full-time role driving for Audi in the World Endurance Championship. But it is in the electric category that he has been most prominent: he was the first driver to sign up to the series and is a vocal supporter of the technology being pioneered and developed within it.

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"I'm passionate about technologies which, while creating benefits for the environment and for society, deliver better performance, better power and more adrenaline," he said. "I have been in favour of electric drivetrains and electric cars for a long time, because it just makes much more sense. The energy conversion ratio of electric motors is much higher than a combustion engine.

"Understanding that, when Formula E arrived it was the best platform to show that electric cars are not just sustainable, they are exciting; actually, in acceleration they exceed by far any combustion car ever made.

"Electric cars produce less C02 emissions, which also relates to climate change, and the biggest changes are happening in Greenland with the icecaps," he continued. "Until you go there you don't realise how big it is – 1,000km by 3km high. And you don't understand how much water is melted and the impact this could have on life across the world."

Heading into the third season of Formula E, which begins with a new event in Hong Kong on 9 October, Di Grassi is bullish about the strides the series has made from a tech standpoint.

Di Grassi took victory on the streets of Long Beach earlier this year, but ultimately missed the title by just two points // PA Images

"With the same power, same battery, same everything, we are doing lap times that are two seconds faster. The races are between 10 and 20 per cent longer, and this is without changing any major technology – this is just by improving the technology we have. So the progression is going really fast."

The series has also seen a number of traditional automotive manufacturers join its ranks, with Jaguar entering the fray this year and Audi increasing its involvement with Di Grassi's Abt team to form a full works effort. They join Renault and Citroen, as well as established race outfits and future-technology companies, in fielding teams for the 2016-17 season.

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"The championship is still taking baby steps at the moment," says Di Grassi. "We have so much more to come in the next few years. If you think about Le Mans, it's been around for 95 years; Formula One for more than 60; but Formula E is only going into season three now, so the championship will definitely grow a lot in the years to come."

And, while the series currently contests all of its races in city centres, Di Grassi sees potential to use his Arctic experience again in the future.

"While I was driving in Greenland I had this idea: it's not unforeseeable to do something on a frozen lake with Formula E. The car behaved so well and had so much grip with the spiked tyres, I told Alejandro [Agag, the series' CEO] that we could do an event. Maybe not 20 cars – maybe one on one. But a non-championship event on a frozen lake, I think it's feasible and it would work very, very nicely with the image of the series."

From an entertainment perspective, that would be difficult to turn down. Whether the Formula E community will want to swap Monaco or New York for Greenland is another matter.

@Jim_Weeks