French town stages world's first electric Grand Prix

PAU, France Mon May 23, 2011 10:57am EDT

PAU, France (Reuters) - The French Pyrenees town of Pau, which staged the world's first Grand Prix nearly a century ago, raced into the 21st century as it hosted the world's first electric car Grand Prix over the weekend.

Although electric cars may be the future vehicle of choice, they remain out of reach of most drivers due to their scarcity and expense. Electric car races on tarmac are an even greater novelty.

"You need to give it time to develop but I think we're giving things a helping hand with the car races," said Luc Marchetti of Exagon Engineering, who is convinced the electric car will one day take pole position both on the race track and on the road.

Some spectators watching the 12 racers had mixed feelings.

"It's pleasant -- and odd," said Aude, who watched the races with her husband and baby. "It's a change but it lacks the charm of F3."

But others found the low-pitched whine, akin to the sound of a jet engine but much quieter, a pleasant change from the ear-splitting roar of the traditional racing engine.

The 2.8 km (1.7 mile) course in Pau, which winds through the picturesque town, hasn't changed much over the decades.

Pau hosted the first event to carry the name Grand Prix in 1901, although the event was a one-off, and an annual Pau Grand Prix was not inaugurated until 1933, with its winding route through the town earning comparisons with better-known Monaco.

The resort in southwestern France, just 50 km from the Spanish border, has proved a testing ground for future Formula 1 world champions on Formula 2, 3 or 3000 vehicles.

But for the die-hard motor sports fans raised on the roar, smell and sheer power of high-powered petrol engines on full throttle, electric car racing might seem a little tame.

"It's worthless!" scoffed Marcel, a Grand Prix regular who said the cars took too long to lap the track. "It just wasn't exciting."

Mounted on tubular chassis, the cars' Siemens' engines can reach speeds of 180 km per hour (113 miles per hour).

Marchetti acknowledged it might take time for fans to develop a taste for electric car racing.

"I think there needs to be an evolution in mentalities," said Marchetti.

The first electric car races in 2009 were driven on ice, not tarmac.

Saturday's Grand Prix featured Nicolas Prost, the son of France's Formula 1 World champion Alain Prost, as well as Fabien Barthez, the former goalkeeper who helped France win the World Cup in 1998.

But it was Mike Parisy, a local driver with minimal experience racing electric cars, who won the race in front of thousands of locals.

(Editing by Alexandria Sage and Paul Casciato)

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