Beijing: The crowd surged to its feet with a gasp as Nicolas Prost`s car struck Nick Heidfeld`s as they battled for first place, sending Heidfeld into a barrier and corkscrewing into the air at the inaugural Formula E electric race in Beijing.
The crash came on the final corner of the first ever Formula E race, a motor sport tournament that uses electric vehicles instead of petrol engines and has taken two years to put together with the support of the International Automobile Federation (FIA), the governing body of Formula One.
Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel had described Formula E as `cheese` but the crash on Saturday, that put paid to any victory hopes for Heidfeld, racing for the Leonardo DiCaprio-backed team Venturi, and for Prost`s e.dams-Renault team, gave the first ever Formula Electric event credibility.
"A big conclusion today is that this is real racing," Alejandro Agag, chief executive of Formula E, told a news conference after the race.
"These guys are not out there just going around with little electric cars, these guys are pushing really hard and we saw that on the last corner of the last lap."
The smog had lifted from notoriously polluted Beijing in the hours before the event.
Thumping electronic music pumped out of speakers as an international crowd of several thousand filtered into the heat of the Olympic Park that surrounds the tangled steel of the Bird`s Nest stadium.
"This is a new era for racing," Agag, a 43-year-old Spaniard, told Reuters the day before the race.
"We want to do something radically different to Formula One. The sound is extremely different, but we think it`s very cool also, and the cars look amazing, they look a little bit more futuristic."
The Formula E vehicles let out a high-pitched hum, not the signature roar of Formula One.
The pack of cars sounded like a colony of crazed bats as it sped by at more than 200 kilometres per hour (124 miles per hour). The lack of noise convinced authorities to let them race in city streets.
But the relative quiet and slower speeds belie the intensity of the event, said Mahindra Racing team driver Karun Chandhok, who came fifth.
"In the race it`s chaos," said Chandhok. "I`ll tell you what, I`ve never spoken so much on the radio in my life, I spoke nonstop... And a street circuit was a lot of fun, more fun than I thought it would be. I thought it would be too slow."
For Agag, the main aim is to promote electric vehicles to young consumers.
"People don`t think electric cars are sexy or exciting. I think by watching these cars people will change their minds," he said.
Some in the crowd agreed.
"It`s cool, it`s really cool," said Zhang Jin. "Technology is advancing really fast and I believe in technology for the electric cars."
It was no accident that the inaugural race was held in Beijing, where air pollution can settle over the city for days, according to Agag.
"What better place to start than here?" he said. "It`s the capital of the biggest car market in the world, the capital of the biggest country in the world by population and a country that is definitely moving towards electrification."
But for now, Agag and the drivers are more focused on the next race, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on Nov. 22. Another chance for Formula E to prove itself as a serious motor sport and put to rest Vettel`s `cheese` remark.
Agag is hoping for rain to liven things up.
"I would personally love to have a wet race because this would test even more the skill of the drivers," he said.
"If we have a wet race in Malaysia we may see more crashes."