We took a performance EV to EV hell: Sepang Circuit

Driving hot laps at Sepang in the 400hp Jaguar I-Pace electric SUV is, on paper, exactly what you do not want to do with an EV but we did it …for science! and for CarBuyers.

Sepang International Circuit, Malaysia

We’ve tested electric vehicles (EVs) in almost all conditions back home, fast road driving, jams, inter-urban crawls and more.

Modern battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have proven their worth, with the BMW i3, Hyundai Ioniq Electric and Jaguar I-Pace show that they really can reach their claimed ranges in the real world.

But there is one place EVs clearly haven’t displaced the combustion engine: The race track.

Formula E may already be in its fifth season, and while it is increasing in popularity, manufacturer involvement (BMW, DS, Porsche, Nissan, VW and more are in) and more, it’s only in 2019 that the series won’t require a car swap thanks to batteries that can last the entire length of a FE race, which is 45-minutes plus one lap.

The nature of electric motors, the weight of the battery, and capacity limits, means EVs are at their best in relatively low speeds and running around town – think golf cart doing short hops.

The thing is, high speed, high acceleration running drains batteries very quickly, and that’s why bringing an EV to a track day isn’t exactly the best idea.

So when Jaguar offered the chance to test the I-Pace at Sepang Circuit, we were very intrigued how it would all pan out, with the drawbacks of an EV exacerbated by Sepang’s nature, since it’s a long, wide, and fast track – an EV would fare much better in a tighter more handling-biased circuit like Pasir Gudang, for example.

Add on the fact that it’s often hot as heck at Sepang, and it’s you can basically consider it EV hell.

The Electri-cat Whisperer

Taking the I-Pace on track is another beast taming feat altogether, which is why we’re lucky to have a very experienced li-ion tamer to give us advice: Simon Evans, the 29-year-old New Zealand racer, is very familiar with driving the I-Pace very quickly – he’s the winner of Jaguar’s inaugural I-Pace etrophy race in Dubai. The etrophy is a one-make support race to Formula E involving mildly-modified I-Pace race cars.  

Racing driver Simon Evans, winner of the first I-Pace etrophy race

Evans, who has had considerable success in touring and V8 racing series, takes us on a sighting lap, and we do something that would be almost impossible in a normal car: Chat to him about the differences between EVs and ICE cars.

“When you’re out there driving you don’t really think about it,” he says on the totally different feeling of driving the I-Pace at speed, versus a V8 Supercar.

“What I do think is that it’s quite neat to be part of the first production-EV racing series in the world and to be part of the development. They use the same powertrain as the normal road cars, and it’s good to know they perform reliably in racing too,” he adds.

We also know the I-Pace is one of the big cats of the Jaguar range. Back home in Singapore, it’s a real leaper on the road, the insta-torque of its twin motors make light of its 2.2-tonne mass, and it’s more agile than any car of that weight, SUV or not, has any right to be.

I expect it to be a bit of a handful on track, so I ask Evans how he had to modify his own driving style on track to suit the electric Jag.

“You have to be very precise, and very smooth, the cars are heavy at the moment so it’s quite easy to make a mistake. You can feel it moving about a little right here (as we go through Sepang’s esses), so I had to change my driving style a bit. You have lots of power in a V8 Supercar in comparison, if you make a mistake you can use that power to overcome it,” he says.

Li-Ion Roar? Li-Ion Whisper

One of these is a screamer: I-Pace next to a Radical RXC

The pit-lane exit is often what sets the tone for a Sepang run, and the I-Pace’s futuristic whoosh is wholly different if only for the near total lack of engine noise. Turn one appears almost too quickly and the car screeches and understeers into it – turns out I was going a lot faster than I thought.

Turns two and three show the weight of the car, arguably it’s here the I-Pace is at its least flattering, but as we approach the faster parts of the circuit, the e-motors show their mettle again by piling on speed with effortless, silent punch.

Having the battery’s weight slung low helps the car handle the fast stuff with comparative ease, not many SUVs can replicate the I-Pace’s pace at higher speed, but bringing us back to earth is the braking.

There seems to be a gulf in braking performance for the I-Pace, unlike most cars it doesn’t build, but seems to peak early and remain constant, something the I-Pace’s onboard G-meter reflects at 0.88G under braking, but 0.99 under acceleration, and 1.07G in corners.

But no one expects to be setting any lap records in an I-Pace, subjectively the performance of the car is still rather thrilling, especially for a car that seems, on paper, so totally unsuited to track life.

There is something else an EV might do well: Allow more drivers to drive for longer. The absence of aural fury subtracts a little of the thrill of driving, but from a calmer, long-run perspective, less noise means the car is less intimidating to drive, there’s less pollution, less noise regulations. That’s why Formula E runs quite serenely on street circuits.

As for endurance, the I-Pace we drove dropped from 200km indicated range down to 10km after a total of 15-17 laps around Sepang, which allowed the support team to creep to the nearest charger (KLIA).

I fully expected the I-Pace not to last that long, although technical issues were present, they weren’t related to the track: The other I-Pace present at the event was downed by a rogue charger.

Another thing which surprised us, positively, is the lack of issues regarding heat: It was around 34 degrees when we drove, Sepang often being hotter than Singapore, and as we know heat is terrible for battery performance. But the I-Pace showed it was at least able to beat the heat, and that’s something even normal ICE cars can struggle with.

The electric dream of high-performance at the track isn’t quite there yet, but that’s no fault of the Jaguar I-Pace, which provided surprising punch at the most hostile environment for it. It’s when EV fast chargers appear in pit lanes around the world, that’s when you know EVs have well and truly arrived.  

about the author

Derryn Wong
CarBuyer's chief editor has a keen interest in all things mechanical, technological, animal and mineral. He's particularly fascinated by eco-cars and cars which make no logical sense. An avid motorcyclist and photographer, he also enjoys cats.