By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Formula E starts its fifth season next week, braced for a big breakthrough but already looking far down the road to a future when its all-electric cars could rival Formula One machines and race on similar circuits.
The futuristic Gen2, or second generation, cars that will debut in Saudi Arabia on Dec. 15 now boast double the battery range.
That means drivers can do a full distance without having to pit, jump out and change vehicles midway through a race, as they have had to up to now.
"I think season five is the big season for Formula E," chief executive Alejandro Agag told Reuters in an interview at his London headquarters. "Season five is the moment of truth for Formula E.
"Now people are coming, assuming that this is a long-term venture that is going to be playing a really huge role in the motorsports industry and in the car industry," added the Spaniard.
"And we cannot fail. We have new manufacturers, new sponsors. It's great, but it also means more responsibility."
The technological step-up will lend the series, whose shareholders include Discovery Communications and John Malone's Liberty Global, greater credibility and burnish its credentials as a test bed for electric car manufacturers.
The new cars are still far from Formula One pace, with the Gen2 accelerating from 0-100kph in 2.8 seconds compared to under two for an F1 car.
The top speed of 280kph compares to Formula One's record of 372, but the gap is closing.
"Electric cars are going to go faster and faster," said Agag. "I see us going now towards smaller batteries with the same amount of power, and ultra-fast charging so maybe one or two pitstops during the race in generation three.
"This will mean less weight, even more power, so a lot more performance.
"And I think generation four or five can be at the same level as the Formula One cars today."
Ultimately, he said, the time could also come when Formula E was ready to break away from being purely a city-based street circuit series, where speeds are limited by track characteristics.
The Spaniard said he and Jean Todt, president of the governing International Automobile Federation (FIA) had discussed a lot whether Formula E might one day feature on regular circuits.
"I think when the performance is there, we need to provide a platform, a laboratory for these electric cars to go to the limit," he said. "At the same time racing in cities is part of our DNA.
"I see maybe a hybrid situation in which we keep some races in the cities but we do maybe three, four, five at racetracks to allow these cars really to express themselves, to show their level of performance."
The Spaniard stated recently that he saw Formula One starting to feel the heat from Formula E in the next five years, with the electric series destined to become "the main motorsport in the world."
Speaking to Reuters, he said his series -- with manufacturers like Nissan, Citroen, BMW, Jaguar, Audi with Porsche and Mercedes set to join in 2019-20 -- had reason to feel confident but there was plenty of room for both championships.
"We are not competitors with Formula One and we are still always big fans of Formula One. But obviously the fact that we are still here and now probably in the best moment of our history, of course we feel more confident," he said.
"I don't think Formula One should be worried at all about Formula E.
"I think our rival is tennis, golf, football. Other sports. The better Formula One does, the better Formula E will do. And vice-versa."
Season Five will also feature a new 'attack mode' or 'hyperboost', introducing a new level of strategy with drivers going off the racing line in certain sectors to collect more power -- as in the video game Mario Kart.
"I think the cars, just the look of the new cars is incredible, but the sound of the new cars is a lot more exciting," said Agag, summing up the draw of the new season.
"The attack mode I think is going to be super-fun to watch...we've just seen a glimpse of it in Valencia during the test and it looked amazing, but I'm so excited to see this thing in action.
"There will be a little bit of chaos in the first race but that's OK."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ian Chadband)