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Racing could spark electric sales

Renault Formula E racer.

The idea is good, and the green power pluses are mostly fine, but no-one wants to pay to play this way.

Global sales of plug-in cars are currently little more than a trickle, even if Tesla of America is currently trumpeting a showroom success - thanks to massive government subsidies across the Pacific - that means its Model S outsold the about-to-be-replaced Benz C-Class last month in the USA.

Here in Australia, Nissan has slashed the price of its plug-in Leaf by $7000 and has an $85-a-week repayment plan to try and entice buyers.

But the numbers are not good and even Carlos Ghosn, global boss of the Nissan-Renault alliance that leads the mainstream conversion to battery power, says it's going to take time - and large-scale conversion work in China - to turn electric power into anything beyond an oddity.

We're expecting the Renault Zoe in 2014 and it drives well and looks good, but Renault Australia has effectively cancelled its plan for a Fluence electric car because Better Place - the start-up energy company that's in all sorts of trouble - cannot deliver on its plans for battery-swap stations across Australia.

But there is something new that could also help and it plugs into one of the oldest maxims in the car business - Racing improves the Breed.

This tagline is mostly applied to V8-powered racers that have fuelled our appetite for V8 muscle cars, but it applies just as well - or better - to a new category called Formula E. Think of it as F1 with batteries.

The plug-in racers are set to run in 2014 in a new world championship that's also intended to take the whisper-quiet contenders into the hearts of some of the world's biggest and best-known cities, including Rome, Rio, London and even Bangkok. The organisers are planning for 20 cars in 10 teams.

Not surprisingly, Renault is an early adopter for Formula E and will supply cars and power packs, while TAG-Heuer wants to time the action and get a nice green rub-off for its watch business.

“We believe that motorsport is an efficient manner to promote the efficiency of new technologies, and we’re eager to use that single-seater in FIA Formula E championship to show our technology is the best,” says Patric Ratti, managing director of Renault Sport Technologies.

But the key to Formula E is huge support from Paris, and the global headquarters of the FIA. The French organisation is responsible for overall governance of world motorsport but is taking a growing role in road safety and the future of the automobile, including its electrification.

It believes Formula E can be a powerful tool to drive electric power forward, as well as showcasing the advantages of plug-in power and the performance potential of battery cars.

The conversion plan looks shakier in Australia, because we rely on dirty coal combustion for almost all our power, but it still has plenty going for it.

A bunch of high-tech single seaters will highlight the latest developments in electric power and, provided no-one runs out of zap, it's a formula for potential success that could revive another of those hoary old slogans from the past.

You know it - Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.

This reporter is on Twitter: @paulwardgover