SITREP: Formula E

As electric racing enters Season 5, we try and work out where it’s going and if it’s any good

This weekend, when the flag drops at the inaugural Ad Diriyah ePrix in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, Formula E will break new ground. Again. A chock-full grid of 22 ‘Gen 2’ cars will squeal and whine their way off the start line for the first race of Season 5, not only opening a new chapter in the sport, but in motorsport history. 

For the last five years, the all-electric racing series has been furiously spearheading the electric revolution of racing while also tackling many of the archaic nuisances of motorsport. Unsurprisingly, this has angered some (the oldies) and pleased others (the yoof). But this year the ‘leccy championship is having its biggest facelift yet; faster cars, better tech, new drivers and more manufacturers. And the fact the first race for the second-generation of Formula E cars (plus an in-season test for nine female drivers afterwards) is in a controversial Middle-Eastern county (one that only started issuing driving licences to women this year) says a lot about the ambition and motivations of the championship.

Words: Rowan Horncastle

See, since its inception in 2011, FE has managed to capitalise on a wave of positive social progression while simultaneously capitalizing on a tide of tumultuous car industry politics, which, in turn, has taken it to new, unexpected heights. After a pensive start, there’s been a committed and spirited uptake by both a youthful audience and mainstream manufacturers – something that has taken many by surprise. None more so than the championship’s promoter and owner, Alejandro Agag.

“I had a PowerPoint when I was selling the concept in the beginning,” the founder says from the pseudo-luxury of Emotion (FE’s equivalent but less-ritzy version Formula One’s Paddock Club) at the Season 4 finale in New York. “In it, I said that by Season 5 we’ll have three OEMs on board… we’ve got nine.”

Big names, too. Mercedes, Porsche, BMW and Nissan have signed up to take on Audi, DS, Jaguar, NIO and Mahindra as Renault has now left. In fact, there are now more OEMs onboard than IndyCar and F1 combined, not bad for a Formula that’s only existed for just four per cent of Formula One’s life.

“We’re growing and growing and growing,” Agag says. We’ve got new manufacturers, new technology, a new car, and new partners. Interest is at its peak. Media is at its peak. Social coverage is at its peak. Everything is at its peak!”

It may be. But this is a man very close to the situation and whose literal job is to promote it – so he would say that, wouldn’t he? And you really don’t have to search too far to unearth dissenters. ‘Slow’, ‘boring’ and ‘quiet’ are common phrases if you go digging around the #FormulaE hashtag. But as Formula E has progressed from the chaotic and controversial first few seasons, to its toddler teething stage, and now onto an era of new regulations, tech and cars, the whole thing feels like it’s starting to grow up and find its feet, so earlier in the year I went to New York for the Season 4 finale to get a sense check on the Championship before its big V2 leap.

Now, to anyone familiar with motorsport, there are a couple of factors that’ll strike you as soon as you wander into a Formula E race. First off, it’s a small operation. Having to pop up in the middle of a city in order to attract a newer, younger and more metropolitan audience to races (y’know, if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain) logistics and packaging of the whole race need to be streamlined in order to maximise efficiency. In places like Zurich and Paris (it really is a global show) racing takes place smack-bang in the centre of town. But in New York, it’s side-lined to the sketchy fringes of an industrial area of Brooklyn. Yes, it’s technically New York, but with advertising hoardings and half-empty grandstands blocking the panoramic view of glassy fingers across the river in Manhattan, you could literally be on a piece of tarmac in a carpark anywhere in the world.

The circuit is also tight. REALLY tight. How-the-hell-can-you-even-overtake on first sight tight. Because of the range of the cars, they’re also short and have the nuances and idiosyncrasies of being street circuits; there’s street furniture, potholes and if you want to run wide you’ve got a fight with Mr Concrete Wall – the hardest bouncer in the land who takes no crap from nobody. But this is an element the drivers enjoy.

“You can ask any F1 driver, qualifying here is far scarier here than any F1 track,” Techeetah’s Jean-Éric Vergne says. “You feel like you’re going so much faster; the car is hard to control, braking is difficult and if you make the smallest mistake you’re in a concrete wall. It’s exhilarating.”

Later that afternoon, he – in his independent Chinese-backed team – would seal the drivers’ title and only lose the team title to Audi by two points. This is proof there’s real parity within the championships (largely thanks to homogenised, shared technology between teams and development cost caps) so being a big OEM doesn’t necessarily mean prizes. In fact, the whole grid is separated by less than a second.

But it’s not the glamorous affair like the old world of Formula One that JEV fell out of. Yes, that interview was conducted in his ‘driver’s room’, which, in other formulas, would be a space reserved in a glitzy race truck. Not here. It was a non-descript area hidden away behind a curtain in a giant tent with nothing but a plastic deck chair and a pair of headphones in.

The distinct lack of grandeur everywhere adds an honesty and makes the place quite humbling and levelling. Teams are small, pit garages are gazebos in a car park and the catering is more festival food than foie gras. It gives weight to the drivers who say that they’re really there for the tight racing.

But to an outsider – especially one that’s had exposure to other forms of motorsport – the whole vibe can look and feel low-rent. And the structure of the events can leave you scratching your head. First off, practice is short and complex. There are two practice sessions for each event: an opening 45-minute session and then a 30-minute session on race day. Then quali lasts an hour (a one-lap shoot-out similar to 90s F1) but drivers are divided into groups decided by a lottery in the driver briefing and they have six minutes to complete a lap. The top-five then progress to a Superpole; one flying lap, fastest wins. You keeping up? This is all well and good if you’re watching via the live YouTube stream (or BBC via its website and TV red button platforms for viewers in the UK this season) but at the circuit, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the action.

And let’s talk about the action. Because no matter how much the drivers and teams big it up, there’s something still lacking while watching both in person and on screen. There’s no doubting there is action happening; the racing is close, there’s overtaking, lost traction and oversteer. There are crashes too. But it’s neither very fast or very loud. To the drivers, it looks faster than it is because it’s happening on tight tracks in between unforgiving walls, but it just doesn’t translate to television or human eyeballs. 

And yes, noise is an issue. Not in a petulant ‘a screaming V12 or nothing for me’ kind of way, as there isn’t a complete lack of it; there’s motor whine, tyre squeal, boffs from suspension and wheels clattering over kerbing while bellypans scratch off the tarmac. But they’re not exactly pleasant, visceral or exciting noises.

Up until now the most exciting part of a race has been the pit stops. Or should it be pit swaps? Because cars didn’t have the range to complete a full race distance, drivers would have to use two, swapping from one to the other halfway through the race. It was designed so they could have a TV-friendly 50 minutes of racing, and many people laughed at the idea. But now it’s a part of the strategy that adds spectacle, intrigue and excitement. Well, it would if you could keep up with what was going on.

Luckily, some of these points have been countered for the new season. First off, the cars look better. Way better. Instead of parading around like some sort of student single-seater project they look suitably futuristic and expensive now featuring enclosed wheels, a double rear wing, mega diffuser, and the best integration of the controversial Halo (sporting flashing lights to display information to fans, like when a car is using boost modes) than any other class. They’re also quicker (a top speed of 176mph - an increase of 39mph) as Gen 2 cars will have 250kW available in qualifying compared to the 200kW that was available in Season 4. However, for races that will drop to 200kW which is still 20kW more than the old car. But this now means the new cars complete a full E-Prix distance (now 45 mins plus one lap), which eliminates the need for drivers to swap into a second car mid-race. 

Don’t get us wrong, there are still plenty of elements (read: gimmicks) for traditionalists to shout about. Things like ‘Fanboost’ where fans vote using social media to give three drivers additional energy (equivalent to an extra 40bhp for a single five-second burst) to use mid-race. There’s also the new addition of ‘Attack Mode’ (it all sounds very Crash Bandicoot Team Racing, doesn’t it?) where drivers will be able to drive off the line and onto special zones (like the boxes in Mario Kart) which will ultimately cost time on track, but allow drivers to gain access to a 25kW boost in power for a period of time. Everyone has to use it during the race, but to stop teams taking advantage of it, the location of the zones, number of times it will have to be used and length of time it lasts for won’t be revealed until shortly before the start of the race.

Yet, it seems, the younger audience doesn’t care about the lack of noise and use of Crash Bandicoot tactics. The 13 to 24-year-old market is the championships’ booming demographic. And, when you think about it, just like Brexit, there’s a reason that most of the people who are salty about Formula E are old, while those who are on board are young: it’s because the young aren’t infected with the nostalgia and petrol fumes of the past. They don’t hark back for the past because they weren’t there. They don’t care. They have no reference. This is the generation that doesn’t know what the symbol for the ‘Save’ button in Microsoft Word means. See, it’s hard to recognise or appreciate the past when they’ve never seen it. So they can’t miss it. But, more importantly, they’re open to new things – especially if their favourite YouTube or Instagram star is facing it. Which they are, as the FE team are clued up to the bilious world of influencer marketing. For the last few season it’s been smart and thrown money at people like KSI and Emily Ratajkowski in order to head to races and pop off a couple of vapid pics or front the online coverage. Is it money well spent? Probably not. Does it help put eyeballs on the operation? Definitely.

One of the earliest adopters to head from ‘traditional’ racing to FE was Audi’s Lucas Di Grassi.

“Over the last 10 years, the shift in racing has been greater than probably the last 100,” he says. “Over my time in Formula One, I drove naturally aspirated V8s, V10s and V12s. Then I drove hybrid LMP1 cars. Now I drive a fully electric car in FE and I’m developing a fully autonomous car in Roborace.”

The Brazilian is quite the speaker and has many views (FE should go 4WD, have no downforce but accelerate faster than an F1 car) but the one that stood out is how he sees FE being positioned. “Formula E should become the road-relevant race series, Formula One should just be an entertainment show like NASCAR. It’s inevitable that road cars will go electric, so motorsport will go electric. The people that don’t accept that technology is evolving is almost like a business saying we don’t need to do internet business.” 

It’s easy to see that a lot of people see potential and growth within the series. With less politics and back-slapping than the world of F1, more and more drivers are getting their fingers in the pie to try and benefit in one way or the other. Di Grassi has Roborace, Nico Rosberg has been hanging around it like a bad smell trying to flex his entrepreneurial muscles, and Felipe Massa has come on board this year as a driver. Which when you realise he’s the President of the FIA Karting Commission is mighty convenient. See, in years to come, will the young bucks slogging it away in karts want to go into GP3 cars or the cleaner, more brand-backed and in-vogue racing of FE? You’ve got to hedge your bets on the latter. 

While walking around there’s a sort of insincerity to Formula E in its current stage of life as you can see brands/drivers/sponsors seeing seemingly squeaky-clean fertile land to get involved in. I worry that it’s the marketing opportunities propping the thing up rather than the racing.

FE is mighty lucrative for manufacturers as the EV sector is about to explode with tightening legislation and more public awareness. But more than any other form of motorsport, the technology in FE race cars is transferable to mass market road cars. Unlike F1 where you’ve got to buy an AMG Project One to get that hardware, the batteries and motors in FE can go in a humdrum city car and be branded as FE race car tech. So if you win the championship, you can market your stuff off the back of that. In that respect, the message is still perfectly old-school motorsport, ‘Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday’. Compounding this is the fact that after scandals such as Dieselgate, big manufacturers are trying to clean up their act and sweep their dirtiness under an FE-shaped carpet. Plus, with the audience demographic being so young, brands want to capture them and create a loyalty as ultimately these will be accepting EV customers of the future. 

So, is Formula E here to stay? You’d have to say so. With the introduction of things like the inaugural Jaguar I-PACE eTrophy support race, things are only getting bigger. Don’t be surprised if you see smaller EV Formulas joining too because no matter how much you dislike the thought of near-silent, slow cars whizzing around tight circuits, more and more people are getting on board (not necessarily for the most authentic reasons) so you’ll be subjected it more than ever. Because, ultimately, you have marketing departments to blame. They’re the real winners here. Where will it go from here? We’ll just have to wait and see. Let’s just hope they improve the racing, as that’s meant to be the point of the whole thing.

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