Electric motorsport has a sustainability problem. No, I’m not talking about the complexities of recycling batteries or the ecological costs of electric vehicle development on the environment. I’m talking about an unsustainable manufacturer mindset—the very one that’s resulted in manufacturers leaving the sport in something of a mass exodus these past few days.
I’ve been wondering about the state of electric racing for the past few days in light of the announcements that Audi and BMW will both be leaving Formula E at the end of this upcoming season. BMW said in no uncertain terms that Formula E had run its course of usefulness—everything that could be learned in FE was learned.
Throughout its history, motorsport has been a realm of development. This is the place where we fast-track the awesome technology that makes it onto our road cars, because if you want to go faster than your competition, you need to innovate.
I don’t think I’m alone in considering the 1960s and 70s two of the defining decades of motorsport in terms of exponential development. This was the era where rulebooks filled out because everyone was trying to find loopholes that would allow them to get that unfair advantage. Tons of that information ended up making its way to cars, because people were discovering some really cool shit for the first time.
I also don’t think I’m alone in considering electric technology one of the forefronts of innovation that can be encouraged by motorsport. Formula One, for example, has pretty much perfected hybrid technology to the point where it’s hit something of a plateau. But electrification is one of those realms that’s only just started to be explored—and somehow manufacturers are claiming they’ve already learned everything.
The attitude toward motorsport, it seems, is changing. There’s less of an appetite for racing just for its own sake, at least not outside of legacy sports like Formula One. When you consider the kind of racing we’ve been developing lately, the kind powered by new technologies, it’s more of a transactional affair. We take part just as long as necessary to gather data. Then we bow out.
I’ve been trying to figure out why. Part of me thinks that there’s still prestige value in those legacy forms of motorsport. If you win the Indy 500 or the 24 Hours of Le Mans or the Formula One championship, that still generally means something to people. These races and sports have been around forever. People were raised on them, so much of the relationship we have to these kinds of racing is fairly nostalgic.
Motorsport in general has been struggling to attract and maintain fans, especially younger folks. Those of us who still stick often come from families that have watched racing, many of whom can look back on the recent, more competitive, less predictable past with rose-tinted glasses.
Nowadays, though, I’m not watching Formula One or NASCAR to see wild innovation. Both series are regulated to hell and have hit something of a plateau: You can’t let the rich teams run away with development without making the racing boring, but you can’t regulate things without making the racing feel more artificial and, in a lot of ways, more boring. It’s hard to balance that fine line between unrestricted and overregulated—someone’s going to have a complaint about it no matter what. But we still watch, in large part because we always have.
Newer series don’t benefit from that historical engagement with the sport, which puts series like Formula E in a tight spot. It wants to do something different to engage fans and the automotive industry while also cutting overhead costs to create exciting on-track competition… but that comes at a cost.
A lot of folks have a lot of critiques about electric racing. Most of it is done with spec cars, which is said to ruin the fun of letting manufacturers loose in a technological race as competitive as the on-track action. There are a lot of gimmicks that turn fans off because it artificially alters the racing.
And you don’t have to look farther than the comments section on a Formula E article to see it. People say they’ll watch when the cars aren’t all the same, or when the series gets rid of the gimmicks, or when a truly interesting manufacturer comes along, or when the technology is actually developed to the part where the cars don’t have to do X, Y, or Z.
Which isn’t necessarily a wrong mindset to have, because I have a feeling it’s similar to what manufacturers like Audi and BMW are thinking. When cars can only be developed within a very minimal set of parameters, it’s easy to lose interest. If you’re not racing to develop better technology and put it to the test on the track, there’s not a marketable reason to contest that sport. You’re not really gaining anything. I know that I would be sure as hell displeased if I was spending a ton of money for the privilege to write but wasn’t allowed to get better or try something new.
It’s a conundrum. You need to get teams and drivers in the door somehow, and providing them with a base on which to grow is a very simple way to do it. But that growth is eventually stymied, it kind of nullifies the whole point of manufacturing a car in the first place.
Certain series, like F1 or NASCAR, can get away with cost-capping measures and spec parts, because there’s still an inherent value in those series. Winning an F1 championship may mean something different than it did 50 years ago, but it still means something to a lot of people who may not even follow the racing. There’s still a marketable value in a good performance at an F1 race just by the very nature of the event.
Because they’re so new, electric racing series don’t have that legitimacy. They don’t have the marketing power. If you’re not able to develop a technology to use in your road cars, there isn’t a big incentive to stick around.
Is there an easy answer to the problem? I don’t think so. But it’s something these electric series need to be looking at if they really want to establish a meaningful, competitive championship.