Racing’s fanbase seems to shrink every year, and I can only take so many stories about lower television ratings and lagging ticket sales before I wonder if we’ve lost the plot. Pandering solely to the base isn’t working when that base keeps eroding. Motorsports has to try something new in order to evolve and survive for many years to come.
Formula E feels like a breath of fresh air. They’re not going out of their way to woo fans who are still raw about IndyCar’s big split in the 1990s or Formula One fans who rue the day turbos became a thing again.
The all-electric Formula E is looking at the future and trying to make racing that’s relevant to the masses again. Right now, they’ve got manufacturers sold on that idea, but fans have proven to be a tougher nut to crack. I’ve got to give them credit for trying, though, because they’re on the right path.
Then again, it’s got a lot to do before people really start to care.
[Full disclosure: Formula E flew me out to their Mexico City ePrix to check out a race weekend ahead of their race in New York City on July 15-16. They paid for food, lodging and transportation for the weekend. We got to speak with teams, drivers and everyone else who was involved to ask why they were there, and what they hope to accomplish. So, here are my thoughts on how that’s going and why that matters.]
Formula E, if you’re not familiar, is the electric racing series that launched in 2014. Backed now by manufacturers like Audi, Jaguar, Faraday Future (yes, believe it or not, their name is on a real car) and others, it usually races on street courses across the world—not race tracks. Not yet, at least.
Yet much of Formula E feels like a regular race weekend. There’s a plaza in the middle with concerts and vendor booths. Cars whiz by on the track, and there are opportunities to peek inside the front of the teams’ garages and get autographs from the drivers.
But those race cars make very little noise, and the entire public show—practice sessions and all—lasts only one day, as it usually takes place on closed-down city streets.
Teams are focused on the technology that the automotive industry feels will be the most viable solution to worldwide emissions and fuel efficiency crackdowns, so we better get used to the peace and quiet—and it might as well be through racing. Fortunately, they’ve figured out how to let that technology arms race happen while keeping the racing pretty enjoyable.
It Brings The Party To The People
Many other race weekends are easy to ignore, taking place way out in the boonies where they’ve built a track far from civilization. Unless you’re driving out to said track, you may not remember there’s even a race on. Of course, those other series also have to worry about the amount of noise that they make, and the kinds of insufferable people who don’t like such noises in their backyards.
Formula E wants to have race weekends as centrally located as possible, usually running on street courses to put them smack-dab in the middle of cities where they’re right there, easy for people to come check out. They try to fit most of their racing activities on one day, to make it easy for spectators and minimize the amount of time needed to close public roads.
They’re is pretty thoughtful about how they go about this, too, opting to use existing centrally located facilities like Mexico’s Autodrómo Hermanos Rodríguez or Berlin’s Templehof Airport where they can to avoid clogging up the roads.
As someone who constantly has to defend the very idea of motorsports to people who complain about road closures and noise, I appreciate this more than they’ll ever know.
I wasn’t entirely sure if the one-day format worked in person, as I was left wondering where all the support series were, or where planned support series like Roborace or an electric feeder series might fit in the future. Variety—and the thought that you’re getting a deal on tickets to see not just one, but multiple series in one weekend—can sometimes help get butts in seats. But like a lot of the other things Formula E is trying, the idea of taking the race weekend to the people is all aimed at attracting new fans to motorsports.
Best of all, the post-race chatter at the Mexico City ePrix wasn’t about a technicality in some inane, minor detail in the competition regs that the racing faithful loves to dissect. It was about in-race contact, Jerome d’Ambrosio frustrating the cars behind him, and Lucas di Grassi’s incredible win where he had to drive back from last place.
In other words, stuff with much wider appeal that you don’t have to memorize a fat rulebook to understand.
It’s Finally A Series For The Next Big Thing In Car Tech
Formula E is so green it even goes out of their way to power cars with super-clean glycerol generators and highlight local eco-friendly initiatives at their race weekends.
Naturally, auto companies need a sandbox to tinker with electric vehicle technology, and racing those ideas head-to-head is one way to find usable solutions for the future.
“All manufacturers have to go electric,” said driver Lucas di Grassi, who also played a major role in developing Formula E as a series. “And pro motorsport only happens with manufacturers.”
Manufacturers have latched on to to the series en masse because it’s an easy place to develop electric technology, not to mention a cost-effective way for their PR teams to say they’re committed to the environment. Some, such as Faraday Future, have a technical partnership with a team for key drivetrain components that they say contributes to the development of a road car. Others, such as Jaguar, are running full works teams.
The series’ insistence on road relevance, which encompasses everything from its battery solutions to the very road-car-like 18-inch Michelin tires, is refreshing in a world where many series are nose-down in impractical aerodynamic solutions that can only work on the track.
Electric drivetrains are a lot simpler than their internal combustion counterparts, making it much easier for the same things learned in racing to be applied to road cars. While it’s hard for fans to see under the series’ spec chassis, Formula E is really bringing racing back to its core goal of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”
Since electric cars are a big, wide-open area for development, they’ve attracted both established multinational brands like Audi and Jaguar as well as start-ups like NIO and Faraday Future. Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag told Jalopnik in an interview that he sees the series itself as one big startup, so he’s happy to have these newer marques in the mix.
“We were also, a couple of times, very close to going down,” he told me. “I think without the risk of failure, there’s no really entrepreneurship. [...] I think it’s really exciting to have them here in the championship because this actually the only playground that I know where big consolidated OEMs compete with these kind of new, aggressive, futuristic startups.”
Because everybody basically has to develop electric cars now, it’s the one area of design that a lot of young engineers are getting really, really excited for as well. This is where the jobs are in the future, and it’s only smart to want to dive into electric cars as soon as possible. To wit: I haven’t had anyone ask if I could track down a hiring contact at a race weekend before, yet one engineering student who knew I’d be at Formula E in Mexico did just that.
The emphasis on future tech doesn’t end with the Formula E cars themselves, either. Formula E pushes all kinds of up and coming technologies at its race weekend, from virtual reality to autonomous cars.
They Actually Care About The Teams Who Race There
Another thing that makes Formula E such an easy sell to manufacturers wanting some good, fun green PR—and thus, boost the car count for us to watch—is the series’ insistence on keeping costs under control.
“The priority for us is cost control,” Agag told Jalopnik about the series’ decision to limit the number of races on the schedule. “This needs to be a sustainable championship, not only from the environmental point of view, but from the financial point of view. We want our teams to be healthy.”
It’s as if someone’s been paying attention to the bad example Formula One has set lately, where only a handful of teams can afford to be competitive and those teams do everything within their power to keep control and funnel more money in their direction.
The series seeks input from the teams on what they need for the series to be relevant, worthwhile and competitive, yet he doesn’t want to let them control themselves for obvious reasons.
Take, for example, the series’ recent debate around the addition of brake-by-wire and other new technologies. Formula E’s braking systems are pretty simple as it is, and allowing brake-by-wire systems would let teams maximize the amount of energy a car can regenerate under braking, manipulate how much power is fed to each wheel, and bring the series’ brakes ever-closer to the state-of-the-art systems running in places like the World Endurance Championship.
Yet concerns are being voiced about costs, road relevance and making the cars too easy to drive, per Motorsport.com. The fact that those are the things coming up in debates about the series’ future—not squabbles as to whether a proposed tweak only favors the teams who are already winning, or a full-steam-ahead plow right into something that would kill off the competitiveness of smaller teams—is promising.
It Gets Fans Involved
Formula E infamously now employs something called Fanboost, a system where fans choose their favorite drivers to get an additional power boost of 30 kW (approximately 40 horsepower) to use during a race. The top three drivers as voted by fans get the boost.
I’m going to count this as a good thing even though I despise the series’ implementation of it. Even I can admit that it’s refreshing to see a series make some effort to get fans more involved, and thus, more invested in the results of the races themselves.
While I hate Fanboost for its tendency to give already fast drivers a leg up and for its potential to alter the results, Agag insists that it’s not a big enough boost to fundamentally alter the result of a race. It’s still been a serious turn-off to many existing racing fans who see it (and consequently, the series itself) as a silly gimmick.
But as noted, the core audience that Formula E is looking to attract isn’t existing racing geeks, anyway. They’re looking beyond that to the bigger picture of “how do we make racing attractive to everybody else?” For better or for worse, the much-maligned Fanboost lets people who follow a certain driver give them a bit more support than usual. They’ve voted, and they’re invested in seeing that vote through now.
Maybe there’s a better way to get fans involved in the race itself than through Fanboost, and who knows if that will come in time, but the sheer fact that fan involvement is a priority is a big win.
The Racing Is Actually Fun
The best part about Formula E’s cars being relatively evenly matched, lower on aerodynamic and tire grip, and with adequate torque to be mega-fun to drive (more on that soon) is that the racing on track can get delightfully ruthless.
Ignore the list of winners (read: Sébastien Buemi’s name repeated a lot) from this season for a second, as it’s a bit misleading. Buemi’s been driving brilliantly all season long, but it’s definitely not all car, and hasn’t been super easy for him.
Pole position for the recent Berlin ePrix, for example, was decided by a mere 0.001 second. This year’s Mexico City ePrix was particularly insane as well, complete with a non-Buemi winner who fought back to the front from last place:
Sure, Formula E’s mid-race car swaps can be silly, but they won’t have those anymore starting in 2018. Other than that, they’re just racing, and racing hard.
It’s all the slicing and dicing that makes things like Spec Miata’s front-runners fun to watch, yet this is with some of the best drivers in the world who, for whatever reason, aren’t in a top-level ride somewhere else. Drivers get up in each others’ space, bump into each other and overtake like madmen.
What’s that about the lack of overtaking in your favorite series? You need to start paying more attention to Formula E.
Formula E Needs A Villain
The one downside to all this ruthless overtaking—if there is one—is that there’s no true villain. There’s no Lewis Hamilton or Kyle Busch who’s a very obvious love-him-or-hate-him type on the grid. Everyone’s so nice! Friendly! Eager to share their current series with you! Fans need people to hate in sports. That’s what it needs next: a polarizing figure.
It’s all sweet and good and nice for now, but at some point, we need real drama to care what’s going on.
Let Us Know When To Look For The Cars
Formula E can be hard at times to watch in person for the same reason why they get to run in the middle of cities in the first place. The cars are so quiet, it’s simply hard to tell when the cars are coming.
It’s fantastic that the racing is so close in Formula E that the field doesn’t spread out a ton over the course of an average race. Unfortunately, if you get distracted and don’t turn around in time because you don’t hear the cars’ quiet gearbox whine coming, you can miss nearly the entire front clump of the field in one fell swoop.
Perhaps Formula E should take a page from rally and have marshals ring a cowbell, sound a horn or use some other noisemaker to give fans a heads-up that the main pack of cars is on the way. Those of us with too many years of loud internal-combustion-powered racing on our eardrums would be very grateful.
Too Much Of The Cool, New Tech Is Hard To See
It has an uphill battle to convince tech geeks that no, these aren’t just boring spec racers. I mean, they all still look alike on the outside!
Beginning with a standardized car was probably the right decision to get started on the cheap, but people still criticize the series as having too little in-car development that might trickle down to road cars.
It’s the great trade-off in racing: how do you allow development on a car so that companies can test their latest, greatest ideas through the crucible of motorsport while still keeping the cars competitive with each other?
One of the series’ strengths, according to Panasonic Jaguar Racing team director James Barclay, is that everyone has different ideas on how to go fast. Barclay told me that Formula E is also immensely challenging for its drivers, as there can be around 40 switches, gear changes and other adjustments made to the cars in just one short lap. Yet these aren’t things we often see as viewers.
Here’s what needs to happen: the bits of the car that the series opened up for development need to be featured more often. There’s all kinds of interesting solutions going on with power management, racing gearboxes and the like that I see no reason why Formula E shouldn’t provide a good, steady stream of fascinating techno-porn like Formula One does, only without the crushing costs that make it hard for teams to compete and survive.
Explain your solutions. Feature cool loopholes in the rules that teams have found for all to enjoy. Give us more up-close tech dives into what makes the cars tick, and the new things each team is trying. Sure, some of us watch for close racing and drama—but let’s not forget the nerds entirely, either.
Should you go watch a Formula E race? Hell yes, you should go watch a Formula E race. There may not be a true villain yet to root for or against yet unless you’re really, truly that tired of seeing Sébastien Buemi on the podium’s top step, but it’s a fun, quality way to spend a day—and likely not too far from you, if you live in a town with a race.
It’s easy to write Formula E off as the series of buzzy, gimmicky golf carts that lack the power to go a full race distance and are driven by F1 rejects, but that’s also massively lazy. They hustle these electric racers around in a way that produces more overtakes in one race than the last couple years of Monaco F1.
With some hustle, and some tweaks, there’s no reason this racing startup can’t hit it big.