The introduction of Formula E’s Gen3 regulations ahead of its 2022-23 season heralded a sea change of technological advancements. Lighter, faster, and more efficient than ever before, the electric open-wheel racer looks damn good, and the racing it puts on will likely be as stunning as anything we’ve seen from the sport before. But will there be anyone left to see it?
In order to enter this era, Formula E seems to be undergoing an all-around destruction. Longtime tire manufacturer Michelin is leaving the sport, to be replaced by the less well-known Hankook. While Jaguar and Porsche remain and McLaren, ABT, and Maserati enter, big-name manufacturers like BMW and Audi have already left, and Mercedes is now leaving — the last of those also abandoning a defense of its back-to-back driver and constructor titles. That’s because companies like Michelin and Mercedes have framed their participation in Formula E, not as a love of the sport but as a short-term investment, a few-year proving ground destined to be left behind once they’ve developed, say, an electric powertrain or a sustainable tire.
Even further, the prospective calendar for 2023 is still unfinished but currently lacks races in big markets like the U.S./Canada, and with fewer than five months to go before pre-season testing begins, eight of 12 teams lack any official drivers.
That could be because it just doesn’t sound like people are interested in sticking with the series.
In countless off-the-record conversations during the two ePrix weekend I attended this year — Mexico and New York City — I learned that even people employed by Formula E in some capacity find little motivation to continue working with the series for myriad reasons. People who started off dazzled by the series’ high hopes have become jaded as it has grown, with several people skeptical that the Gen3 era will bring a tangible, positive shift for the sport. Even with new technical regulations on the horizon, Formula E has stagnated, they’ve said. There are better opportunities for personal growth in other arenas. The series was never going to be their permanent home.
I heard that sentiment echoed repeatedly across the board. It didn’t come from just one person, team, sponsor, or manufacturer. It didn’t come from one type of employee. People across the board — people with massive influence or with none; with narrative-creating positions or with jobs that don’t face the public realm — just don’t care for the sport the way they used to. And Gen3 has given many of them an out.
I can’t tell their stories, so I can only speak from my experience. I’ve avidly followed the development of Formula E since it was first announced as an intended racing concept back in 2013. I went to two events in its first season: Long Beach and London. I’ve been to races in Montreal, New York City, and Mexico. I’ve shown up at races sporting massive hand-painted banners to celebrate my favorite drivers, and I’ve also shown up with a solely journalistic mission. As one of the administrators of the official Formula E Facebook fan page for the U.S., Formula E also provided me with my very first FIA media credential.
So when I talk about the sport, it’s from a place of deep admiration — if with a little cheek when I disagree with one of its latest sporting regulations. FE has given me so much, both personally and professionally, and I’ve always felt a vested interest in seeing it succeed.
But I’ve seen the shift, too. Ahead of the Seoul ePrix finale, I made a tongue-in-cheek tweet about the small size of FE’s audience that seemed to resonate with a lot of people — and one of the common sentiments from commenters or Twitter users who slid into my DMs was that they felt FE almost actively strives to put off its audience.
“I’ve wanted to watch it, but I’m in the United States and don’t have cable so it’s always just the clips afterwards,” one person said.
A user from England responded, “I was disappointed when coverage moved to Channel 4 only to be mostly shown on their YouTube channel. Schedule clashes with Formula 1 haven’t helped either, but I have watched most of the races this year.”
I also heard from other fans who have had a bad taste left in their mouth for other reasons. Countless Canadian fans looked forward to the reintroduction of a Canadian race with the prospective 2022 Vancouver ePrix only for the event to be first postponed and then cancelled. Now, promoters have disappeared, leaving those fans with un-refunded tickets and no word from either the FIA or Formula E.
Over and over again, the sentiment was the same: Fans are trying, but the series almost actively dissuades them from watching in one form or another, be it strange schedules that leave months of off-weekends in between racing action, conflicts with series like Formula 1, or a nearly impossible broadcasting schedule.
That last one has always bothered me the most. As a U.S.-based FE fan, it’s a rare thing for me to be able to turn on the television and watch a race live. So many of the events have been aired on tape-delay hours after the action already took place that I just gave up. I bought a VPN and started watching location-restricted livestreams on YouTube. It sucks. I want my interest to be registered as an American fan, but I also want to watch the race live; for years, I’ve been asked to choose one or the other. I understood the growing pains of a new series during the first few years, but by now, I’d have hoped I’d have access to the sport I’ve been following since its inception.
Of course, I’ve also talked to a lot of folks in Formula E who have adamantly opposed all these criticisms. The sport, I’ve been told, is bigger than ever before. The fanbase is large and growing steadily by the year. The criticisms in the paddock are minimal. Gaps left by the departure of manufacturers like Audi, Mercedes, and BMW are filled by Maserati or teams like McLaren. Fans who criticize the sport just don’t know what they’re talking about.
And I don’t necessarily disagree with those sentiments — but sometimes, deep-seated problems can’t be neatly summed up with data. Sometimes, you’re looking at the wrong numbers. Sometimes, you’re just not looking in the right places.
The introduction of new regulations is always a pivotal time for a racing series, but for Formula E, the very existence of the series itself may depend on its ability to pick up its crumbling pieces and refashion them into something new — something that addresses the valid concerns raised by fans and series personnel. It’s a task that many teams and staff members seem frankly unprepared to undertake, and if Formula E isn’t strong enough to do it, then its horizon is very limited indeed.
Update August 17 at 5:50 p.m. CT: A previous version of this story referred to 10 of 12 teams not providing powertrain information to the public. This line has been deleted for clarity. Ten teams have released powertrain suppliers but have not released information.