As Formula E headed into the the 2021 season finale in London, 18 different drivers were mathematically eligible for the World Championship in a series that featured 25 drivers over the course of a season. But CEO Jamie Reigle says that kind of parity isn’t what Formula E is looking for in its pursuit of becoming a tier-one sport — the Formula One of electric racing.
Full disclosure: Formula E invited me to the Mexico City ePrix as a guest of the series. It organized my food, lodging, travel, and schedule to maximize every moment of my trip — which was much appreciated.
I had a chance to sit down with Formula E’s current CEO during the Mexico City ePrix weekend, where he explained to me exactly what he considered a “tier-one sport” to be.
“You can define tier one in a lot of different ways,” Reigle told me, “but you know it when you see it. So if you think of tennis — whether you’re a fan of tennis or you’re not a tennis fan — you probably know that Djokovic, Federer and Nadal are three best men players in the world.
“So can you name the top three Formula E drivers? If you’re a Formula E fan you probably have a pretty good opinion on that. But there’s not consensus, which is sort of a reflection of our sporting format, how a lot of different drivers have won over the years.”
In its eighth season, Formula E is still a very young championship. The series was built on a field full of spec cars that featured an approved array of parts from different providers, with each car generation introducing a few new regulations that would allow manufacturers and teams to do more and more of their own development.
But for the most part, the foundation each car is roughly still pretty similar — which provides for a lot of close racing between equally competitive cars.
For some fans — myself included — that slightly-spec designation has been an important part of their love of the series. As a longtime fan of Dragon Racing, a team that was generally fairly miserable, I could still hold out a reasonable amount of hope that one of the drivers would score a podium. I still could.
Reigle is right in noting that it doesn’t make for very strong brand recognition, nor does it encourage a variety of storytelling. If you tuned into a Formula One race last year, you knew that the big storyline was the battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, and commentators were able to develop compelling narratives based on that rivalry. If you tuned into Formula E, you didn’t have anywhere near the same level of narrative.
“We have to create the conditions for the best drivers and the best teams to emerge,” Reigle said. “In Formula One, you had this battle between Lewis and Max last year — how do you create the conditions to have those epic battles and rivalries?”
For Reigle, those battles will naturally arise when teams are allowed to undertake the kind of serious development that you see in F1. After all, FE is home to so many different manufacturers — Jaguar, Nissan, Porsche — that it would make sense to let them run free and create the best electric vehicle technology, similar to the way large companies like Red Bull and Mercedes can develop massively competitive F1 cars.
But is Reigle’s plan a good one? Fans have complained about the lack of parity in F1 for ages, and instead of letting teams and manufacturers develop cars to their hearts’ content, the series has been mandating cost caps and competition-friendly tech changes to enable closer racing and multi-driver Championship fights. Yes, F1 is still the most recognizable form of motor racing in the world — but plenty of fans held a deep resentment for eras dominated by a single driver.
Surely, becoming a world-class, tier-one sport is an admirable and important goal for the electric series. But is it a good idea to follow Formula One’s example after so many years of trying to distinguish itself from F1 — and after F1 has struggled so openly to retain public interest? Would it be possible to use that parity to FE’s advantage, learning how to craft compelling 18-driver storylines and setting an example that “tier-one” can mean more than “a few dominant athletes?” Would it be smarter for FE to continue paving its own path rather than following in the footsteps of F1?
We can’t know, not until fans are really able to see how Reigle’s vision plays out as we head into the Gen3 era. But until then, it might be wise to really enjoy the fact that, so far, we’ve had a different winner at every race this season. It may not last much longer.