Formula E’s city-center racing model has left it at the mercy of rapidly changing COVID-19 protocols across the globe. As restrictions and regulations change, E-Prix races have been canceled, rescheduled or indefinitely postponed. Now, there’s a new round of calendar changes being confirmed — and, according to Jamie Reigle, CEO of the series, this new style of scheduling and announcements will make it a hell of a lot easier to predict a stable calendar.
“We call [it] a decision gate,” Reigle said in an interview with Jalopnik earlier this week. “ We’re telling our teams and drivers and fans and media what races we believe are going to happen on those dates in the near future.”
In this case, the decision is to run a handful of races this spring that, as of right now, stand a very good chance of taking place. It’ll reach a second decision gate sometime in April, which Reigle notes will reveal the final half of the Formula E calendar. That’s intended to reduce a constant drip of schedule changes.
As an example, this weekend should have seen the Santiago ePrix doubleheader, an event that Reigle had said during the negotiation process that he was confident would happen.
“If you and I had spoken on December 15, I would have said that I’m confident we’re going to Chile. We’ve already shipped the cars and the logistics shifts have left. Vaccines are coming, and it’s not that I’m a wild optimist, but it would be hard to imagine it could get worse,” Reigle said. “And then three or four days later, a new variant emerged in the UK, and within the space of 48 hours, pretty much every country in the world had issued a ban on travel from the United Kingdom.”
That’s the unpredictable nature of this pandemic, one that has resulted in a consistent re-evaluation of priorities just when you think you’ve gotten a grasp on things.
As of today, we can expect the first few races of the 2021 Formula E season to proceed as follows:
- February 26 and 27: Saudi Arabia
- April 10: Rome
- April 24: Valencia
- May 8: Monaco
- May 22: Marrakesh
- June 5 and 6: Santiago
Reigle hopes that the next slate of races announced in the spring will include E-Prix events in Seoul, New York City, London, Berlin and Mexico — but, again, that’s all going to depend on local regulations. The Paris E-Prix has been postponed until the 2021-2022 season.
“With all those cities we’ve raced in before, there’s an existing relationship, and in each case, we’ve been in dialogue with them for years,” Reigle said about the process of organizing a sporting event in the middle of a pandemic. “When you overlay COVID, which has health involvement as well as immigration and border controls, it’s just an ongoing dialogue.”
Reigle was thrown into the proverbial fire after accepting a position as Formula E’s CEO in late 2019. His immediate goal, he said, was “to observe, learn, meet everyone in the paddock — all the teams, manufacturers and partners — and then perhaps start to think about how we can evolve things going into season seven.”
But that’s not the way it worked out for him. As COVID-19 began to spread around the world, Reigle was placed in the difficult position of postponing the season after only five races.
“There were moments last spring where we thought we’d be racing again in June to complete our season. It became very clear by the middle to the end of April that that would be very optimistic,” he told Jalopnik. At the time, the best case scenario was to host an intense six-race season finale over the course of nine days at the Tempelhof airport location in Berlin. The series used three different track layouts to keep things interesting before ultimately crowning Antonio Felix da Costa of Techeetah as the season six champion.
“With hindsight, it was very well suited to 2020. It was very well suited to achieving our goal,” Reigle said of the format. But if we have an ambition to be a tier-one global sport, which we do, we have an obligation to try to make [Formula E] as global as we can.
“One of the critiques we got last year was that we decided to do Berlin late. What we said this year is, let’s do decision gates. That way, we’re telling our teams and drivers and fans and media what races we believe are going to happen on those dates in the near future. I feel very good about the ones being announced. Can something change? Yes. Do we have backup plans for each? Yes. But we’re pretty confident those are going to happen.”
Part of the logistical struggle comes down to convincing local governments that Formula E can successfully manage a large event, and the race in Berlin gave the series a great structure on which to propose the season seven events. About 1,000 personnel attended the Berlin finale, and of those people, FE further segmented the population. So, let’s say you’re a mechanic working in the garage. You would be relegated to a specific area of the hotel rented out by Formula E alongside other garage-bound folks. You would eat at a specific restaurant and travel on a specific bus, never crossing paths with media, corporate figures or track marshals. You would be tested by Formula E to ensure that you weren’t infected.
Basically, this is done to prevent the wildfire spread of COVID-19 in the paddock; if a member of the media were to contract the virus, only the media segment would be affected, which could make tracing and quarantining much easier. It’s also designed to show FE’s responsibility. Along with bringing its own tests in order to alleviate any possible strain on local governments, FE has created a pandemic plan to reduce the impact on the community that hosts the race, letting the series accept responsibility for anything that goes wrong.
“There’s law, and there’s our responsibility as a company,” Reigle said. “Whenever we go into a city, we’re bringing our product. We want it to be a product that is consistent and recognized around the world. But equally, how we express that product in markets around the world is very different based on the regulations and cultural expectations or acceptance of motorsport of those markets. Each one has its own idiosyncrasies.
“Then you overlay COVID-19, a health crisis. In governments around the world and within the political structure of the countries, there are tons of different approaches to, and tolerances for, certain levels of caseload and what that means for social gatherings. We have to be adaptable to fit within those requirements.”
In some cases, a race has no other option than to be postponed. In others, governments are willing to work with Formula E personnel to get a race off the ground. As Reigle notes, it’s a constant conversation, one that can take a turn at any point in time. But he’s confident that this style of releasing race dates in chunks is going to work out for the best.
“I’m a firm believer that Formula E needs to lean into why we’re different, and racing in cities is one of the reasons why we’re distinct,” Reigle told Jalopnik. “Equally, not every single race needs to be in that vein. In the last few months, we’ve been looking for places where we can race and truly broaden our principles while maybe pushing the envelope a little bit. For example, in Italy, we have our typical Formula E site, but there’s a track at Vallelunga that we’ve been having conversations with as a backup in the event that we’re not able to host one in Rome.
“Is that true to Formula E’s DNA? It’s not. But is it the right thing to do in light of this current crisis? Yes, it is.”