Formula E is a recent addition to the world’s motorsports scene, an electric counterpart to the gas-guzzling established series. It does a lot right, but still nobody really seems to know what it is, what’s it’s up to, or why it’s important. Here are three things the series could do to right itself and no, they’re not gonna be cheap.
Formula E, as I said, does a lot right. It’s easy for manufacturers to get into, as all of the hardware is uniform across all the teams. The physical chassis, even, is identical, so if, say, Jaguar wants to buy in to the series, they can be competitive from day one. It’s a great incentive.
And the series brings racing to the people. Rather than compete in faraway circuits that are, by regulation, far away from neighbors complaining about noise and traffic and parking, Formula E runs on street circuits everywhere from Hong Kong to Berlin. It’s accessible.
Best of all, Formula E is spectacularly good at making headlines. After all, they’re an eco-friendly series. Any casual observer takes one look at Formula E and gets the same excited thoughts. They run electric cars! That’s the future! It’s the future, but now! I bet what Formula E is doing is great!
But the moment they actually sit down to watch the series, the whole thing falls apart, particularly when they see drivers run out of electricity and, rather than recharge or swap batteries or whatever, they get out of their car and swap into a fully-charged second vehicle.
As good dude at Road & Track Sam Smith pointed out after watching a race weekend in person, the whole scene is set up for good racing, but the lack of tech makes the event feel hollow. Nobody’s sticking around for it. Once you realize that Formula E isn’t doing anything to advance electric car technology, you realize that it’s basically a bunch of people racing around city centers in glorified golf carts. At a fundamental level, it’s boring. And that’s leaving out that these cars are slower than a Formula 1 car of 23 years ago, as shown by their most recent testing times.
So! Formula E is good at drawing in new fans and new competitors, but it’s bad at keeping them. I propose three expensive solutions, which I imagine Formula E probably looked into but decided against due to cost:
I’ve talked about this before, but having non-swappable batteries that can’t be recharged during the race is insane. Formula E has a real opportunity here to lead the technological development of fast charging, or the physical requirements of battery swapping, or the development of battery technology to last the entire duration of the race.
As Formula E stands now, teams are required to do a mid-race swap of the entire car, which is ridiculous, because it has nothing to do with the real world. Nobody is going to drive their Tesla halfway to work, then run out of batteries, and then swap into their second Tesla to finish the ride. It’s madness.
Knowing that there isn’t even a single team busily working on some sort of solid state battery, or experimenting with a kind of rare earth metal I have never heard of, genuinely clouds my entire view of Formula E. Knowing that these teams are just parading around technology that major auto manufacturers and research groups are working hard to replace bums me out.
If Formula E is so special, they should be leading the way forward. They could be a technology incubator, not just a showcase. That’s the classic point of racing cars in the first place, beyond just watching a bunch of rich people drive around in circles for a while.
Again, it makes sense for all of these teams to share a common chassis and so on to help draw in new manufacturers and keep the racing close. Here’s the thing:
Jaguar might feel good about itself for joining an electric racing series, but knowing that it’s just a Jaguar badge slapped on a uniform car defeats the whole purpose. Would one team run a car that’s just one of those big solar teardrops that made the news in the 1990s? Would one team enter a gigantic battery with a seat on top of it? Would another team build a car that could be wirelessly charged by an overhead network of drones?
Who knows! But it’d be awesome.
So, if these ideas are so great, why hasn’t Formula E tried them out itself? I’m just some shithead blogger, what do I know that the professionals don’t?
Well, there are some real drawbacks with each of these proposals. The first one, allowing battery swapping, adds cost and complexity to the cars. The second one adds even more cost and complexity, and it increases the odds that one team would figure out a right way to do things while other teams spent time and money chasing technological dead ends. That would mean you could have a racing series where only one team won every single race, weekend after weekend. You see this happen in Formula One every so often. Mercedes, for instance, bet big on a particular layout for the series’ new turbocharged engines and Mercedes turned out to be right,and they’ve completely dominated the series for the past few years because of it.
But has F1 lost any fans over it? I doubt it. It’s cool to see technology progress, and someday soon we may see some of Mercedes’ winning technology filter down into production car design. That’s what everyone wants.
My third proposal only aggravates these problems, adding much more cost for each teams as they spend to develop their own solutions, many of which will be inferior to some other, luckier team’s lab work. But that’s the point of a tech incubator. It’s expensive, but it’s good for society and it in itself is interesting to watch.
Formula E is currently concerned with being a series that promotes good wheel to wheel racing, with parity between cars and drivers supported on social media. But the world doesn’t need another pointless racing series, particularly one playing around with socially important electric vehicle tech. What the world needs is a fun, exciting tech incubator, and that’s what Formula E can be, if it’s bold enough to do it.