FUTURE PROOF

All signs point towards a future of electrified mobility – but where does that leave fans of motorsport?

It would be hard for anyone to say that Formula E isn’t in rude health at the moment. As a single-seat series, it sees the largest number of manufacturer entries, with that growing for the next season, as Porsche and Mercedes join Jaguar, Nissan, PSA, Mahindra and Audi. Sponsorwise, lucrative deals have been made with a host of providers, many even switching their focus from F1 to Formula E. While the electrified championship certainly isn’t the first new race series to have come along (see: A1 GP or Grand Prix Masters), it’s enjoying a wave of success that can only be described as unprecedented. Further growth is almost guaranteed, and naturally leads to the question: Will the future of all racing (including Formula 1) be electric?

“I don’t know… I mean, it’s not really my worry. I worry about driving, about doing my job… It’s the promoter’s job to worry about these kinds of things,” says Nelson Piquet Jr, Formula E’s first champion and driver for Panasonic Jaguar Racing. “It’s almost impossible to create a new series in five years and compare it to a sport that has been around for 70 years. It’s the same as creating a new sport in America, and expecting it to surpass the NFL. It’s never going to happen. Besides, an F1 car has slick tyres, Formula E doesn’t. When you don’t have slick tyres, it doesn’t matter how much power is in the back of the car, it’s not going to move forward. It’s a question of adapting. It’s the same thing when comparing a rally car to a Nascar; the driver just needs to adapt.”

Mitch Evans, Nelson’s teammate at Jaguar Racing, is also with us. Managed by former F1 star Mark Webber, he may be nine years Piquet’s junior, but has had an equally interesting and diverse career, including GP3 and GP2, as well as racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“Formula E’s got the brands and the drivers, but it needs to be at least 15 races or more,” says Mitch. “I know the city format isn’t easy for the promoters to make happen…It must be tough for it to happen every year. But a stable calendar and another 5 races would be amazing. That said, if you look back at the last few years, it’s all headed in the right direction.”

There’s no denying the buzz this series – even in its infancy – is bringing everywhere it goes. Coinciding
with the Formula E circus rolling into town is the launch of the all-electric Jaguar I-Pace on the top floor of The Murray in Hong Kong, a swanky hotel in the heart of the city. It’s the kind of engagement/brand connect/ image building opportunity that marketers and PR agencies dream of. The entirety of HK has been lit up, it seems, with various brands and manufacturers jumping at the opportunity to host invitees from across the region. A few blocks over, Audi is showing off its E-Tron concept.

Many people are sceptic about Formula E. The problem is a lack of adoption by the majority of the old guard – there are elements that don’t quite make sense to a hardened racing enthusiast. Take “fan boost” for instance. You vote for your favorite drivers via social media, so they get a momentary burst of power during the race. It’s a way to engage fans, but in practice, it lends about as much merit to driving as having the “best smile” in your yearbook had on your career prospects. There are other factors too. That the cars are virtually identical from the outside is a tough pill to swallow. Formula E itself goes as far as to highlight its uniformly “batmobile” styled cars – by saying you’ve based the design of your bleeding-edge race cars on the creation of a fictional superhero discredits the concept. Yet, manufacturers seem to love it.

“We focus our investment in areas that are important in terms of technical innovation from a power train point of view,” says James Barclay, team director of Panasonic Jaguar Racing. “The focus is on our own electric motors, inverters, gearbox, rear suspension, control unit, and the software behind all that. These are critical elements of the power train, and that’s where the really important development is. Things like the chassis, battery and aero are elements that we could all do, but that’s a reasonably expensive exercise.”

It’s this differing focus that has made Formula E take up a sort-of anti-F1 position. The access granted to the pits is unprecedented, compared to the secrecy and borderline exclusivity that is present in F1. Costs are controlled in a way in which both manufacturers and individuals are able to compete on equal footing. For example, you’re only allowed 20 people that can work on the cars. If another non-cleared member of the team so much as touches a car, a penalty is applied. It’s a formula that has kept the racing tight and closer than ever. Going into the fifth round at Hong Kong, four different drivers had won the previous rounds – a trend that continued until round eight of the championship. Imagine that, eight different winners from eight different races!

Adding to the spectacle for this year is the inclusion of Formula E’s first support series: the Jaguar I-Pace E Trophy. These aren’t merely silhouette racers. In a call-back to tin-top racing, the I-Paces making up the grid have been pulled from the production line, stripped out, had their brakes and suspension replaced with spec items, before being given the seal of approval for racing. The rest, including the battery and inverter, is all that you’d find on the road car – similar to touring cars back when things were much simpler. Such was their commitment to getting the series up and running that the factory had to give up one of their fleet I-Paces to be used as a course car.

Simon Evans, Mitch’s brother, drives one of the I-Paces and races for Team Asia New Zealand, a joint entry co-sponsored by Sri Lanka’s Access Group who represent JLR back home. “The thing about electric,” Simon tells me, “is that the delivery of power is instantaneous. It’s like a switch more than something that’s modulated. The biggest thing you don’t realise is how much you use sound as a sense to gauge how fast you’re going. When that’s been taken away, for the first couple of sessions you really have to feel it through the seat of the car. That was probably the hardest thing, literally having no sound. The Formula E cars do have a bit of a whine, but this is dead quiet.”

He’s not wrong. For the entire race, the loudest sound was the clattering of metal and plastic as all 10 cars concertinaed into one another in the first corner. But the race itself was closely fought, with a last corner lunge leaving Simon innocently shunted into the wall and out of the podium position he was heading for. What the race was able to do though was to provide some interesting contrast to the main event.

Arguably, the amount of strategy employed in a Formula E race is more than in F1. That’s because you have to manage your energy deployment, where your optimal usage is going to 1% of remaining charge as you cross the line. Viewers are kept up-to-date with each driver’s energy consumption and remaining charge, and eagerly watch as their batteries deplete themselves. It certainly adds another layer to the proceedings and has led to some controversial, if not thrilling, race endings. By restricting the driver’s ability to (no pun intended) charge through to the end, and instead, slowly go mad with their own version of range anxiety, isn’t exactly the element of electric car adoption that we should be reminded of. It’s a concern, but not the biggest problem.

The biggest issue is how a majority were comparing the electric series to what is widely recognised as the pinnacle of motorsport: F1. Some changes would improve Formula E, but ultimately, they’re on the right track. Rather, the biggest problem with Formula E is itself. It’s a victim of its own success. Within five short years, they’ve created a credible, relevant and popular racing series – one that is instantly and naturally compared against the yardstick of an international single-seater motorsport. In reality, there’s room for both, and that will continue to be the case for some time to come. For now, enjoy the racing for what it is: another championship with some incredibly talented teams and drivers. The discussion for No. 1 race series isn’t one we’ll be having in another five or ten years’ time… it’s one we’ll be having in several decades, and not a day sooner.