Formula E kicks off its fourth season of competition this weekend with a double-header event on the streets of Hong Kong.
A little over three years on from its inaugural race in China, the electric-powered series appears to be in robust health. Initially written off as a gimmick, Formula E is now a thriving championship and plainly here for the long term.
The proof of this can be seen in the manufacturers who are flocking to the series. This season there are official entries from automotive heavyweights Audi, Citroen (via their DS brand), Jaguar, and Renault.
In season five we’ll see BMW step up and Nissan take the place of their long-time ‘strategic partners’ Renault. The following year things get extremely serious when both Porsche and Mercedes-Benz join the party.
Assuming no unforeseen withdrawals, Formula E is on course to have seven manufacturers by the start of season six. Keep in mind that Formula 1 currently has four. Even Ferrari have talked about getting involved in electric racing, though they would likely do so using the Maserati brand.
When a marque of Porsche’s immense stature shutters their successful LMP1 programme to make room for Formula E, you know it has long-term potential. This kind of success was not unforeseen, but few believed it could happen within such a short timeframe. How did a series derided as a fleeting gimmick just three years ago grow so rapidly?
Six drivers slated to compete this weekend have contested every Formula E race. Among them is Sam Bird, who is heading into his fourth season with the DS Virgin team.
A former Mercedes F1 test driver, Bird has won five races to date and represents one of the series’ benchmark competitors.
“So much has changed [since season one]. At the first race nobody knew what to expect; we were heading into the unknown, really,” says Bird, who went on to take a podium finish from that inaugural race.
“Now the championship is taken extremely seriously. The teams are more professional, the cars are faster, and the equipment we use is more high-tech. It’s come an awfully long way.”
As Bird acknowledges, the manufacturers have driven the series’ accelerated growth at a time when the car industry is in the midst of dramatic change.
“It’s important for manufacturers to be seen in Formula E,” says Bird. “It’s the stepping stone to their new [road-going] electric vehicles, and there’s no better way of learning the EV world than pursuing the Formula E championship.”
Bird’s teammate is 24-year-old Alex Lynn. He joins the series full-time this year after a successful one-off appearance in season three, which included taking pole in his first qualifying session.
“You could argue that it’s the only relevant racing series in the world right now,” says Lynn. “It’s going to be the proving ground of choice to show off what this technology can really do.”
Formula E’s success is based on what it offers manufacturers: a racing series that is relevant to the technologies being used in their road cars. I
t’s about public relations, too: manufacturers want to be seen flying the flag for sustainable technology at a time when climate change is a major global concern. Formula 1 is clearly faster and more glamorous, but it can’t tick those boxes.
EXPANDING DRIVER QUALITY
The knock-on effect of manufacturers joining is an increase in driver talent. Bird is an established pro who, as well as Formula E, has won consistently in international single-seaters and sportscars. Lynn is a former GP3 champion who spent a year as development driver with the Williams F1 team and recently joined Aston Martin’s GT programme.
Both are typical among what is the best line-up the series has had.
As Bird puts it: “Every single driver is capable of winning given the right machinery. You look up and down the grid and it’s full of world-class names.”
Many of the newcomers are linked to manufacturers. It’s no coincidence that two Porsche drivers have secured seats this season, while another rookie comes from the Mercedes ranks. It’s subjective, but you could go so far as to say that Formula E is now second only to F1 in terms of driver quality.
There’s no Hamilton-Alonso-Vettel grade driver, but nor is there anyone who doesn’t belong in a professional championship. That hasn’t always been in case.
The same is not true of the cars, which are hamstrung by the relatively new technology. They top out at around 140mph and don’t feel especially spectacular in person. Nevertheless, the racing is enjoyable.
Competing on street circuits creates an illusion of speed on television and adds to the drama. The lack of sophisticated aero on Formula E cars means overtaking is a common sight, which makes a change from F1.
It’s slower and there’s less jeopardy as a result, but that is no reason dismiss it. At its core Formula E is as much about entertainment as sustainable technology.
The tech will develop over time. The series gets a brand new car next season, which will put a stop to one of Formula E’s least popular features: the mid-race car swap.
Machinery capable of going the distance represents a major improvement for the series. The mid-race swap did nothing for Formula E’s green credentials and it’s no coincidence that several manufacturers are waiting until it’s been scrapped to join.
The new car should also look very different from the current one, which will help to establish a more distinct identity.
Season four hasn’t even begun yet, but season five is already being talked up as a game changer for the series.
“I think the sky’s the limit,” says Bird. “The new car is going to be crucial.
“I think the championship can continue to grow and grow. People ask if it will overtake F1, but that’s not the aim. We’re trying to be the best that we can be.”
Whether it’s the target or not, Lynn believes that Formula E’s evolution will see it naturally rise to the top of world motorsport: “If it runs its natural course I think that in five or 10 years time we can be looking at the biggest form of motor racing in the world.”
TOO MUCH TOO SOON?
There is an important caveat to all of this. While major manufacturers are joining and bringing top drivers with them, it’s difficult to pin down just how popular the series actually is.
When it was launched, plenty of traditional motorsport fans were dismissive. That hasn’t really changed. There is still apathy towards Formula E and, from some quarters, anger that it has led to Porsche and Mercedes shutting down more popular programmes elsewhere.
The Fanboost initiative – where drivers can receive an added power boost via an online vote – is as contentious as ever. In season three, UK viewing figures averaged around 200,000 on free-to-air Channel 5. This is not a bad number, but nor is it indicative of a wildly popular series.
From the outset Formula E has targeted younger fans, particularly those with no previous interest in motorsport, but it is tricky to quantify how successful they have been in this too.
It is more likely that the majority of Formula E followers are traditional racing fans. And while road relevance might appeal to manufacturers, the average viewer doesn’t care whether a car is powered by batteries or an internal combustion engine.
They care that it’s fast, looks cool and is driven by a talented professional, but the use of Formula E as a laboratory for road technology will appeal only to a small minority. None of this is Formula E’s fault.
The series is still young and needs time to mature. In this respect, you could argue that it’s been a victim of its own success. The arrival of so many manufacturers suggests huge popularity, whereas in reality Formula E is about where you’d expect heading into its fourth campaign.
ROOM TO GROW
Season four of Formula E promises more of what the series has already delivered: close racing between high-quality drivers in reasonably quick machinery.
As a spectacle it’s not there yet, but then it is still very new. There is a tendency from both sides to view this as a black and white issue.
To the believers, either you’re fully on board with Formula E or you’re stuck in the dark ages pining for the scream of a V10 engine. To the cynics, either you dismiss Formula E as a gimmick or have been taken in by a marketing trick. It’s more nuanced than that.
Formula E has its good points: the drivers, the development of new technology, and the willingness to try different things. But it is not the finished product.
There have been missteps during the early years and the tech is still not advanced enough to get a lot of people excited. It may well be the future of motorsport, but as things stand we’re still very much in the present.