The second round of this season’s Formula E championship takes place this weekend in Marrakesh. Many motorsport fans scoff at electric racing. But Formula E is the most important championship in existence, and it’s one that I personally hugely enjoy.
Not everything is perfect about the Formula E championship. Let’s deal with this straight away. Two aspects in particular grate.
First of all, the ludicrous fanboost. For the uninitiated, three drivers in each race are given an opportunity to receive a brief power boost based on how many votes they get on social media. It’s a popularity contest.
This is a mechanism that makes DRS look like the model of fairness. It does not belong in a sport. I cringe every time it’s mentioned.
But I can understand that Formula E is a fledgling series that needs to find ways to generate interest. Fanboost is designed to create buzz on social media and create a talking point leading up to a race.
It is a desparate measure. But it is understandable at a time when even Formula 1 is desperate to improve its reach to a population that increasingly finds motorsport irrelevant. I just wish Formula E would find a better way. But maybe that will come as its popularity grows.
My other bugbear with Formula E is that its calendar is a mess. Many of the circuits are uninspiring, and the turnover of cities willing to host an event is alarmingly high.
Formula E has made the decision to race on street circuits in big cities, with the aim of making events easy for fans to get to. But city races cause a bunch of headaches in other ways. We saw this when Formula E had to ditch its Battersea Park circuit London in the face of community opposition.
Even this year, Montreal has pulled out of hosting a race, citing rising costs. A change of political leadership doesn’t help matters. If one mayor embraces Formula E, and the next dismisses it, the rug is swiped from under their feet.
To this day, ‘TBA’ is printed in the gap left by the two races that were due to be held in Montreal this year. Last year’s calendar faced similar issues with Brussels.
Even when a city has stuck around, things haven’t always gone to plan. Berlin went through three different circuit designs in three years, because they were all unsuitable.
Formula E needs to sort its calendar out.
So there’s clearly room for improvement. So why would I be persuading you to tune in this weekend?
Formula E has just started its fourth season, from a standing start. I admire how much the series has achieved in its earliest days, at a time when its main remit is to prove the technology of electric vehicles and showcase its development.
After Formula 1, it is the series I am most eager to keep up to date with. In an increasingly busy life, the World Endurance Championship’s 6 hour long races flop out of my personal schedule. Meanwhile, MotoGP and World Rally Championship are trapped behind the BT Sport paywall.
But the story of my interest begins even before the first Formula E season. I first woke up to how much fun electric car racing could be in 2011 when I saw some videos of a race that took place at Pau.
The first thing that struck me was just how much you can hear. I found that fascinating, because I’d heard so many people say that the “lack of sound” is one of the biggest failings of electric racing. The engine sound may be gone, it’s true. But you can hear so much more, and it’s brilliant.
Check this video out. First there is the futuristic sound of the powertrains, which is cool enough. Then come the tyre screeches — awesome. And then there’s the crash. You can practically hear each individual nut and bolt clinking onto the ground as bits fall off. It’s wonderful.
All right, a crash isn’t the best way to advertise a racing series. So here is the final lap of that event. It features none other than Formula 1 race winner Olivier Panis, trying to chase down Mike Parisy. How can you say these electric cars aren’t flipping awesome?
OK, this isn’t Formula E. But the point I’m making is, if you think electric racing can’t be good because it doesn’t have the same sound as the antiquainted internal combustion engines you happened to grow up with, you’re the one missing out.
Christian Horner opened his baggy blowhole for the umpteenth time last summer to call for Formula 1 to return to V10 or even V12 engines. There is, in fairness, a certain sense to his logic.
Formula 1 should… be the opposite [of Formula E]. Pure racing, man and machine, a competition of the best drivers in the world with combustion engines. I personally would return to a high-revving, naturally aspirated, either V10 or even V12.
Formula 1 will indeed have to face up to the question of what its role is when Formula E is leading the charge on technological advances.
Some people want electric or even hybrid technologies to be kept away from F1. They seem to think that electricity is some kind of politically correct affront, like avocado on toast. To them, F1 should be loud and old-fashioned, or something. Probably for people with testicles too. “Man and machine, amirite?”
These people argue that electric power is not in F1’s DNA. Never mind that the only thing that has consistently been in F1’s DNA since its inception in the 1940s is the cutting-edge technology of the day.
Technology advances, times change. F1 can’t be what it was when you grew up, just as much as pop music can’t be.
Speaking of which, the Shamen knew all those years ago.
Ebeneezer Goode — a song written about e-racing over 20 years before Formula E was a thing.
I have heard it argued that internal combustion engines are what an engineer would still choose to develop. Sorry, but internal combustion engines are not the forefront of technology. I find V8s dull as crap. That’s a solved problem.
But I’m no engineer, so I’m not really qualified to say that. However, we can look at what the world’s biggest automotive engineering firms are doing to get an indication of what they think.
Audi, Citroën, Jaguar, Renault/Nissan and Mahindra are all currently racing in Formula E. BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche will all join in the coming years. Ferrari have dropped a heavy hint that they are interested.
And those are just the household names. Other firms running Formula E teams include Venturi, Penske, NIO and Andretti Autosport. These are all organisations with a strong heritage in either engineering or motorsport. And not all of them are in it for PR or to sell road cars.
This is frankly more manufacturer interest than F1 has had in years — or perhaps ever. Yes, it has the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Renault and McLaren fully signed up. But F1 teams are just as likely to be owned by soft drinks manufacturers, shady investment firms, and businessmen who are literally on the run from the law. All of these people have as much of a background in engineering as I do, which is zero.
If F1 were to go back to V8s in the name of “the show”, it would seal its fate. If technological progress takes a back seat in F1, it will be up to other championships like Formula E to step up. Engineers have already noticed.
The biggest breath of fresh air with Formula E is that there is absolutely no nonsense about tyres. This is F1’s dirtiest vice. A grand prix is now impossible to follow without having a comprehensive spreadsheet detailing what tyres everyone has brought, which of those have been used, for how many laps, and which cars happen to be good on which tyre compounds at this particular circuit in these current temperatures.
I remember trying to explain F1’s arcane tyres rules to a friend, and she was surprised that they couldn’t simply run the whole race on one set of tyres. I had to explain that they could do that, but the rules mean that they cannot. Engineering excellence indeed.
Formula E disposes of all that nonsense. They put one set of tyres on all the cars, in all conditions. Does it cause any problems? If you like your spreadsheets, maybe. But for me, it simply clears the way for pure racing, how it should be.
And another thing. Formula E is a genuinely global championship. The race that’s coming up this weekend is in Marrakesh, in Africa. That’s the world’s second-largest continent, and one that F1 hasn’t deigned to visit since 1993.
Best of all, Formula E will visit Switzerland later this year. That’s a country where circuit racing has been illegal since 1954. Yes. Formula E is so freakin’ cool that they got Switzerland to change the law.
So I will be tuning into this weekend’s Formula E race, just as I have done for every Formula E race so far. Do I know for sure it will be entertaining? No. Is it perfect? Definitely not.
But it won’t have escaped your attention that F1 isn’t exactly perfect at the moment either.
So I’ll continue enjoying both as much as I can.
Just don’t mention fanboost.
For more on why Formula E is great — or at least why it isn’t as bad as you might think, check out Hazel Southwell’s brilliant take-down of Formula E’s critics.