The FIA’s all-electric single-seater series, Formula E, was always going to draw unrealistic comparisons with the commonly accepted ‘pinnacle of motorsport’, Formula 1.
However, in the first three seasons of its lifespan, the series has found a niche in the market to exploit, centred around its message of sustainability whilst retaining the technical development, adrenaline-rush and strategic contest that encourages tens of millions of viewers to motorsport every year.
A championship that once attracted F1’s forgotten hopefuls or journeymen now stands as one of the most attractive marketing campaigns for car companies the world over to align themselves with; sustainability and efficiency.
Many who were once sceptics have been humbled, particularly in light of Mercedes scrapping its long-standing, successful and well-established DTM programme to pool resources behind an entry into the championship in 2019, whilst an entry for BMW from the same date joins existing involvement from manufacturers Renault, Audi, Jaguar and DS.
For those unfamiliar with the category, Formula E runs an unusual format in that practice, qualifying and the ‘ePrix’ are all run as a single-day event, exclusively on temporary street circuits as opposed to purpose-built venues in some of the world’s most famous and iconic cities – New York, London, Beijing, Paris, Monaco and, for the upcoming season, Rome and Zurich.
Drivers are forced to use two separate but identical cars over the course of a race due to the current limit on battery capabilities, but to all extents and purposes this is an ‘electric F1’, whilst social media engagement is also a key strategy for organisers through the introduction of schemes such as ‘Fan Boost’, whereby spectators trackside and internationally through the TV coverage (Channel 5 in the UK) can vote for their favourite competitors, entitling them to additional power for a limited time during the race.
Motorsport is expensive, but in justification amongst car manufacturers there’s an old saying; “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”. For the most part, the logic behind the statement is fairly sound – Mercedes spend about £265 million on their Formula 1 activities every year, but their dominance of the sport and resulting association with reliability, performance and innovation is likely to have helped recuperate that fee from consumers.
For car companies, Formula E is an easy decision, an opportunity to align themselves not only with the public conscience of sustainability, but also to pursue the development of technology that could secure their future in an ever-changing market. If ‘green’ cars are to become the future, corporate giants risk being left behind by not getting involved at any early stage, and where better to start than motorsport, where the science is developed at an aggressive rate to match the competition on-circuit?
That decision is only strengthened by the quality of Formula E’s competition, with each of the last three seasons producing a title battle spanning multiple drivers and teams, a plotline Formula 1’s V6-hybrid era can only dream of. True, Sebastian Buemi (Renault e.dams) and Lucas di Grassi (Audi Abt) have established themselves as the monoliths of the sport by sharing the last two championship battles and a large share of the race victories, but performances from emerging stars such as Felix Rosenqvist and Britain’s Sam Bird continue to keep the playing field level enough to be attractive for incoming teams, competitors, sponsors and manufacturers.
To summarise, the package effectively being offered to the car companies of the world is a competitive, attractive motorsport series that prides itself on achieving growth in both the cities of the world and through social media thanks to targeted media and logistics strategies – where better to try and sell a green method of transport than in a congested metropolis? At the same time, the competition enables manufacturers to aggressively develop technology that can be transposed onto their roadgoing vehicles, such as improved battery and powertrain packages, whilst also engaging in the sport their commercial existence revolves so crucially around.
Will Formula E ever develop enough to surpass Formula 1? Unless the latter is eventually rendered exitinct through the lack of resources to support it, be that finances or fossil fuels, it doesn’t look likely. F1 has dominated the motorsport market for over six decades and exists as one of the highest-grossing sporting events in the world. Everyone aspires to join the elite – even if Formula E has made a name for itself, it’s not capable of challenging the establishment yet.