Formula E provides thrilling wheel-to-wheel racing but with a fraction of the emissions and noise
That was despite the fact that its inaugural season left little to be desired conceptually, visiting 10 different host cities including Buenos Aires, Long Beach in Miami, Berlin and Moscow. Two former F1 drivers battled it out for the first title with Nelson Piquet Jr pipping Sebastian Buemi by a single point. Both remain forerunners of the sport.
When you consider there are also drivers like Nick Heidfeld, Jerome d’Ambrosio and Lucas Di Grassi as well as team principals that include Alain Prost, Allan McNish and perhaps in 2019 Nico Rosberg, the sport did not want for motor racing pedigree.
But like any new series, it was still finding its feet and working out exactly what it was in an already crowded marketplace of motor sport series.
Formula E may not have the top speed of F1 but the racing is through the centre of the cities
Now it seems to have filled itself out: like an awkward, gangly teenager who has grown into a bristling, confident young adult, so too Formula E is on the verge of punching along with the super-powers of motor sport.
Last weekend’s instalment saw the series head to Marrakesh for the second time; the exotic location convinced Orlando Bloom to hold his 41st birthday party there the night before and spend an hour or two during race day on track, his passion for speed obvious when he stepped out of the car to announce he was “gutted” not to have pushed himself faster.
He wasn’t the only Hollywood celebrity on show, with Leonardo Di Caprio, an attendee at the Friday night shindig, wandering around as in cognito as possible while filming a climate change documentary that follows on from his “Before The Flood” offering of 2016.
The green lobby is, understandably, strong in Formula E. The relatively noiseless cars allow the sport to occupy city centre spaces and the consequent lack of need for earplugs makes it a much cleaner and friendlier event than a weekend of F1 racing. As a cheesy advert might have it, these cars are always running in clean air.
But perhaps nothing signals more Formula E’s readiness to step up another level than the investment of ABB, a Swiss tech multinational whose name now adorns the championship’s title, but whose involvement will go further than merely a nine-figure sponsorship cheque and a few hats with their name on it. (There are hats too though.)
Alejandro Agag, Formula E’s extremely well-connected CEO, counts Flavio Briatore among his friends and if there was a better company fit out there, you know he would have found it.
You might never have heard of ABB; in fact, I’m almost certain if you live in the UK that you haven’t. But the chances are you have used one of their services. Only Siemens move more electricity globally than they do, and when it comes to electric car charging points, they are the world leaders. In Davos later this month at the World Economic Forum, their electric buses will do much of the heavy lifting when the dignitaries arrive.
ABB’s sponsorship of Formula E is as much as sign of its growth as anything else
It makes sense then that they would get in bed with the electrified racing series, which at present sees each driver use two cars per race, jumping out of the first when the battery is depleted and getting into the second in a frantic dash across the garage.
But the concept of faster charging times – it currently takes more than half an hour to get one of the Formula E cars from flat to fully charged – could revolutionise the series from a sporting point of view. An ability to charge a car in less than 30 seconds would give teams all manner of different strategy options.
There is even a project to allow wireless charging on the move, that would allow cars to simply drive over a charging point and receive a boost of energy through an electromagnetic transfer of electricity.
And that’s where Formula E, which is still a way off catching its older cousin, is ahead of F1. Red Bull boss Christian Horner was recently asked on TV what road car manufacturers were learning from his sport. His reply was that F1 bears “no relation” to the consumer car industry. Formula E is not only relevant but is now directly involved in the development of electric car technology through ABB, who could use the series as a sandbox and a showcase for some of their more revolutionary ideas. Even the tyres are familiar to the viewer at home; they are 18-inch Michelin road tyres, not 13-inch slicks, and run in all conditions.
The show too is catching up: more than 50,000 attended the Mexico City ePrix last year; the online data shows that global interest has gone up every season and the inclusion of Kamui Kobyashi at the Hong Kong ePrix opened the sport to a whole new Japanese audience – the former F1 driver received the crowd-sourced “Fan Boost” during both races.
The racing is perhaps unparalleled in motor sport with cars able to follow each other at close range almost without any performance drop-off and the drivers are pushed to their limit: Paul Di Resta, whose CV proves there are few more experienced pairs of hands, found that out during his rookie test for Jaguar.
“The cars move around a lot more, you can see that when you’re driving them,” Di Resta told Express Sport.
“But anything that’s on the edge is fun to drive.
“You can see the guys bouncing off the walls, touching them or even scraping the stickers off the wall, trying to get a lap time out of it.
“That’s what the enjoyment is of any motor sport. When you’re on the edge, it’s still a thrill.”
1 of 20
That said, the sport is still lacking the blood and guts that old-school motor racing fans, the sort who want their cars as loud and dirty as possible, will always want. The speeds are nowhere near other series, although that means the run-off areas are limited and fans are far closer to the action than they ever are elsewhere.
The event day itself, even with two free practice sessions, qualifying, super pole and the 40-minute race packed into 10 hours, still feels a little bare. That will be partially rectified when Jaguar start running their iBase series on the undercard of Formula E’s main event next year: fans will hope that the performance SUV series will spark one or two others to fill out the day.
But the product is strong. The races involve plenty of pushing and shoving, enough speed to get the blood up and almost never lack for drama. Marrakesh saw young Swede Felix Rosenqvist produce a brilliant overtake on Buemi to take the lead in the closing stages and seal his second win of the season. Those two, along with Virgin’s Sam Bird, look set for a season-long battle for the title.
The question remains though: can Formula E start to eat into F1’s market share? It certainly has all the makings, and with Mercedes and Porsche set to join the party, we might be less than 12 months away from an explosion of interest.