Unless you’ve firmly decided to bury your head in the sand, electric cars are the future of motorsport. It’s completely unavoidable. It’s so set in stone that we now have the Formula E World Championship. Now in its seventh season, Formula E is the only single-seater racing World Championship outside of Formula One. As you read that, you might find it hard to believe that this has been going for seven years because it’s rarely hitting the news for good reasons. Which begs the question. Why is Formula E failing?
History Is Important In Sport
If ever there was a week to make this point, it’s the week that American-owners and financiers tried to create the European Super League. This whole move stomped all over the long history of some of Europe’a biggest football clubs and led to fans protesting in the streets. What drives such a reaction? It’s passion that’s driven by history, and this is what Formula E is very light on.
Formula One Is The Benchmark
While it’s impressive the championship has been running for seven years, that’s a dot on the motorsport timeline. In Formula One, Ferrari provides much of the history the sport needs. Some of the most historic rivalries involved the team with the prancing horse. Senna and Prost in their McLaren cars before Prost moved to Ferrari where the two’s intense rivalry hit new heights. These two motorsport brands alone sit atop the list of Grand Prix winners with over 400 wins between them.
Yet, Formula E doesn’t feature either team. In fact, if you look at the top ten teams to have won Formula One races, only Mercedes features in both championships. Red Bull Racing is a modern-day success story in F1. On the surface, Formula E seems a perfect cross over for them yet the team’s advisor, Helmut Marko, said it’s not a good fit, stating is a team of “racing purists”.
These are the key reasons why Formula E is failing. Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport. If the teams who define the very best in the world do not feature, it’s difficult for the championship to earn credibility.
The good news for Formula E is that the one big Formula One brand to make the leap more recently is currently the best is the business. Mercedes returned to Formula One in 2010 and has been massively dominant since 2014. There’s history and there’s modern history. Mercedes is dominating modern history and has won the Formula One constructors championship seven times in a row, a championship since Formula E began.
Mercedes, racing under the name Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team, have yet to win a championship in Formula E but there presence is worth its weight in gold to the sport. While it’s unlikely Ferrari will join the E-championship any time soon, earlier this year, McLaren confirmed they had signed paperwork that gives them the option to join next year’s competition. McLaren CEO Zak Brown didn’t want to commit completely, instead saying that the “option” approach gives McLaren “the necessary time to decide if Formula E is right […] a future competition platform”.
Another historic Formula One team, Williams, is involved in Formula E and the new Extreme E Championship as a battery manufacturer under the name Williams Advanced Engineering but doesn’t have a competing team as of yet.
While Formula E is all about the future, it needs to absorb more of the past. The reason football fans didn’t want to see their teams going to the European Super League is that it doesn’t mean anything. It has no history. When those motorsport rivalries of old join the sport of the future it will lead to a massive hike in interest.
The Valencia Fiasco
Formula E is like a sport on probation. It doesn’t just have to be ok, it has to be good to the point where people can barely pick holes in the sport. Essentially what I’m saying is, Formula E bosses need to make it really hard for the sport to be criticised. The Saturday racing of this year’s Valencia E-Prix demonstrated the kind of farcical mistake that Formula E simply cannot afford to make.
Just before lights out the race took a turn as the rain poured and Formula E teams dusted off their wet tyres for the first time in nine months. A spate of safety car periods including a late one which meant nearly all teams didn’t have enough energy to complete the race. In the final lap, the race leader changed and just nine drivers officially finished as power limits were hit. The FIA, motorsports governing body, claims the teams miscalculated and pushed too hard. The teams are blaming the FIA for reducing the available power too much following the final safety car.
Regardless of who is to blame for the events of the closing lap in Valencia, it served up Formula E critics the perfect ammunition on a silver platter.
Formula E: The First Track Outing
The Valencia E-Prix was not a regular race on the Formula E calendar. While the track is where the teams do their testing, this was the first time they’d race in anger on a recognised racetrack. Until now, Formula E has raced on City street circuits. Early on Saturday, it was quite the sight to see Formula E cars racing on open tracks and dodging gravel pits. I tuned in and it looked great.
Indeed the entire race has garnered quite a bit of interest and as both existing and new fans tuned in, they were greeted with what many are describing as a farce.
When Formula E started out, energy was a massive issue. Earlier seasons required drivers to pit, jump out of their car and into a second fully charged car to finish the race. The second-generation Formula E car packed enough power into a single battery for a full race. Still, Formula E struggled to shake ridicule from the car swap days. The events of Valencia do little to promote the mission of the sport and win over petrol heads.
It’s Just Not Formula One
Again, attention turns to Formula One. While there are many shared aspects across both sports, even the once divisive halo system critics can only see where Formula E just isn’t Formula One. Attention often turns to the gimmick aspects of Formula E, like Fanboost. This allows fans to vote for a driver to get an extra speed boost during the race. The boost is somewhat insignificant leaving the whole concept flawed in many ways.
Formula E also features Attack Zones where drivers can leave the racing line to get a speed boost. It’s was just like Mario Kart.
Both of these features are visible on the track when the driver’s halo glows a different colour. This is a personal take, but that’s a bit gaudy and the features themselves have “Bernie Ecclestone energy”
Formula E Is Elite With Poor Accessibility To Watch
I started watching Formula One when I was young because it was on terrestrial TV. Network 2 at the time would show Formula One in Ireland. Little did I know that it was only because of Bernie Ecclestone’s “charity” was letting me. RTÉ had secured the broadcast rights for a song because there was an Irish team. Ecclestone believed the people of Ireland should be able to watch and support Jordan F1.
Pay To Watch Only
Today, to watch Formula E in Ireland, you need to subscribe to either Virgin Media Sports or Eurosport. There is no way for people to organically stumble upon the sport. You can argue that Formula One is purely for people who can pay to watch, but again, that sport has dedicated fans and a history which compels people to watch.
Many people in Ireland can only watch the sport if they are paying for Virgin Media broadband and getting sports for free, have a paid subscription to Sky and have Eurosport or are paying for these subscriptions specifically.
Business To Business
The sport itself is massively focused on business. The fact that this is an electric series means that most companies getting involved are simply doing so to be associated with the concept. This is the primary focus of the sport and only in the past year has Formula E started to really focus on merchandise at all. The reason is simple. Fans don’t make the money. Broadcast rights and businesses do.
The obvious rebuttal here is that attending the races is free and prior to the pandemic, Formula E had put on a decent show for the public to attend. But Formula E has just 12 races and some races during “normal times” were sparsely attended. All of this suggests a sport that is struggling to connect with fans, a sport that is left feeling shallow.
What Does Formula E Need To Do?
It might seem obvious, but Formula E just needs to keep going first and foremost. The technology has developed at an incredible rate and continues to do so. While Valencia was a big step, the track did still need to be modified to suit the Formula E cars. The goal for the sport needs to be something like sharing a Formula One race weekend, much like Formula Two does.
Big names like McLaren have to be convinced to join the sport. While the likes of Ferrari is unlikely to be convinced of the merits in joined Formula E any time soon, Red Bull needs to be won over and brought in as soon as possible. Once some of these big names add their clout to the sport, their fans will follow. Hopefully, Formula E becomes more of a headache for top motorsport talent too. Right now, it’s more of a place for drivers to play out the end of their career or to pass some time when they’ve fallen out of favour in Formula One. The obvious example being Stoffel Vandoorne.
Finally, the sport needs to win over the fans. It’s very hard for the person in the street to care about Formula E if they can’t even watch it. We live in an era where attention has become a precious commodity. A commodity as previous as oil used to be. It’s a beautiful metaphor given this is an electric sport looking to replace the sports driven by fossil fuels. But going after attention isn’t easy. TikTok zaps my attention and it doesn’t cost a penny. Formula E is perilously close to online E-sports.
Formula E’s YouTube channel has over 600,000 subscribers. Formula One’s Lando Norris’ Twitch Channel alone has 830,000 subscribers.
Formula E has come a long way, but it’s nowhere near where it needs to be.