When I interviewed Alejandro Agag at Sportel Monaco, the annual trade fair for the sports broadcast industry, late in 2013, it was hard not to be a touch sceptical about Formula E, the proposed all-electric series he, as frontman, was busy introducing to TV executives and agencies. Yes, there was a show car present and, yes, Agag was impressive in outlining his vision for the championship, but launching an international motorsport series is some undertaking at the best of times; to launch one that intended to utilise entirely new technology seemed almost fanciful.
Having covered A1GP – or more specifically the business of A1GP – between 2005 and its demise in 2009, it was hard not to draw parallels as Agag explained his grand commercial plan for his new electric baby: the ambition was impressive, but the substance was still to appear.
Formula E’s launch event, champagne-fuelled and heavy on dry ice, at London’s Camden Roundhouse last summer was also highly reminiscent of A1GP’s lavish, seemingly-money-no-object hospitality arrangements. Nothing wrong with that, but A1GP was somehow never quite able to prove there was any solidity beneath the style; it started brightly, but, as history shows, did not end well.
At the end of a largely positive first season, Formula E, whisper it, appears in much better shape. It is a series with a purpose – the promotion of green technology in city vehicles – where A1GP, with its teams competing in national colours, simply had a strapline: the World Cup of Motorsport. Fun as it was for aficionados, it didn’t say enough about why the series was adding a crowded motorsport landscape and an even more cluttered sporting schedule.
And where, at times, A1GP chose to benchmark itself against Formula One – as a rival or possible future rival – Formula E’s leadership, led by Agag and Jean Todt, the president of the FIA, world motorsport’s governing body, have been cute in their consistent line that the two championships should not be compared, despite the attempts by some in the sponsorship industry and mainstream media to do just that – however well-meaning and headline-grabbing, Sir Richard Branson’s suggestion this weekend that Formula E, in which he runs a team, will have overtaken Formula One in five years, is unhelpful to a series still finding its feet.
After the first Formula E event in Beijing last September, I wrote a piece for SportsPro offering my armchair verdict. Much of it still holds true now, nine events on, and with the first champion, Nelson Piquet Jr., now crowned after Sunday’s dramatic three-way title decider.
The Formula E cars may lack in outright performance compared to other forms of international motorsport but, importantly, they look tricky to drive and have kept the drivers busy behind the wheel. The racing has been fun and made for good television. The calibre of drivers attracted by the series has been impressive, too, a legacy of the small number of seats available in top-level championships around the world, although the line-up has chopped and changed by the race; keeping tabs with who is racing when has not been the work of a moment.
The big gaps, sometimes as long as two months, between races in this first season must be eradicated for season two but while the scheduling was imperfect, a huge amount of credit must go to series organisers for navigating the political and logistical challenges of setting up ten new street circuits in major world cities like Miami, Berlin and Moscow. That work should not be underestimated. There were occasional problems with the all-new layouts, such as turn one at Battersea Park this weekend, but nothing insurmountable.
One misstep, however, was the decision to race in Monaco. Understandable from a commercial standpoint, even a shortened circuit that took in about half of the Formula One track showed up the vast and, for Formula E unflattering, difference in performances between the two categories; far more effective were the city centre events in Moscow, passing by the Kremlin, or downtown Miami, where the track circled the local NBA arena. (I’m not sure, either, that the narrow Battersea Park venue, scene of this weekend’s London finale, was the wisest choice; does a series which leans so heavily on its green principles taking over a public park for a weekend send out the right message?)
Evidently, the series has been marketed impressively – both the central organisers and the ten teams have done a sterling job in that respect – and, although easier to implement in a start-up championship than an established property, the efforts to make Formula E as accessible as possible for fans has been a major plus.
Careful attention, meanwhile, has been paid to making the series financially viable for teams and many of those teams have been able to sell the premise of the championship to sponsors. Fox’s decision this weekend to renew its US broadcast deal until 2020 (with the caveat that there are a minimum of eight races per season) is as positive a sign as the investments in the series itself by Liberty Global and Discovery.
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That’s a bad joke, but the major flaw in Formula E’s first season was the clumsy need for drivers to switch cars midway through a race, simply because the technology which would allow batteries to be recharged mid-race does not yet exist.
It’s a problem the series acknowledges – at least to an extent – and it had the potential to weaken its overarching message about the merits of electric vehicle use; it seems, though, that the novelty factor of the first year has allowed Formula E to avoid taking too much flak on that subject; it’s a good sign and suggests a willingness to give the series a chance.
The battery issue underlined that what we’ve watched in this first season was effectively a very public test of a lot of very new technology.
Some other innovations were more miss than hit. I’ll never be convinced that Fan Boost, where the most popular drivers are given extra power during a race, is a good idea but it’s likely here to stay and helps the teams and series with fan engagement in the build-up to events. At least the musical soundtrack that accompanied the opening race in Beijing was toned down as the first season wore on.
It doesn’t quite get full marks, but as first seasons go Formula E’s has been undeniably impressive. Now for the potentially tricky transition from novelty series to established championship.