Formula One is in the doldrums. The turbo-powered cars have lost their spark, they sound like diesels, we’re in an era of Mercedes dominance and the crowds are voting with their feet. There’s a window of opportunity here, and Formula E is ready and waiting to take the crowds, the sponsors and the glory.
But just because the public is switching off from Grand Prix racing, that doesn’t mean they’re going to swarm in Formula E’s direction. This fledgling race series really needs to get its own house in order. It’s on the path, but it’s got a long way to go.
First, the good news. The championship is just two years old and a lot of the basics are there. The 200kW cars look the absolute business, every bit as advanced as a modern F1 car, and the one-make formula guarantees close racing.
Renault, Jaguar and Mahindra are already involved, Red Bull, Virgin and Andretti Motorsports has a team and Venturi is involved. The zero emissions aspect is also a great sell to sponsors.
The series runs in city centers and that is an Ace in the hole. This was a smart move as the crowds don’t need to come to the race. The race goes to them and it becomes a cultural event. Seriously, Formula One can and is learning from this.
The 2017 calendar looks like this:
October 9 Hong Kong
November 12 Marrakech
January 28 Mexico City
February 25 Buenos Aires
March 25 Long Beach
April 22 Singapore
May 13 Monaco
May 27 Paris
June 10 Brussels
June 24 Berlin
July 15-16 Montreal
July 29-30 New York
These are good venues, especially when Formula One is chasing shady money in Eastern European backwaters.
There’s one kickass addition that we think is the missing link in F1, too, almost. The virtual Las Vegas race will let a handful of competitors take on the series regulars on a virtual circuit with simulators. Formula E is looking at a serious cash prize of up to $1 million.
This could generate the same excitement as basketball’s $1 million shot. It’s awesome, but it’s not enough.
Now the bad news
So that’s the good news. In two years Formula E has gone from a running joke into a serious international racing championship and it keeps getting better. When the cars launched for the first time there were almost no sponsors to be seen. Now the likes of Visa and Tag Heuer have trackside signage and BMW has sponsored the Berlin race.
But what does Formula E need to do to close the gap on Formula One? It’s right there, almost. It’s the audience participation.
On any given Sunday there is so much entertainment clamouring for attention. So you need a compelling reason, not just a general interest, to tune in to Formula E. If you’re racing for the title and there’s big money at stake, there’s your reason…
In an age of autonomous cars and Virtual Reality, we can surely do this. We have the basic technology to pitch the best drivers in the world against a kid in his home with a steering wheel, a VR-equipped phone and a burning ambition.
Now imagine millions of people at home, all fighting for a global prize fund? It would be insane.
Is this technically possible?
It’s almost there. You can log on to Forza Motorsport 6 before the race and set a hot lap. The top 10 go into an actual virtual race and the winners will inevitably head to Las Vegas to fight it out with the race drivers.
It’s a work in progress, but they need to work on it and open every race up to people at home.
It’s not simple and we might need to start with delayed races, downloading all the info from the end of the race and feeding it into a gaming engine. Eventually, though, this should be a live event.
The FIA and Gran Turismo are already on the same path. They have launched a digital racing licence to separate the wheat from the chaff and it can only be heading towards a global championship. Now putting the general public into a real life event as it happens is a serious step beyond this, of course, but it’s worth the time and money it will take.
Formula E would have its following, overnight, from the gaming community. It would be on every forum, it would be huge news and the eSport itself would garner global coverage. eSports are big business, the sponsors would love them and either a small entry fee or a big sponsorship deal could generate the money to make it happen and more besides.
Electric racing needs star power
Then Formula E needs to plough that money into step two: star drivers.
People don’t tune in to Formula One to watch Mercedes vs Ferrari. It becomes part of the narrative, but they tune in to watch Lewis Hamilton vs Sebastian Vettel. They tuned into Schumacher vs Hakkinen, Senna vs Prost and Lauda vs Hunt. It has always been that way.
The crowds need heroes and in Formula E they have, ummm, Sebastien Buemi. He’s good, but there’s no getting away from the fact he’s an F1 cast-off. It was the same with Nick Heidfeld, Nelson Piquet Jr and Stephane Sarrazin. Then there’s Lucas di Grassi, Alain Prost’s less talented son Nicolas and Sam Bird.
Formula E might give us the party line, the series is the star, but that’s not good enough. It needs to attract top talent and not just the drivers that couldn’t cut it in F1. Right now, that defines it as tier two motorsport.
Loic Duval won the Le Mans 24 Hours and he’s in the series. Hopefully it’s the start of an influx of top drivers from different championships around the world.
Football needs Ronaldo and Messi, athletics needs Usain Bolt and Formula One needs Hamilton, whatever you think of his personal style. Formula E needs to find its own stars, which is hard, or pay through the nose and bring the best names to electric racing.
FanBoost is not good for Formula E
There are other things that need to change if Formula E is going to get ahead. FanBoost has to go. The three most popular drivers that get the most votes get short bursts of extra power during the race. It’s been in force since the start, but it’s a terrible idea.
Voting for a driver to get additional boost in a race brings the whole integrity of the competition into question. Racing purists hate it and the general public don’t get it. It’s an artificial way to spice up races and turning top level motorsport into a social media popularity contest is just bizarre.
Please, make it stop.
Car swaps mid-race are terrible
Swapping cars mid-race is another thing that makes the sport look a laughing stock. Right now there’s a mandatory pit-stop, which is fine. The driver must undo their belts, get into a second car and go again. This is not fine.
We get it, the cars won’t go the full distance for the final endurance race. So Formula E should have shorter races.
Don’t make the driver jump out of one car and into another during a pit-stop. What’s next? Spinning on the spot 20 times and pinning a tail on the donkey before you get into the second car? It looks like a childish party game and it detracts from the sport’s professional image.
Battery tech should have caught up by now, we have battery packs that will last the distance. Use them, or change the format.
Push the high-tech identity
Aside from that Formula E just needs to embrace its own high-tech appeal that little bit more and go for audience participation. If it really does that, then the crowds, international TV deals and big money sponsors will follow.
The star drivers will be drawn like moths to the flame by the smell of big money and Formula E really could be in with a chance of turning over Formula One.
There’s a real opportunity right now, we just hope that Formula E can step up to the plate and take it.