Electric avenue: Formula E

With excellent eco-credentials, the popularity of Formula E is gaining pace among drivers, big car brands and spectators

Motoring 6 Jun 2019

Race two of this season in January was held in the heart of Marrakesh
Major innovations in electric car technology can quickly be transferred to consumer vehicles

Formula 1, with its long-established reputation of decadence and glamour, has been recognised as the pinnacle of motorsport for almost 70 years. Yet there’s a new kid on the block threatening the establishment with great racing, great parties and great environmental credentials – because all the cars are electric. Formula E is relatively newborn, certainly in relation to Formula 1, but it looks like it’s here to stay, and with 13 races in 12 cities over five continents this year, it’s aiming for the crown.

Founded by the Spanish entrepreneur, Alejandro Agag, Formula E is now into its fifth and arguably most important season. The teething problems of the start-up championship have been smoothed out and there is an emerging familiarity to the race day that can only come with time and organic growth. That’s not to say Formula E has not been appealing and inviting almost from its inception. The credit for that is in large part down to Agag himself. The antithesis of the gruff Bernie Ecclestone, Agag is bright and vibrant with deep reservoirs of charm. As much as Ecclestone’s personality has had a way of infusing the character of F1 itself, FE somehow seems to wear the charisma and approachability of its main man, Agag. Sitting in the Emotion Club, Formula E’s version of the Formula 1 Paddock Club, for the second race of the season this year, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between the two global championships. It’s also not too difficult to identify some key ingredients that have helped Formula E’s lightning-quick rise to prominence.

First is the location of the race itself. Back in January, for race two, we were in the heart of Marrakesh, racing on its streets and not some far-flung barren racetrack miles from civilisation. Since then the race has graced Mexico City, Rome, Paris and Hong Kong, to name but a few, with the next due in Berlin on 25 May. This is one of Formula E’s unique attractions. It holds its events in some of the world’s great metropolises and is welcomed with open arms by mayors and local governments, often with a vocal aversion to cars, to set up shop and race around their cities. The reasons for this seemingly unlikely scenario are multiple. The championship comes with a gold standard for environmental awareness that has an eco-friendly halo effect on the host city.

The one-day race format is also conducive to a weekend that is not too time-consuming for spectators. A group of friends could watch a race in the city centre and still have time to see the sights during a weekend away. A well-scheduled calendar and luck have also blessed Formula E with an incredible run of dry, hot and sunny race days. Ironically, the only race to date that has had any rain was in the normally bone dry Saudi Arabia. The racing cars are also not too noisy due to their electric powertrains and do not bring the surroundings to a deafening standstill. It’s a relief to actually have normal conversations at an event and not resort to the usual earplugs and sign language.

Elizabeth Hurley, one of the series’ frequent celebrity attendees, who was present in Morocco, knows what she prefers: ‘I hate the noise in Formula 1. It is awful.’ The fact that we are having this conversation by the pits amplifies the point. She also notes some of the other appealing aspects Formula E has over its rivals: ‘I think girls feel welcome here. It’s friendly and inviting’. And that’s not just for the rich and famous. The fans in Marrakesh seem to cover a wide demographic and the number of families having a day out is conspicuous. What they get here and at the other races is an open access environment with drivers relaxed and as likely to be hanging out in the Emotion Club or mingling with the public in between stints on the track. These are the same drivers who, back in Formula 1, would have been a largely mythical presence in the shadows, ushered quickly in and out of blacked-out motorhomes. The fame and calibre of the drivers are impressive and is certainly a big draw for the fans. Names like Felipe Massa this year joining the ranks of other recognisable drivers such as Nelson Piquet Jr and Jean-Éric Vergne. The manufacturers are also flocking to Formula E with alacrity.

The number of big car brands competing in Formula E is unprecedented in the sport and continuing to grow, with Mercedes and Porsche recently signing up to join the likes of Jaguar, Audi, Nissan and BMW. The reason they are falling over themselves to get involved is that FE is a genuine test-bed for the future. Electric power is clearly here to stay and will increasingly feature in our road cars, yet some of the major innovations in this field are in software. Advances in this area can be turned around to consumers very quickly and teams are citing a real-time transition from track technology to road cars in just 18 to 24 months, vastly quicker than the journey to the street for mechanical developments. The big brands playing in the Formula E sandpit also get to show off their eco-credentials and get direct access to the buying public in the cities that consume their products.

On track at the Marrakesh E-Prix and the racing gods have been smiling again on Formula E. The 45-minute race in the new Gen2 cars has been genuinely thrilling with a heart-stopping last lap that for a brief moment even silences the merriment in the Emotion Club. The usual procedure post-race in other championships is normally podium, back slaps, followed by a mass exodus home, however, this being Formula E and still only Saturday evening in a major city, the enjoyment does not stop and there is still an extra gear to find. This is where CEO Agag shines again as he doubles up as host at a Moroccan-themed dinner at the ultra-luxurious Amanjena resort. The goal seems to be to outdo the big party marker laid down by Orlando Bloom and Leonardo DiCaprio at last year’s celebration. After a rousing speech by Agag, the festivities begin and another E-Prix is brought to a close in a fashion that would make James Hunt proud.

It’s not hard to be optimistic about Formula E’s future. And if its environmental credentials don’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, the after-party certainly will.