Formula E: the verdict

15 September 2014 | Posted in SportsPro Blog | By David Cushnan | Contact the author

Formula E: the verdict

It was somehow fitting that the first FIA Formula E race was won by Lucas di Grassi.

The Brazilian, who drove in Formula One for Virgin Racing in 2010 and has since carved out a successful career in endurance racing, has been the electric series’ primary development driver over the past two years, demonstrating and helping to fine-tune the new, potentially revolutionary technology at its heart.

In the wider world, however, di Grassi’s victory will not be remembered for long, if at all. The spectacular, not to mention scary, final corner accident between leader Nicolas Prost, son of four-time Formula One world champion Alain, and former Formula One driver Nick Heidfeld was far more effective. Just as with the first event of A1GP, the last major motorsport championship start-up in 2005, Formula E’s first day generated coverage on news bulletins and in newspapers largely thanks to an aerial accident in which the driver emerged unscathed. In purely marketing terms, it was something of a gift.

Overall, this was a successful debut for Formula E, its frontman, Spanish entrepreneur Alejandro Agag, and the FIA, world motorsport’s governing body which, under the leadership of president Jean Todt, has pushed through the start of this series at a time when the technology involved is largely untried and unproven. The first event, on the streets of Beijing, was by no means perfect, but there were many positives.

First and foremost, as Heidfeld proved when he was launched into the catch-fencing, the cars, built by a consortium involving Renault, McLaren and Williams, are strong and safe. They are also, save for a few inevitable teething problems during qualifying and the 25 lap race, extremely reliable – few would have predicted that 16 of the 20 entries would be classified at the finish, given the lack of serious testing and development time. Performance-wise, the cars are no match for Formula One or even GP2 – and for viewers attuned to watching races where cars get faster as the fuel level drops, seeing Formula E cars getting slower as batteries drained will take some getting used to – but the understanding of how to get the maximum from the cars will surely develop rapidly from now on.

Spanish entrepreneur Alejandro Agag has been the driving force behind Formula E

As with Formula One’s new hybrid breed, the sound of Formula E cars – a futuristic and occasionally shrill whirring to this ear – will divide viewers. Despite the comparative lack of speed, they looked tricky to drive, especially on an unforgiving and temporary street circuit. The driver line-up, too, is strong with several well-known names – a Prost, a Senna and a Piquet to name but three – in the line-up, alongside some old pros from Formula One, like Heidfeld, Jarno Trulli and Takuma Sato.

The much-trailed change of cars during the race was, as many had predicted, clunky and presents the series with its biggest current problem. The aim of Formula E is to educate and attract a youthful audience to the merits of electric vehicles: that the technology is not yet advanced enough to allow for in-race charging and that drivers are forced to jump between cars after a handful of laps does not, frankly, send a message that this is a form of transport worth switching to. Formula E organisers are aware of the issue and there are plans, as battery technology develops, for charging lanes to be introduced. In the first season, however, it will be a tricky thing for the series to sell. The driver changes, which took place in the temporary garages in Beijing for safety reasons, were also badly covered by the live broadcast, which will need to be rectified.

Formula E will ultimately live or die by its broadcast coverage, appeal and audience. In Beijing, it was a mixed bag. The world feed pairing of Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti provided good, enthusiastic and informed commentary to the English-speaking world and the coverage in general clearly took many of its cues from Formula One, especially in terms of graphics. A series based around new technology, however, will in future need more explanation, be it from commentators or on-screen. Gimmicks live Fan Boost, where three drivers were given additional power via an online vote, may or may not engage a younger audience, but after the initial announcement about which drivers had been successful there was little coverage of when and where the boost was used.

Drivers from ten teams took part in the inaugural race, won by Virgin Racing's Lucas di Grassi

The biggest bugbear of the coverage, however, was the use of thumping music over portions of the race, provided, viewers were informed, by a helmeted, anonymous ‘EJ’ located in the paddock. The ‘EJ’ smacked of an idea drawn up and thrown around by a group of marketing consultants with a brief to attract a young audience. It may have enhanced the live experience at the venue but as a part of the broadcast it simply didn’t work. And if it was part of a plan to somehow mask the lack of traditional engine noise, then Formula E’s organisers should have more confidence in the product they have created and its wider aim of generating interest in electric vehicles, because there were plenty of positives on show in Beijing.

In the immediate aftermath of the first event the FIA, understandably keen to push the series and its green credentials, said an estimated television audience of 40 million had watched the Beijing ePrix and that the race had generated one billion social media interactions. Both figures are surely exaggerated – ITV4’s peak audience on a Saturday morning in the UK was 700,000 – but, regardless, the real test for Formula E will be how many viewers return for the second event in Malaysia when the novelty will have faded somewhat. An unfortunate calendar kerfuffle, however, means that race two is not for two months. Momentum will be lost – even Heidfeld’s aerobatics will be a distant memory for the casual viewer Formula E is trying to attract. After two years of planning and preparation, it seems Formula E will require an immediate recharge.

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