So, did you see the race? No, not Canada – although well done Lewis – the other one.
You know, the tense double-header in Berlin? Statistically, you probably didn’t – despite Formula E being one of few motorsport events shown live on free-to-air television in the UK – but it’s fair to say that the electric racing series is working hard on achieving its breakthrough.
Progress has been dramatic. I went to the inaugural London ePrix two years ago and was distinctly underwhelmed. The race was held on a narrow, bumpy course in Battersea Park, between tall concrete barriers that made it seem like it was taking place in a maximum security prison. Spectators could barely see what was going on beyond occasional glimpses of the gawky-looking cars and the atmosphere was as flat as a decade-old battery.
But things have changed. This year, I’ve been to two races of the 12-round championship – Monaco and Berlin – and progress has been dramatic. The on-track action remains similar, the racing is close but the cars still look visibly slow, the modest thrills coming from the proximity of the barriers and occasional optimistic passing moves rather than any sense velocity or risk. And it’s still possible to conduct a conversation next to the track without raising your voice over the sound of whining motors.
Yet Formula E now feels like a proper sport rather than just a gimmick. The grandstands have proper views and – at the races I attended – decent crowds. The one-day schedule with qualifying and the race within hours of each other means that there’s a decent amount of on-track action, despite the lack of any support series. Even the need for drivers to change cars mid-race – because of the limited capacity of the 27kw/h battery pack – adds a bit of strategy to the mix. Formula E promoter Alejandro Agag admits he is considering how to keep the need for a pit stop in the 50-minute races once the series switches to a bigger McLaren-developed battery in 2018. He also wants to bring a race back to London and is negotiating with the Royal Parks to allow a course to include The Mall past Buckingham Palace.
But the bigger change is the one happening in corporate boardrooms, with manufacturers realising that Formula E is the only motorsport available to promote their rush into electric mobility. Although the technical regulations are currently very restrictive with shared batteries, chassis and front suspension, they are set to be freed up in forthcoming seasons. While new car makers are piling in, others are increasing their investments – I travelled to Berlin with Audi, which has just signed an extension of its deal with the Abt team and will switch to full works branding next year.
It’s still not clear where Formula E fits into motorsport more widely. It’s got the money to pay its drivers – Agag says that everybody gets a cheque – and that has attracted some decent talent. But in terms of performance it still feels far closer to a feeder series than a pinnacle, with clear space above it for a quicker and more exciting e-motorsport to evolve. The official line is that Formula E is aimed at an audience with no previous exposure to racing, but it would be nice if it could become a sport capable of thrilling combustion-loving dinosaurs like me as well.