Strange times in Formula E as we enter 2021. The seventh season of the electric single-seater series is about to begin and for the first time it carries FIA World Championship status. If you doubt the significance of that, just ask anyone who has been crowned world champion in the World Endurance Championship what it means.
On social media recently, Fernando Alonso was pictured behind Alain Prost, with a caption stating that they share six world titles between them. Alonso was quick to clarify that it should have read six Formula 1 titles: he’s also a world champion in sports cars from his time with Toyota and, make no mistake, that counts – just as it will for the first Formula E world champion.
But just as Formula E grows in status, the series has faced an abrupt reality check. Usually, news from the series centres on yet another major car maker taking the EV bait, dumping traditional motorsport and signing up for the hottest ticket in town. But last month, in the space of three days, Audi and then BMW announced that they will pull the plug on Formula E after 2021, just as the teams were camped out in Valencia for pre-season testing on a smooth, traditional circuit that bore zero relation to the bumpy, point-and-squirt street tracks for which the series is known. Just to add to the oddity, BMW dropped its bombshell on the same day its talented young German, Maximilian Günther, had topped the test. What on earth was going on?
A drama, not a crisis
Electric racing naysayers – and, let’s face it, there are plenty of them – revelled in this apparent fall from grace, especially as Audi’s announcement also included the fantastic news that it’s returning to the WEC with a contender in the new LMDh class and, somewhat less predictably, is plotting a Dakar Rally campaign.
But while it will withdraw its factory support for the Abt-run Formula E effort, Audi will continue to supply powertrains to customers that currently include the Envision Virgin team. Likewise, BMW might do similar after pulling its support for Michael Andretti’s squad after just two seasons, although the cold statement that it has “exhausted the opportunities” to develop EV technology in Formula E was a damning indictment of what’s supposedly the series’ raison d’être.
So is this the start of an alarming domino effect? Will the big-beast car makers that are left – DS, Jaguar, Mercedes, Nissan and Porsche – soon cascade out? So far, both Stuttgart firms have pledged continuing allegiance, although the pressure to check a growth in costs by introducing an F1-style budget cap has increased. But now here’s a chance to test the boast that other manufacturers are waiting in the wings when opportunity knocks.