The fifth Formula E season gets underway in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, but will it be worth watching?
Since its inception in 2014, the all-electric racing series Formula E has split opinion. For motorsport purists, the absence of an exhaust note and the relatively slow speeds has left plenty to be desired, but Formula E has never aimed to please mainstream motorsport fans. Instead, it has looked to develop new audiences, take its racing to the people and spread a message of sustainability through racing. Ahead of its fifth season, it boasts more manufacturer teams than Formula One and appears to be positioning itself as the obvious end-game for motorsport technology. So is it time to take Formula E seriously?
Season five of Formula E, which will visit 12 different countries ahead of the season finale in New York next July, offers an all-new car, revised regulations to mix up the racing and batteries that can last an entire race. For the sport's chairman, Alejandro Agag, the last of those changes represents Formula E's "big moment" as it finally breaks free of one of its biggest criticisms. For the first four years of the championship, drivers had to swap their entire car at a pit stop in order to replenish the battery, but the Gen 2 Formula E car has the power to complete a race of 45 minutes plus one lap.
"When we started, the technology was not there to do a whole race with one battery," Agag told ESPN in a recent interview. "The battery didn't last long enough for these race cars, so we decided to do the race with two cars -- the driver would start in one car and when the battery was getting flat he would continue with the second car and finish the race.
"We have done that for four years and now in year five we are going to change the system from two cars to one car to do the whole race. This will show how much the technology has improved and how much we have achieved in this short period of time in terms of energy density and in terms of technology development that can then be used in the cars people drive every day.
"I think that is the big success of Formula E, to continue to be a laboratory in terms of the development of technology in order to showcase to the public that electric cars are going longer and are going faster every year."
Is Formula E a rival to F1?
Concerns over air quality in cities has led a number of governments to pledge a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars in the coming decades. Norway is aiming for a ban by 2025, France, Ireland and the Netherlands by 2030 and the UK is targeting a cut-off point of 2040. It is no surprise then that emission-free vehicles are big business. Technology is advancing rapidly and an increase in charging points has led to a new way of thinking about electric cars.
Formula E aims to latch on to that movement and has a deal with the FIA to keep its position as the only all-electric single-seater series until 2039. Agag has claimed that that will mean Formula One will not be able go electric in the next 20 years even if it wanted to, and it's no surprise that so many manufacturers have chosen to invest in the series. Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes, Nissan, Mahindra and Citroen's DS brand all either have a team in this year's championship or are affiliated with one, while Porsche is due to join the grid for season six. For Agag, the key for Formula E's future is not to challenge F1 directly but become the most "relevant" racing series for the real world.
"I think the future of the industry is going electric, so I think Formula E will be the championship that is related to the car industry," he said. "In that sense it will be the most relevant championship in terms of transfer of technology, but I don't know if it will be the biggest championship -- I am a big admirer of Formula One.
"Who knows what the future will hold. I think these electric cars are going to go faster and faster and maybe there will be a confluence between Formula One and Formula E, but at this stage it is still very early to say."
As impressive of the Gen 2 cars are, if you turn on Saturday's race you won't be treated to cars performing at the levels even close to a Formula One car. The top speed of the Gen 2 car is said to be over 170mph, but the nature of the circuits means they are unlikely to ever reach that speed in wheel-to-wheel competition. All-weather tyres and relatively low levels of downforce mean cornering speeds are not particularly impressive, but once again, Agag is keen to distance his series from the top level of motorsport.
"We don't see Formula E as competition to Formula One in any sense," he said. "Of course, if we wanted to reduce the lap times we would change to slicks -- only the change of tyres would bring lap times down three, four or five seconds a lap. But that is not the objective, the objective is to make technology that makes sense for electric mobility."
The jury is still out over whether that makes for exciting racing. This year a new "Attack Mode" will see drivers unlock a power boost by driving off the racing line, while "Fan Boost" remains to allow viewers to give their favourite drivers a extra power via a vote on social media. Such initiatives will be seen as gimmicks by motorsport purists, but if they help enhance the spectacle and encourage engagement then is that such a bad thing?
Saudi Arabia race 'a contradiction'
Why is the Formula E season starting in Saudi Arabia?
Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag explains the reasons behind kicking off the season in Saudi Arabia.
For a series that prides itself on being a cornerstone of the electric vehicle revolution, it may seem odd that the season is kicking off in oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Formula E claims the decision to race there ties in with Saudi Arabia's "Vision 2030", which is aimed at reducing the Kingdom's dependency on oil over the coming decade. Combined with Saudi Arabia lifting its ban on women drivers this year, Agag says the goals of the series are in line with the objectives of the host nation of Saturday's season opener.
"It's true that Saudi Arabia is the biggest oil-producing nation in the world, but it is also true that there is new vision in 2030 for Saudi Arabia that wants to switch from oil to renewable energy and new technology -- and that is really the same DNA as Formula E," he said. "We want to be part of that change and, yes, it's a big paradox and maybe even a contradiction that the biggest oil producer has an electric car race, but I think that is also a great symbol of how things are changing.
"For a long time, we wanted to have a race in the Middle East and a home in the Middle East. We spoke with different partners but we never really found our ideal place. About a year ago we started a conversation with Saudi Arabia and really we found a great location there, we found a great spirit and we are coming at a moment when the country is going through big changes.
"Women can drive now, entertainment is being promoted, we are going to have concerts around the race and we have the support of the local authorities. So we are happy that we are there for the long-term and we are very ambitious in helping promote the changes that are going on in Saudi, so I'm really happy to race there."
But while the series seeks to align itself with Saudi Arabia's promises for political reform, it has failed to confront growing concerns about human rights abuses in the country. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul earlier this year has focused a global spotlight on the kingdom's commitment to genuine reform and remains a global news story ahead of this weekend's race. But Agag insists there has never been any consideration given to cancelling or postponing the race and, on this issue at least, believes sports and politics do not mix.
"No, we have not considered changing the race in Saudi Arabia at any point. For us, our commitment with Saudi Arabia is a long-term commitment and it's ambitious in terms of the change we want to promote in terms of women driving, in terms of entertainment, especially for the young generation of Saudis who are really keen on enjoying what other people from their generation in other countries enjoy: a car race or a concert.
"Obviously, we are not oblivious to the events that happen in the world, but we do not believe it's our role to comment on the specific incidents and it is not our role to comment on politics. We think sport and politics should be kept separate. Also, we operate in the legal international framework, and no countries have imposed sanctions on Saudi Arabia, so I don't think we should be more strict than our own governments. We follow the rules and the rules right now allow for an event like ours to happen in Saudi Arabia."
Watch this space...
By the end of the 2018-2019 season, Formula E will have visited 12 different cities, including Hong Kong, Paris, Monaco and New York. By then we will have a better idea of how successful this year's regulation changes have been, but while plenty of attention has been given to "the show" it is still the sport's message that is driving its success. The participation of more manufacturers in coming years promises to drive the series forward, and in that regard, it is already knocking on the door of F1.
Plans for a Gen 3 car are already underway and it is likely to be a bigger game-changer than the Gen 2 car. The development of electric vehicle technology has not been linear to this point and within the next four or five years technological developments will accelerate at an even faster rate than before. The Gen 2 car has the equivalent of 335 horsepower in qualifying spec, but if Formula E is to remain relevant to the development of EV technology then that will be ramped up significantly with Gen 3 -- figures in excess of 650 horsepower are already being talked about. Such levels of performance will start to draw more regular comparisons with F1, which currently has hybrid power units producing over 1000 horsepower, whether the series targets that or not.
And in a world where petrol and diesel cars are being phased out in some of the biggest markets of major car manufacturers, any racing series that does not make use of electric powertrains is going to look increasingly out of place. So even if you are not a fan of the current generation of Formula E, it's worth considering what the future will hold.