Seven seasons in, Formula E is still running on the most powerful idea in motorsport.
The pioneering all-electric championship has endured its most difficult year so far, for obvious reasons. The 2019/20 campaign was suspended last March due to the Covid-19 pandemic and brought to a concertinaed end midway through the European summer, with six ePrix in nine July days settling things in Berlin. A reworked 2021 calendar is about to make its delayed start, with January’s opening race postponed after an outbreak of the UK coronavirus variant in Santiago, Chile.
This, though, was a championship built to provide meaningful answers to another existential challenge. A glance around the rest of the racing industry suggests others are ready to take up the mantle. Since Formula E’s 2014 debut, electric support series have emerged through the likes of MotoGP. World Rallycross plans to go electric in 2022. Eurosport Events will launch the Pure ETCR touring car championship in June and has signed up to the UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework.
Formula E co-founder Alejandro Agag is behind another challenger concept, the off-road Extreme E. Even those championships that are retaining combustion engines on the track are looking for sustainable solutions off it – with Formula One, most notably, committing to a zero carbon operation by 2030.
Formula E deputy chief executive Alberto Longo is eyeing continued growth for the all-electric series in 2021
For Alberto Longo, the Formula E deputy chief executive who set up the series with Agag, these are gratifying signs.
Nevertheless, Formula E has ambitions of its own to pursue, even if it will have to be adaptable in that cause through 2021. There may be greater optimism now about the course of the pandemic, with vaccine rollouts and the return of in-person events in some countries, but there is a good chance no two events will be the same this year.
“The most important thing is the health and safety of all of our ecosystem,” Longo says. “You know, we are talking about not only drivers, manufacturers, teams, partners, but also obviously all the inhabitants of the cities that we go and race through.”
Longo believes that the lessons taken from that bubbled finale in Germany, together with December’s winter testing in the Spanish city of Valencia, have formed the basis of a robust protective policy that can be tailored to the needs and conditions of its hosts.
“We go and present our Covid protocol,” he says, “and then we optimise it ad hoc for every city that we go to: if we’re going to have the public, if we’re not going to have the public; if we’re going to have the village; if we’re going to have VIPs.
“Everything basically changes, and our Covid protocol will cover all that, but it’s in complete alignment with the local authorities.”
Despite the variance of public health regulations and national attitudes towards hosting major events in these conditions, Longo points out “that the calendar that we announced for this season seven back in June and then ratified in September, is basically being respected”. Still, the potential lack of fan and hospitality presence in a number of cities, and the continued absence of races in Paris, London, New York, Mexico City, Seoul and Sanya, represent an ongoing threat to revenues that Formula E is having to mitigate.
“It’s a challenging year,” Longo admits. “But the good thing is that we’re completely ready for it and we’re in a fantastic position.
“Talking about the event, I think what is absolutely critical is to get the clarity beforehand to get the exact scope of every event that we go to, in order to plan ahead and to basically have a big consolidation on the cost of the event if we’re not going to have the level of revenue that we’re used to having. This is something that we’re managing in a very professional way.
“We have an amazing finance team and procurement team, that will go line by line on the budget and things that potentially we’re not going to be using this year, obviously we’re not going to incur any cost.
“The financial stability of Formula E is at a very good position and it has been since inception,” he insists, “so we have no problem at all.”
Formula E opens its 2021 season with a night race on the streets of Diryah in Saudi Arabia
The disruption to the early weeks of the schedule means that the opening ePrix will be on the streets of Diryah in Saudi Arabia. Inevitably – as it does for the growing number of rights holders, now including Formula One, who have chosen to take events to the kingdom – that brings with it a level of additional scrutiny due to the actions of the governing regime.
Formula E is racing in Saudi Arabia for a third time. Longo counters that controversy with an emphasis on how sports partnerships can deliver “positive actions towards equality” and the sustainability ambitions outlined in the country’s Vision 2030 strategy.
“I think we need to be focused on the importance of positive progress,” he says. “On how we treat our planet, on how we engage with communities.”
He adds: “I mean, in the three years that we’ve been competing there, women have been granted the right to drive. You can even see Reema Juffali made history two years ago by being the first woman to compete in an international racing series. I think they’re just opening to the world at a much bigger speed than everybody thinks.”
In the three years that we’ve been competing in Saudi Arabia, women have been granted the right to drive and Reema Juffali became the first woman to compete in an international racing series. The kingdom is opening to the world at a much bigger speed than everybody thinks.
Whether or not that is enough to placate opponents of Saudi’s hosting scheme, this year’s edition will establish its own milestone. The 2021 Diryah ePrix is the first night race in Formula E’s young history, with the appropriate LED lighting and energy technology now available to deliver that spectacle to the championship’s environmental standards.
“The LED, as it is, is already 50 per cent more efficient than any system of lighting and, again, the most important thing is the energy that you use to light it up,” Longo explains. “And this is the key factor. We're using a biofuel. This is how we’re planning to power all the event – not only the lighting, but all the event.”
That set-up, Longo continues, is “100 per cent” scalable.
“We can do this anywhere in the world,” he says. “There are those challenges of the period of time where you need to mount and dismount all the devices. In some places that makes it not possible or viable because we still see it as the core of Formula E to be racing through the heart of the city and sometimes that is not compatible with having a night race because of the time needed to mount and dismount those devices. But definitely, this is just the first one but we will be using more of those.”
The effort to produce a night race in that way, Longo suggests, is in keeping with a commitment to sustainability and efficiency that “goes to every line of our ecosystem”. That extends to a partnership programme which Formula E pushes towards ISO 20121-certified activities, and a legacy project that involves tree planting and other clean city initiatives.
Formula E’s hosting programme, Longo says, is tailored to help cities showcase and develop their own sustainability initiatives.
“I think the bigger we get,” he adds, “the easier it becomes for us. That’s a pretty obvious assessment. At the beginning, when we had nothing, it was way more challenging to go to a city and convince them we were the right property to host. Today, you wouldn’t call it an easy venture but it’s way easier than it was before.
“The fact that we race in the heart of the cities and not in a permanent track is obviously more challenging, but I can see that our green angle is the decisive factor there. Basically, us promoting electromobility as part of the solution for a cleaner city – this is definitely on the agenda of every single major centre in the world today. That has helped massively.”
Efficiency also determines the path of the Formula E calendar, which could expand to 16 or even 18 races once its Gen 3 cars debut in 2022/23. Seasonal factors inform many of the decisions about where and when races are planned, but the organisers are also working with logistics partner DHL to minimise the impact of international travel.
“We like to go either clockwise or anticlockwise, but always in the same way so we don’t have to come back twice to the same region of the world,” Longo says. “That has already been very efficient.
“On top of that, we have been working since day one – but with much greater emphasis in the last 18 months – to reduce as much as possible the weight and volume that we transport around the world, together with the teams and manufacturers. That is happening as we speak today and it will have very big consequences in years to come in terms of reducing the amount of air freight that we use around the world – removing pieces of equipment that are not that important from that freight. We will probably be putting them into sea freight or buying two, three or four sets to basically have a lot more flexibility and time to get them to one place or another in the world.”
Formula E's global calendar is designed to be as logistically efficient as possible
Refining environmental best practice may be on brand for Formula E but the series’ USP has always been its vehicles. In that respect, Longo still sees the championship’s central purpose as helping manufacturers remove barriers to the wholesale adoption of electric cars.
“The next generation is going to show how we are capable of doing fast charging, which is another of the big barriers of electric vehicles and I think that’s super-important,” he says. “If you are able to charge your car in five minutes in an electric station in the future, why wouldn’t you buy an electric car?”
Longo points to full-race battery capacity of Formula E’s Gen2 cars – which ended the need for drivers to switch vehicles halfway through an ePrix – as one of its most significant technical achievements, and he hopes the series can keep supporting that level of innovation. In doing so, he notes, it will also retain the interest of competing manufacturers.
“We are not the new platform any more but we are the most important one in the electromobility field,” he says.
The “most optimistic plan” for Formula E at its origins, he recalls, “was to have four manufacturers by season six and we have doubled that, as of today”. With the grid capped at 12 entries for the time being, demand remains significant.
“You know,” Longo adds, “there are a lot of manufacturers talking even to some other manufacturers to see if there is an opportunity to either buy out the entry or partner with each other.”
BMW and fellow Formula E factory outfit Audi have confirmed plans to leave the series
That will never be enough to eliminate churn altogether. Audi and BMW have confirmed their plans to leave the championship and Longo anticipates more will “come and go” in the seasons ahead – among other things, he quips, manufacturers like to win championships and “we had nine manufacturers in season six and eight didn’t win”. India’s Mahindra will arrive as a Gen 3 manufacturer, while McLaren’s option to join when a slot becomes available hints at a more mixed field of racing and consumer organisations in the future.
Further evolution can also be expected on the media side of Formula E’s output. Necessity bred the adaptation of the series’ esports activities last year with the Race at Home Challenge, which united the best in-game and on-track drivers. Formula E: Accelerate is the latest iteration of the virtual championship, with racers competing for a €100,000 prize and a test drive in a real Formula E car.
With its in-race digital activations like Fan Boost and Attack Mode, Formula E has “always been a championship which sits in the middle of a videogame and a real race, and we have always tried to win that spectrum”. Reaching younger fans, Longo adds, is critical not just to the prosperity of the series but also its mission to reach a younger audience and drive demand among them for electric transport.
Still, more conventional media rights sales remain critical to Formula E’s commercial health. Former International Cricket Council executive Aarti Singh Dabas has joined as chief media officer, and a flurry of pre-season renewals and deals have been signed for 2021. Headlines include a 50-territory, multi-platform deal with Eurosport owner Discovery, an expanded American presence through an agreement with ViacomCBS, a pay-TV partnership with Sky Italia and a free-to-air extension with the UK’s BBC.
All of this is taking place in an altered motorsports landscape, and with the internal environment settling after a major change in the past 18 months. Jamie Reigle, once of the Los Angeles Rams and Manchester United, now has one unprecedented season under his belt having succeeded Agag as chief executive.
Agag is now fronting Extreme E, which has attracted considerable interest from media companies and from motorsport icons like Lewis Hamilton. “We’re almost like a brother company,” Longo says of the newcomer, in which Formula E holds a financial stake. “We share the same floor of the same building – we have our own office, they have their own office. And I think it’s a great opportunity, they have a completely different scope from what Formula E is today. They are going to co-exist, both of them.”
However it fares in its opening run, features like a floating paddock between races, which will also serve as a scientific research facility, dramatic event settings, and male/female driving teams are bound to set Extreme E apart.
The task ahead for Formula E, as new ideas and experiences appear, is to retain its own appetite for progress.
“Eventually,” Longo says, “more companies, not only in motorsport but in events that follow our lead on that will just create a better world, which is what Formula E stands for.”