As the rain drained away from the Circuit of the Americas and another F1 championship was all wrapped up, on the other side of the world there was another season just beginning. One where it might not be such a good idea to drive in the wet. Formula E (uppercase E, like ecstasy, number or the vitamin) had its first ePrix (lower case e, like -mail and -ticket, but the e stands for electric, not electronic. I think) in Beijing.
To Formula One fans Formula E is a travesty of logic, a benevolent home for mostly ex-Toro Rosso drivers driving around in a Waterworld-esque future where the only liquid to have run out is gasoline.
It’s a joke, a milk float race, a battle of Duracell bunnies that can only last half the distance and has the second worst name of a sport (footnote: Formula 1 wins this one). But in a different world it’s gaining traction. On cool millennial tech websites like The Verge and nerdy boltholes like Ars Technica Formula E has been written about like a computer game or new gadget rather than another A1GP or Formula 3000. And maybe that’s just where Formula E might succeed.
I endured the first race to try and see if the sport has anything to offer for a hardened F1 fan.
From a Formula 1 perspective there is a lot of bad, starting with the tracks. If F1 had to drive round these car parks (Caesars Palace GP aside) we’d be knocking down Herman Tilke’s door and begging for forgiveness. The Beijing ePrix circuit looks as though they’re off for a midnight jaunt around an Asda carpark and have to cut out one corner to avoid the recycling bins.
On the plus side, the tracks are all in city centres. This year Formula E will visit London, Moscow, Paris and Berlin and if you bring the show to the big city there's more chance of bringing fans, curious onlookers and lost elderly people straight into the centre of the action. Some are like the more classic old F1 street circuits and presumably with more exposure some of ‘real’ circuits could eventually be used.
Aside from a couple of up and coming things (Sam Bird and Robin Frijns spring to mind) Formula E is basically a slag pile of rejected Formula 1 hope. Nick Heidfeld’s beard competes with the sad Toro Rosso reunion of Jean-Eric Vergne, Vitantonio Liuzzi and Sebastian Buemi and confirmed (yet reluctant) cheat, Nelson Piquet Jr.
Piquet is not the only F1 champ offspring; joining him are Nico Prost (embarrassment to the family name), Bruno Senna (ditto) and Jacques Villeneuve, son of 1997 world champion, Jacques Villeneuve.
No, hang on, that’s wrong. It’s actually the Jacques Villeneuve, the man who copyrighted his own name and was therefore known to British Playstation gamers as THE CANADIAN who has been easily coaxed out of yet another retirement.
Some solid racers, but from a superstar point of view all in all it’s a weirdly unimpressive bunch, and until a proper F1 star (of recent years, Jacques baggy overalls smacks a little of him trying to show the kids how its done) can be tempted over this is probably the best we can hope for.
Last year (the first season) was basically a single spec series with all the teams driving a Spark SRT_01E, built by Dallara and powered by a Williams battery, with McLaren-supplied electronics and a five-speed Hewland gearbox. For now the cars look the same, but for the second season the rules have been opened up, in some cases quite dramatically. Aside from the battery tech, teams will be free to develop the powertrain (e-motor, inverter, gearbox and cooling system).
It’s still in its infancy but already there are divergences and this first season proper has eight powertrains, two teams opting for just a single gear to eliminate wobbles in up and downshifts, but alas not able to stop comparisons to milk floats.
There is regenerated energy, similar to F1’s ERS/KERS, but in Formula E it’s akin to the cars refuelling for free in the corners.
The changes from season one to two are vast, and the fact that so many teams are trying so many solutions points to a bright future of innovation that could even overtake F1 someday.
Some names also are familiar to F1 fans. The first race was dominated by Prost’s e.dams team; basically a Renault factory outfit who have done a Mercedes and stolen a march on the rest of the grid. Prost has admitted that some people have crossed the floor from the F1 side of the factory; here’s hoping Red Bull aren’t paying attention (footnote - They won’t, they can’t look at anything besides their own naval). The Andretti dynasty have a team. Jarno Trulli drove last year but this year has stepped up into team ownership with his Trulli Formula E Team and once darlings of F1, Virgin, have stated their lofty aims at not just trundling around before being bought by someone else.
And there’s a team called Dragon. Best team name ever.
One school of thought is that more big manufacturers need to join Renault, but some of this tech is so new maybe some of the teams in Formula E will bear the names of cars we’ll be self-driving in the future?
In the UK it’s on the ITVnothing channel and hosted in an awkward studio with a pundit who I think used to drive F1 trucks and a guy who once went go-karting on a stag do. The commentator seems to have an aversion to remembering what a brake lock-up looks like because every time a driver locks one he gets very excited like it's the most exciting thing happening (which sometimes it is). In fairness, the BBC F1 commentator also gets overexcited by brake smoke. Karun Chandok, who drove last year, has followed up his stellar F1 career by being fired as a driver then hired as a pundit.
The worst part is the fancy Tron style opening animation which, like the cover art to a computer game in the 80s and 90s, means the following race can’t possibly live up to it.
In many ways, like F1, the Formula E format is relatively easy to follow. The races are short (some 25 laps) and they line up (quietly) on the grid in the familiar formation before unleashing the power of the gods.
Except it's not godly; it’s slow. Really slow. The stats say the cars can reach a respectable 150mph, but take a look at this gif. This isn’t slowed down, this is how quickly they get away.
The whole race carries on like this, and obviously lower formulae are slower than F1, but watching on telly the comparison is hard not to make. It looks slow.
There is a positive. Where American series favour a pace car to bunch up the pack and F1 yearns for someone to screw up so that the safety car can be called out, Formula E has cars that visibly lose power throughout the first half of the race. Onscreen we get mobile phone style battery indicators that dip into orange and red as the percentages hit single figures. As the drivers slow to conserve power the race closes up and those who have been wily and efficient get easy pickings. This part of the race is genuinely brilliant; the energy conservation is a far more effective play than fuel conservation in F1 because it has a direct and obvious connection to what's happening on track.
The fact is that these cars aren’t up to the job yet. A shortened circa 25 lap race compared to the 60+ lap F1 GPs is curtailed further by the fact that when the car runs out of juice THEY HAVE TO GET IN ANOTHER CAR. The complicated battery tech isn’t mature enough to last a whole race.
All arguments for energy savings are made slightly redundant when a whole extra car has to be manufactured, built and shipped around the world to complete each race.
And let’s not forget Fan Boost, the idea that through an online vote (link) or hashtag competition drivers can get extra power (presumably otherwise just held back, meaning none of the cars are otherwise operating at their full potential). Last year it was decided before each race but now you have the first few laps to enter.
This X-Factorisation of any sport is a major concern. What’s next, the lowering of the high jump for the fit one, extra red balls in snooker for the player who looks most forlorn?
Perhaps if the fan boost could be cruelly given and taken away all through the race so that mid-overtaking move a car grinds to a halt then maybe there would be some entertainment, but currently it feels like the cutest driver is allowed to go a bit faster
Perhaps the most damning evidence from Race One was the story of the cat who had found his way on to the track. Animals and F1 don’t tend to mix and often end up with the car as the bloody victor, but in Beijing a cat ran across the track as the whole field passed. Instead of being obliterated it just sat at the side of the track and gave the cars an evil side eye, possibly before licking his paw.
And that’s how I feel. For now I’ll watch Formula E when it's on with a vague interest. The dinosaurs-fuelled cars of F1 with their infighting and self-harm are safe for the moment, and I suspect will be for a few years yet.
But Formula E is a sport that has the potential to usurp its bigger brother one day, with a younger, more clued-in fanbase and actual state of the art technology not based on an outmoded combustion engine. And when that happens suddenly all the Rolex and Hublot sponsor dollars might have seemed a little foolish.