Current affairs

Formula E’s creation might have been greeted with cynicism – and series boss Alejandro Agag admits there have been growing pains – but it has more manufacturer teams than F1… and others seem certain to commit

When Alejandro Agag set out in 2012 armed with a contract to promote the FIA Formula E Championship, he thought he was making a bold prediction as he tried to muster interest in the series. His message to potential investors and teams, as well as cities looking to host his electric-vehicle races, was that he’d have three major manufacturers involved by the time its fifth season started in the final months of 2018. The Spaniard couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Formula E will have more than three manufacturers in 2018/19. Many more, and just how many we don’t know yet. As the world’s first EV series regroups at Buenos Aires in February, after a three-month gap in its third season, there are already five major car makers involved, plus two start-up manufacturers and another one that specialises in electric vehicles. And more have announced plans – or an intent – to get on the grid. 

“I remember going around with a PowerPoint presentation, making this prediction of the involvement of three OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] in season five,” says Agag, once a Member of the European Parliament and former owner of the successful Barwa Addax GP2 team. “It was there in my presentation, and I thought I was being optimistic. But we have wildly exceeded our expectations.”

Renault, Citroën brand DS, Mahindra, Jaguar and Audi (with an arms-length partnership with the Abt team ahead of a full works entry in season four) are already competing in Formula E along with Monégasque electric vehicle manufacturer Venturi and Chinese-funded start-up brands Faraday Future and NextEV. BMW is on its way in a link-up with the Andretti team and so too, most likely, is Mercedes. 

Mercedes has declared its interest in Formula E and has been given first dibs on one of the two additional entry slots that will be available in 2018/19 when the grid is set to go up from 10 to 12 teams, and Agag is saying more manufacturers are on their way. 

“They have what we are calling a preferred option, but we can’t claim that Mercedes is definitely coming,” says Agag. “I’d say I’m 70 per cent sure they will join us. But I do have information about other OEMs that are coming. There will be announcements in the next few months.” 

Formula E has, perhaps, captured the automotive zeitgeist. Electrification is the new industry buzzword, as more and more manufacturers signal their intent to move into the EV market. The landscape has changed since the Formula E Holdings organisation created by Agag was awarded the contract to promote the EV series in August 2012.

“The industry has changed and the technology revolution happening in electric vehicles has moved in our direction,” he says. “More and more manufacturers are betting on electric vehicles. That has put us in a unique position as the world’s only EV championship”.

The growth in Audi’s involvement illustrates Agag’s point. The German manufacturer slipped its foot in the door at the start of the championship by allowing the Abt team, a partner in DTM touring cars, to use its name. It subsequently handed over the hybrid powerplant from its 2014-spec R18 e-tron quattro World Endurance Championship contender to Abt’s technical partner and sponsor, Schaeffler, to develop into a Formula E powertrain for season two in 2015/16. And then last year the German manufacturer announced that its relationship with Abt would turn into a full factory engagement in season four. 

“It is not by chance that Formula E has such momentum because electric mobility is becoming more and more important,” says outgoing Audi Sport boss Wolfgang Ullrich. “It is important to be part of the world’s only EV series and entering in season four fits in well with our road car strategy.”

It should be pointed out that Audi’s Formula E entry did not come at the cost of its long-standing involvement at the Le Mans 24 Hours and, subsequently, in the reborn WEC. The EV campaign was described as an “additional programme” that would have no bearing on the decision-making process regarding the WEC. Ultimately it didn’t. The WEC campaign fell to the same swingeing round of cuts within the Volkswagen Group in the wake of the ‘dieselgate’ emissions row that did for VW’s participation in the World Rally Championship.

Agag also believes that Formula E is engaging with a younger audience. “We are hitting the right spot with a younger generation of fans who want to see new things. We are seeing this at our races – they are full of kids.”

That, too, is attractive to manufacturers looking to attract a new generation of car buyer.

Formula E has come a long way in a short period of time, but the thought process that resulted in the series goes back beyond the FIA’s request for expressions of interest from potential promoters in August 2011. The first project for an electric racing series has a link, though slightly tenuous, with the very beginnings of Grand Prix racing. The idea was hatched by the promoters of the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours, Eric Barbaroux and Pierre Gosselin, as long ago as 2006.

“We made a big exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French GP at Le Mans in 1906, at the Automobile Club de France in Paris, and at the same time we were struggling to save the race,” says Barbaroux. “That didn’t make sense to me. But we realised that motor sport was no longer as fashionable as it had once been. 

“I realised that if motor sport was to become fashionable again it had to return to its roots. Motor sport came into existence as a place for innovation. We had to restore that link.”

Barbarboux set out to create an all-electric single-seater and found support in an unlikely quarter. Ross Brawn put the resources of the Brawn GP team, then in the throes of winning the 2009 Formula 1 title, behind the project, developing the chassis and aerodynamics of what became the Formulec EP01, a Formula 3-sized car with twin electric motors. 

The car would undertake a number of tests, initially with the late Jules Bianchi at the wheel at Magny-Cours in September 2010, and was a regular on the motor show circuit. It was even demonstrated on the streets of Moscow in 2011.

The Formulec project coincided with former Ferrari boss Jean Todt’s successful bid for the presidency of the FIA. The Frenchman would begin to work on the idea of an EV series in his first full year in office, 2010. 

“From the beginning Jean Todt had a vision for motor sport that was more in tune with the 21st century,” says FIA technical director Bernard Niclot, who joined the governing body in February 2010. “He came to me asking what would be possible with electric technology.”

Niclot says the initial idea had been to create what he describes as a “pure formula”, by which he means an open category with full freedom of design, and F1 levels of performance. Niclot quickly realised that would not be possible. 

“With the type of performance we were initially talking about, we would have been able to have races lasting only 12 minutes,” he says. “We were talking about a car weighing 1500kg with 1000kg of batteries, so we realised that we would have to redefine the project with what was technically possible.”

Formulec was definitely an influence on Niclot and the FIA at this time. 

“We were in contact with Eric and were very interested in his idea,” he says, “and began to focus on a similar type of car.”

Barbaroux believes that the Formulec car “showed what was possible, particularly in terms of the compromise between power and weight”. He won’t take full credit for crystalizing the ideas for an EV series in the minds of the men at the FIA, but he reckons Formulec played its part. 

He points out that there were others out there beating the EV drum at the time, including Lord Paul Drayson. The former British government minister put an electric powertrain in the Lola LMP1 prototype he’d raced at the 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours and went on to claim a series of British land speed records in the car. (Drayson would also make a bid to promote Formula E in conjunction with British racing constructor Lola, and then signed up to run in the series, though neither project came to fruition.)

“We were an influence for sure,” says Barbaroux, who subsequently sold his project to FEH. “Because if you don’t have a car, you can’t predict what kind of show you can put on.”

The ideas that would result in Formula E were beginning to come together, including the focus on city-centre races. 

“Because of the level of performance we were talking about, we understood that there would be no point running on normal tracks,” says Niclot. “We realised that we could showcase electric power in the place where EVs have the biggest future – in the cities.”

The idea that the FIA’s EV series should take place on temporary circuits in urban areas was already on the table when the governing body opened the tender process. Yet Formula E was not a fully formed concept when FEH made its bid to promote the championship. 

Key to its successful bid was the idea that Formula E should begin as a one-make formula using a spec chassis, powertrain and battery. 

“It was a chicken-and-egg situation,” explains Agag, who put the FEH bid together at a time when he was looking for a new challenge in motor sport. “No one had a project for a car because there wasn’t a championship. And there wasn’t a championship because there weren’t any cars. We broke that cycle.”

To that end, FEH was ready to underwrite development of the first-generation Formula E racer, purchase a fleet of cars and then supply them to the teams. Agag believes this was a key reason for FEH’s successful bid, though he does concede that there was a Middle Eastern group that looked set to win the tender process before pulling out. 

“No one else had a clear project and that is one of the reasons why the FIA chose us,” he explains. “One of the key factors is that we came with the plan to produce a car ourselves and give them to the teams.”

FEH ordered a total of 42 cars from French company Spark Racing Technology, which partnered with Dallara to build the chassis. The number of first-generation Formula E racers built reflected a unique idea – each driver would use two cars over the course of a race. So that meant each of the 10 two-car teams needed four chassis, while two were ordered for testing purposes. Hence the 42-car figure. 

“That was my personal idea,” he says. “We needed to create something we could sell on TV. Broadcasters told me they needed 50-minute shows. I asked myself whether the public would be interested in two 15-minute races. I felt we needed a solid Grand Prix-type race, and the only way to do it was with two cars. Everyone was shocked when I suggested it. People said, ’no way’, but now everyone accepts it.”

The inaugural FIA Formula E Championship kicked off in September 2014 with a full grid of Spark-Renault SRT_01Es (Renault backed the series as well as having an involvement in the French e.dams team) in Beijing, on a circuit laid out around the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic Stadium in September 2014. The dramatic last-corner shunt between leaders Nicolas Prost and Nick Heidfeld created headlines all around the world and put the series on the map. 

It wasn’t plain sailing through the inaugural season of Formula E, however. FEH set out into that first season without the funds to complete it, and it almost spelt disaster. 

“We knew we needed to prove our concept before we attracted the partners,” says Agag. “It was always the plan to get the ball rolling and then attract further investment. We were like a trapeze artist jumping without knowing that there was someone to catch us. Fortunately there was.”

Formula E was gripped firmly around the wrists and swept onwards and upwards by two branches of US media magnate John Malone’s empire, Liberty Global and Discovery Communications, in March 2015. It was a last-gasp take by the same group that now owns Formula 1. Bills were mounting up when the deal was done in advance of the fifth round of the 2014/15 championship in downtown Miami. 

Agag admits that Formula E was “really close to disaster” in the early months of 2015, though he now shrugs it off as part of the history of the series. “But I would have preferred not to have had so many sleepless nights,” he adds. 

The plan formulated for Formula E by the FIA and FEH incorporated a road map designed to attain the holy grail of what everyone involved in the series calls one-car races, or the end of the practice of drivers swapping cars, for season five. The first step was to free up development of the powertrain for season two in 2015/16, which resulted in a variety of technological solutions. So various, in fact, that the cars on the grid in season two ran between one and five forward gears. 

The original road map called for freedom on battery design for season three in 2016/17, but this was quickly abandoned. It was seen as a step too soon for the fledgling series. Instead, it was decided to continue with an evolution of the first-generation battery developed by Williams Advanced Engineering through seasons three and four. 

Formula E remains on course for one-car races in 2018/19, however. The tender for a new battery has been won by McLaren Applied Technologies, sister company to the supplier of the spec electric motor used in season one. Using cell technology developed by Sony for, among other things, smartphones, the McLaren battery will be rated at 54kw/h, almost double the 28kw/h of the present Williams battery. Combined with increased energy retrieval and a more efficient chassis again produced by Spark and Dallara (a deal that has yet to be announced), a season-five Formula E machine should be able to race for 45 minutes. 

“I don’t think there is anything technically that is going to stop us,” says Roger Griffiths, sporting director and team principal of the Andretti Formula E squad. “The package that the FIA has come up with for season five has all been geared up to accomplishing the aim of one-car races. The teams have said that we need 54kw/h in order to achieve it, and they have come up with a battery specification that allows for a little bit more than that just in case we’ve got our sums wrong.”

The burning question is whether Formula E will ever return to the original concept of a fully open formula. Griffiths suggests that battery competition between suppliers will come before teams and manufacturers are allowed to build their own chassis. 

“F1 is extremely expensive because you have complete freedom on the chassis and aero, but none of that is particularly relevant to what we do in Formula E,” he argues. “This is not an exercise in vehicle dynamics and who can develop the best racing car; it is about developing electric vehicle powertrains.”

Griffiths suggests there could be a two-stage move away from a spec battery. 

“The first step would be to give the teams a certain quantity of cells and then allow us to do our own packaging and integration,” he explains. “To my mind that is the equivalent of everyone in the World Endurance Championship getting x gallons of Shell fuel.

“Step two would be to allow open cell development within some defined boundaries. My understanding is that when the FIA approached a number of the well-known cell manufacturers, they all expressed an interest in tendering for a spec battery but were not interested in getting into a development war. They suggested that the technology was not mature enough, but that might change in two or three years.”

Agag regards freeing up battery design as being inevitable. 

“I’m not seeing the appetite for it now,” he says, “but it will come eventually because it is a big part of EV technology.”

And a desire to show their EV credentials is why big manufacturers are queuing up to join the Formula E adventure.

The $1million virtual race

What happens when real-world drivers confront their virtual counterparts?

All the ingredients were in place for this to be the tipping point for online racing. Las Vegas in January was the venue – at the biggest consumer electronic show in the world (CES). Motor racing’s big hitters were present, including Jean Todt and Zak Brown, as was a full complement of Formula E drivers including ex-F1 drivers, Le Mans winners, FIA champions and 10 of the best gamers in the world. 

Why? Because online racing, virtual racing, or eSports Racing, was about to host its biggest ever event – with a prize pot of $1million. Well, this was Vegas after all.

Qualification had been open to all gamers with access to the PC-based rFactor simulator. This restricted the entry to fewer than 100 gamers due to the professional nature of rFactor and the small community that regularly competes. These 100 racers battled online, with 10 finalists eventually chosen for the Vegas race.

The top 10 in Vegas then experienced a virtual copy of a Formula E weekend in terms of practice, qualifying and race timings and structure. But how did online racing arrive at the point whereby a $1million pot was up for grabs and the most powerful man in global motor sports was present? 

The Formula E team has been trialling a number of gaming directions in the last 12 months, supported by Jean Todt. At the Vegas event he said, “Gaming can bring motor sport a new, younger audience that we really need. We need to use racing games to get young people out of their bedrooms and along to racetracks.”

This is not the first time the FIA has dipped its toe in the virtual water. Three years ago the governing body of ‘real’ racing announced a partnership with arguably the most famous racing game, Gran Turismo. The FIA claimed that Gran Turismo winners would be crowned alongside the real FIA champions at the end of year prize-giving event. Not only that, but licences gained online would count towards the acquisition of a real racing licence.

However, this intention has been blunted by a near two-year delay to the latest Gran Turismo game and the exclusive nature of the partnership, which means the FIA cannot work with Gran Turismo competitor such as Forza or Project Cars. 

What’s key to remember at this stage is that the FIA is late to the online racing party. Gamers have been racing each other virtually for 15 years, but the explosion of other competitive gaming genres (or eSports) has seen a significant shift in policy towards virtual racing. Or jumping on the bandwagon, as many were heard to say at CES.

Nevertheless, the Vegas eRace – with its glitz, glamour and $1million prize pot – had an opportunity to lay down a marker for future events, and challenge established events such as the GT Academy – now in its 10th year. It had the star drivers (and the emerging challengers), a buzz around the participants and venue, and the promise of good close racing. 

The wider motor sport industry was watching closely, because it would appear – with Todt’s support validating the existing huge grassroots participation – that this would be eSports Racing’s debut on the global stage. The equivalent to the 1950 Formula 1 British Grand Prix. 

Despite all this, online racing will have to wait longer to have its breakthrough moment. Technical glitches, poor execution and a headline-grabbing, fan-alienating end to the race ruined its global debut in Vegas. Certainly, there would have been hangovers for those tasked with delivering the event. 

From a racing point of view it did not disappoint. The real Formula E drivers were fully engaged. Ego and serious cash were at stake. Indeed some of the drivers spend most of their lives in simulators. Oliver Turvey is McLaren’s main simulator driver while Sébastien Buemi and others have spent many, many hours in F1-level simulators as part of their day jobs. They would not want to be blown away by the gamers.

But before the race, all the talk from those in the know was that the virtual gamers would indeed blow away the ‘real’ drivers. And when you consider the stats, you can understand why. 

It is thought that some train for five hours a day six days a week – and have done so for more than five years. Perhaps it is no wonder that a lot of the top guys come from countries with long winters and long nights. 

Nevertheless, the speed of the real drivers came as a genuine surprise during the first practice session – but nobody knew why. As with many activities that exist in cyberspace, rumours and accusations spread throughout the Vegas conference hall. One of the most experienced, eSports Racing Manager Dom Duhan, was left scratching his head. Having established virtual racing Team Redline more than 16 years ago, Dom has masterminded almost every key PC-based victory on games such as iRacing and rFactor. 

“I am genuinely surprised at the pace of the real drivers. There are some possible factors, such as those guys having more rubber down in their session and our guys not being able to change set-ups as they usually would – or perhaps the real drivers have just been practising a lot!”

By the end of qualifying, the normal service was resumed as nine of the top 10 were gamers – except for one. The interloper was Felix Rosenqvist. For those in the know Rosenqvist should be in F1 with many Formula E insiders believing he is the talent of the grid. Some claim, with the likes of Buemi, Felix da Costa and di Grassi in the mix. 

But Rosenqvist is not just a racer, he is also a gamer and one of the many drivers today who blur boundaries between the virtual and the real. 

“I have a wheel at home that I’ve used since 2006,” he says. “Most of my gaming experience comes from the races I’ve done together with my teams and playing at home with my PR guy the day before heading out to races. The one game I’ve spent most time on is probably DiRT Rally, which I still think is the most fun.”

But the question remained. Why was Rosenqvist so far ahead of the other real-world drivers and the only one to be mixing it with the gamers? Many simply concluded that this guy was just a super talent in the virtual world as well as the real one. Some drivers can be quick in both, as we have seen from GT Academy – some only excel in one or the other. Rosenqvist did, however, provide some insight into his recent and relevant professional simulation experience. 

“With Mahindra Racing in Formula E, we spend 1-2 days before each event, and maybe some development days during the event on the simulator. This is the first time I have done that consistently together with a racing programme.”

The racing was marred by several technical issues but the level of competition was high. Bono Huis dominated from lap one of practice. Clearly his style suited the fixed set-up that Formula E had stipulated. As in the real world, set-up is critical in the virtual world. With the inability to adapt his car the legendary Gregor Hutu (described as the ‘Fastest Gamer in the world’) struggled. More of a Prost than a Senna, he needs the car to be set up to his preference in order to find the speed rather than rely on hustling a compromised car. 

During the final, crowd favourite Olli Pahkala suddenly confused everyone by finding two seconds a lap after his pit stop. In the process he leap-frogged the squabbling Huis and Rosenqvist . The small audience that was watching online was packed with the most knowledgable gamers and fans of virtual racing in the world – including another gamer and rising racing star Lando Norris. He quickly came to the same conclusion as I did – that the fan boost Olli had been given was ‘stuck on’. Fevered texts from the 2016 McLaren Autosport BRDC Award winner to an onsite Zak Brown furrowed the brow of Formula E’s new part-owner. 

The fallout of this technical mistake unfolded on social media with the event sponsor announcing the result before Formula E did. The fan backlash adding to the negative earlier comments about the use of the outdated rFactor based platform, with its PlayStation 2-level graphics and a general degree of disorganisation. 

For Formula E’s virtual racing strategy to thrive on this scale, it has to fix these teething problems, but the intentions and vision of this first event were spot on. It has some way to go, but you only need to look at the opportunities that gaming is providing other ‘real’ sports to see the potential. In football, for instance, clubs are signing players from the FIFA game to represent them in virtual tournaments, and likewise the NBA and NFL are investing in eSports teams so that they can communicate to millennials. 

Rumours in Vegas suggested that manufacturers and racing teams are looking to set up their own virtual teams to compete in the virtual world, with Porsche being the brand closest to making an announcement.

The industry must act. When the FIA president highlights the decline in fan numbers it has to result in action. He is only saying what the regulators, teams, sponsors and promoters already know. Their recently formulated opinions are backed up by a fan survey in which 79 per cent of gamers said they had gone on to become fans of motor racing (not the other way around). For a generation brought up on club racing and irregular TV coverage, a little recalibration is required. 

So could eSports Racing save motor sport? The evidence suggests so. The virtual door is opening wider and it will be fascinating to see who really kicks it wide. Darren Cox

This future F1 champ is a gamer

No discussion about virtual racing can occur without mention of Max Verstappen. If you believe that Max will be the next first-time F1 world champion, then it can be argued that he’ll be the inaugural gamer-turned F1 champ. Why? It will take years in the real world for Max to exceed the number of virtual laps he’s completed.

But he’s not the only one working his way up to F1. Restricted testing in GP2 and GP3 means simulator time is critical in the lower formulas; indeed many young drivers are paying to have access to F1 simulators. Many believe that Williams’ latest simulator was put in place specifically for new signing Lance Stroll to access it at any moment. Add to that the increasingly powerful PlayStation and Xbox games – many of which are approaching simulator-levels of professionalism – and you can argue that any of the new generation of drivers are a product of both the virtual and real worlds.