How Formula E's London indoor/outdoor circuit went from being 'too out there' to reality

Electric racing

Formula E was stymied by dog walkers and noise complaints last time it graced British shores, but faced even greater challenges for this year's London E-Prix, which runs through the ExCel Centre, including an all-new surface

lond e prix

Formula E returns to London after an absence of five years – can its new revolutionary circuit make the next tenure longer?

Formula E

Formula E has been taking motor sport to places that no petrol-powered racing car can dream of, with circuits that meander around city centre buildings and historic landmarks.

At the London E-Prix this weekend, Formula E will take another step into the unknown, as it goes through an exhibition centre, in the first ever internationally recognised ‘indoor / outdoor’ race in – and around – the ExCel Centre in East London’s historic Docklands area.

The circuit is tight and twisty in the extreme, with 22 turns across 1.39 miles (2.25Kms) means that there’ll be a corner every 100 metres. This is a stereotypical Formula E circuit on steroids.

Race Director Oli McCrudden spoke to Motor Sport about his London E-Prix vision, which started as a sketch on a piece of paper and was at one point rejected for being “too out there”, but will now become a reality using an indoor surface which has never had a car test on it, never mind race.

The search for a UK based E–Prix was one that stretched across large swathes of England, as Formula E was desperate for a longterm location in the country where its offices are based. It was a journey that led Formula E in full-circle, right back to where it started.

“We came here [to the Excel Centre] for the first time seven years ago almost before we had even been to Battersea Park,” McCrudden reveals. “And it was just deemed not possible, the people that we were with at the time – the FIA and Motorsport UK – were looking at it but it was just too ‘out there’.

“We looked at about 14 different locations across the southeast. There were also some discussions with Birmingham as well about whether we could resurrect the Superprix circuit up there.

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“We were looking at everything from RAF Northholt to ‘Ally Pally’ to Crystal Palace.

“I even drew up one around the Lord Mayor’s parade route, down through Cheapside and along the Embankment. An amazing one we had around St James’s Park with [Buckingham] Palace in the background of the grid and going through Trafalgar Square for the podium.

“None of those really stacked up when you started to do the proper analysis side by side. You did the analysis and scored it, and ExCel kept on coming out on top.”

The reasons for this are “because of the innovative element of the racetrack, because of the ability to expand our event – not just the racetrack – but you know the options and opportunities that it gave us with the e-village really growing and doing great things with the venue – lots of hospitality sites.”

Despite these “opportunities” afforded by the venue, that didn’t mean holding a race here was straightforward. The circuit began life as a sketch by McCrudden, but it’s one thing doing things on paper…

The main problem that presented itself was the fact that floor of the ExCel, usually used as an exhibition centre, was totally unsuitable to race cars on.


The ExCel circuit is the first-ever to go both inside and outside a building

Formula E

“The surface of the ‘Race Hall’, as we call it – hosting the paddock and the grid – it’s a polished, painted concrete slab,” says McCrudden. “It’s a bit shiny and the idea of trying to get cars going over it just didn’t quite make any sense – they would be everywhere!

“The only option to put a track down at the time that anyone really could think of was a bit similar to the Race of Champions, where they effectively put in some trackway and then skim some asphalt over the top and build up the walls around the race track, then they take it away afterwards.

“From a cost point of view that’s just inefficient, and from an environmental point of view that’s not sustainable in the long run. So we we needed to come up with a way that we could lay this track down, not have to take it up, and also allow the venue to continue to operate as an exhibition hall.”

The Formula E team had to get creative in solving the problem, and it was the man who came up with the original Battersea Park track design that cracked the concrete conundrum.

“We got one of our usual track designers, Simon Gibbons, and he came up with a solution,” he says. “It involved taking off very small amounts of the surface of this concrete slab – you can’t cut through any dig holes into it, because that’ll ruin the integrity of the whole thing from an engineering point of view.

“Very specifically on the area that had the race track, we took off the first two and a half millimetres of that surface, put down an agent which chemically bonded to the concrete, distributed some emery across the whole area, which sort of sunk down into this adhesive – if you like.

“Then we had a polymer coating over the top of it to keep everything in place. That gave us a grip surface that had the right slip ratio value for the FIA and its technical requirements, and it was level with the existing surface of the hall, so there are no issues for exhibition users.”

Formula E Battersea

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Formula E

However, despite passing grip tests, this new surface still represents a step into the unknown for Formula E. It hasn’t even been tested with a road car on it, never mind a racing machine. The new top level is estimated to have 80% of the grip of the outdoor tarmac, but it remains to be seen how the Formula E cars will cope at racing speeds, particularly if it rains on the outdoor part of the circuit.

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The whole event represents a massive investment for Formula E, who also had to lift the roof off one of the ends of the ExCel Centre so it could rebuild one of its entrances to the fit the race track, barriers and catch-fencing.

But will it all be worth it? The series suffered a massive blow when last year’s event was cancelled due to Covid; ExCel being used as a Nightingale hospital, and this year’s race will take place behind closed doors, with the hope that the televised spectacle will whet appetites for the next instalments – the London E-Prix will run in East London for the next three years after this.

Ironically though, the pandemic may have actually put more eyeballs on Formula E via TV broadcasts, as those stuck at home have looked for lockdown entertainment. It’s a situation McCrudden believes could be capitalised on in the future.

“Looking at the numbers that we released recently from midseason viewing statistics, we’re 125% up on where we were last year at the same point for TV viewers,” he says.

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Formula E

“The fact that people are tuning in to watch it, and that that whole viewership is growing, makes us very confident that there is an audience out there that wants to get involved in it.

“The production elements that we’re doing around this race, because we can in this specific venue, makes me very confident and very sure that people are going to see that and go ‘Wow, that was awesome, never seen anything like that’ and come down and see it for themselves next year. Let’s all hope that wherever the world has got to by then, we’re going to be able to welcome people back through the doors.”