'The world's most demanding racing' — why Formula E deserves a chance on London return

Electric racing

Damien Smith lost interest in Formula E, dismayed at its focus on energy efficiency. But after being won over by Mahindra Racing's Alexander Sims, ahead of the London rounds, he says it's time to give the series another chance — and appreciate the formidable talent of its drivers.

Formula E car in front of the London skyline

Formula E returns to London for a double-header on a new circuit that runs through the Excel centre

Formula E

From the intense drama of Silverstone and the British Grand Prix, attention switches this week to Formula E’s return to London for the first time since 2016 and a new E-Prix venue based in and out of the ExCel exhibition halls in the Docklands.

The novel track, partly featuring emissions and fumes-free indoor racing, should make for cool TV for Channel 4, which is showing both of the London races live this weekend. Just as well really. Spectators will be limited to small numbers mostly made up by key workers from the local area (excellent and worthy, of course), plus the odd fizz-sipping VIP. After the crowds returned under the UK government’s Events Research Programme at Goodwood and Silverstone, the next instalment of British motor sport’s big summer comeback feels a little like a missed opportunity, despite the good news on the terrestrial TV coverage.

Then again, if crowds were allowed back what kind of spectacle would they have witnessed? You never know what you’ll get with Formula E this year, its first as a bona fide FIA world championship. For every Monaco e-Prix, which was 10 times more entertaining than the Formula 1 grand prix at the Principality in May, there’s also the farce in Valencia when drivers found themselves excluded at the end for using too much energy – even though they hadn’t actually run out. The confusion was caused by a rule that subtracts a percentage of energy from each car for every safety car interruption, to keep sacrosanct Formula E’s ethos of managing what you’re given. But too many safety car periods in one afternoon caught the race director on the hop, on the day Formula E finally spread its wings from signature street tracks in which you can barely swing a Jaguar to a race on a proper, permanent circuit. The outcome was unfortunate, to put it mildly.

Mahindra Formula E car of Alexander Sims at Monaco in 2021

Sims in action at the exciting Monaco E-Prix weekend

Formula E

Safety car leads the pack at the 2021 Valencia ePrix

Multiple safety cars in Valencia led to energy reduction farce

Formula E

I must admit, Formula E lost me that day and I’ve been struggling to re-engage ever since. Now, I like to think of myself as progressive and absolutely open-minded to new technology. My experiences of EVs on the road have largely been positive too, so my doubts aren’t based on some stuck-in-the-past prejudice. But I profess I don’t understand why a series that exists to promote the merits of high-performance EV motoring bases its racing spectacle on range anxiety – the overriding factor that still puts off the wider public from buying plug-ins for the road (along with how expensive they are. And where you charge if you live on a terraced street. And where the lithium come from… But I digress).

The range anxiety premise has been bugging me since Valencia. So when I was invited recently to visit Mahindra Racing at its impressive base in Banbury, here was a chance to put that question to the one driver on the grid you can guarantee isn’t just talking up EV technology because he’s paid to. Alexander Sims really believes in going electric, because he was among the first to do so on the road nearly 10 years ago. He’s a true believer.

Alexander Sims at the wheel of his Mahindra Formula E car

Sims made the switch to Mahindra Racing this season

Formula E

So here’s what he said when I challenged him that Formula E’s ethos on energy management motor sport is wrong – and not what racing and sports fans tune in for when they want to be entertained. “I do think it’s right,” he said slowly, before picking up his thread. “I totally understand where you are coming from with the question in terms of range anxiety and granted, Valencia was possibly the worst show Formula E could have put on, in terms of drivers running out of energy and being disqualified. We didn’t need that in season seven of Formula E, we should have been way past that.

“But instead of referencing range anxiety, we focus on efficiency. The thing about Formula E for me is that we design the races to be longer than we can go flat out for. If the race was 35 minutes instead of 45 or they gave us more battery capacity which they could do, we’d all be flat out. In my experience of Formula E racing in season five, when we didn’t have an energy reduction under safety cars, the second half of races did tend to go flat out when there had been a safety car – and they were boring as hell. There was no differentiation you can make as a driver.

“If there’s a gap you want to try and muscle through, but the walls are very close if it goes wrong”

“You might be able to get one or two tenths over the guy ahead of you, but if you are on a street track and two tenths over a lap equates to perhaps two hundredths on one straight, with that advantage you ain’t going to make an overtake. So by having the coasting and the regen on multiple corners per lap, it gives you the opportunity as the driver behind to decide ‘I’m going to spend more energy here and go for an overtake, and be aggressive to create an opportunity’. I guess it’s what F1 races would be like without DRS. F1 races would be pretty dull without it. See how dull it is at Monaco even with DRS.”

Sims is, of course, absolutely right: the best motor racing is made from differentiation, when a driver can access an edge to catch and pass the rival in front. Still, I’m struggling with Alexander’s assertion of selling Formula E on the remarkable efficiency of its ground-breaking technology. Efficiency to lure more eyeballs? Hmm. But you only had to watch the F1 sprint race at Silverstone on Saturday to see his point about simple flat-out racing. It sounds good, but it doesn’t work. That some chose the soft Pirellis over the mediums for the 17-lap blast meant the likes of Fernando Alonso could put on a stunning first lap, then struggle to maintain the position he had gained as the rubber began to grain. If they’d all chosen mediums, the stalemate that existed at the front between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton might have been the only story.

From the archive

OK, so managing energy might not necessarily be a bad thing. But what about the heavy amount of contact in Formula E? Pound for pound, this grid is packed with arguably the best talent this side of F1. Only IndyCar can boast such a field of excellence. And yet every one of them in Formula E can end up looking amateur and ham-fisted by the tightness of the circuits and the physical nature of the racing those city tracks inspire. Imagine this grid on proper circuits in big, lairy, traditional single-seaters. Oh, hang on – I think I’ve just described A1 GP, the short-lived but fun ‘World Cup of Motor Sport’…

Doesn’t it get frustrating, Alexander? “It does…” he says, then pauses. “I would say by the nature of how robust the cars are and the fact you have got walls and not white lines, those track limits mean there is zero room for error, while the cars almost give you all the opportunity to create a contact-style situation. You know if you lose a bit of bodywork here and there it’s not going to damage your overall race pace. If there’s a bit of a gap you want to try and muscle your way through, but if you do that the walls are very close if it goes wrong. Everyone is operating at such a high level and it’s rarely an easy overtake.

Alexander Sims on the podium after the 2019 Diriyah ePrix

Sims won in Diriyah, 2019, with BMW

Formula E

“It is frustrating but it’s the way the series has been designed. They want exciting racing and to have that you need overtaking – and if you have lots of overtakes on a street track you get crashes.”

Sims’s point that the drivers are operating at a high level is absolutely valid. Both a strength and weakness of Formula E, it is so damned complicated, not only to watch, but also to compete in. Speak to any of the drivers and they give you a sense of how intense this form of motor sport is, all the time. There’s nothing else like it.

“Formula E is mentally very challenging and that brings its own set of emotions”

“I think that’s absolutely fair,” says Alexander. “I’ve driven in most different race cars around the world, whether it be in testing or racing and Formula E is by far the most demanding for the driver, in the car during the race. You’ve just got so many things changing all the time. Not only have you got to understand your energy consumption through the lap, you’ve still got to be driving fast through the corners and braking as late as possible. All those conventional things you do as a racing driver. But you’ve got regen levels changing through the first part of the race, tyres and brakes that are stone cold at the start because you don’t have a warm-up lap, then the brakes get really hot and as the regen feeds in you lose mechanical braking – so then your front brakes get cold and your brake pedal feels different… It’s just a constantly evolving target and it’s really challenging.”

No wonder then, that Sims counts himself lucky to have a dual racing life in GT endurance. He’ll be at Le Mans next month with Corvette and last year was part of Rowe Racing’s winning crew at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, sharing a BMW M6 GT3. A super-intelligent guy with a social and environmental conscience he might be, but Sims is a pure racer too. The fact is, like all his Formula E rivals, he loves it all.

BMW Rowe at the 2020 Nurburgring 24 Hours

Sims was part of the winning Rowe Racing team at last year’s Nürburgring 24 Hours


“Formula E is really enjoyable, but I’ve always said this: it’s enjoyable for different reasons compared to endurance racing,” he says. “It’s mentally very challenging and that brings its own set of emotions that you go through over a race day. But from a pure, conventional motor sport side of things the enjoyment of just hammering a race car lap after lap just isn’t there in Formula E because of the nature of the series, for all of the reasons we’ve discussed. I’m extremely fortunate to have a Corvette programme and to have done the Nürburgring 24 Hours with BMW to balance with Formula E. It’s lovely to do some GT races because there’s something about endurance, driving through the night, getting to Sunday morning and finding by lunchtime you’re knackered. As and when you do get a good result, my God, it’s a phenomenal feeling. It’s really nice to balance the two.”

That’s the heart of it. Formula E is complex, difficult and at times hard to love. But it’s still just motor racing. As it heads to London, us doubters really should give it another chance.