Formula E now has better racing than F1, but will anyone notice?

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Formula E is leading the way out of FIA world championships for the best racing action this season – but will fans pay attention?

Formula E Sao Paulo 2023 2

New Gen3 Formula E era is providing extremely close racing


Credit where it’s due. The clear hierarchy when it comes to single-seater FIA world championships has been turned on its head in recent weeks. Right now, in terms of pure racing excitement and genuine spectacle, Formula 1 has been knocked clean from its perch. Formula E – yes, the whining electric-powered series so many of you love to hate – is not only far more unpredictable (which has always been the case), it is also intrinsically better and far more engaging in terms of the core racing action. Yes, really.

The cynics out there – that means you with the curling lip – might well argue that’s not hard right now given the underwhelming state of the new F1 season so far. But still, Formula E has also stepped up its game too. That much is obvious after its sixth event of season nine.

What a shame, then, that so few people – at least in stark contrast to the multi-millions that follow F1 – will even care to notice. Perhaps for the first time, I feel confident enough to say they’re all actually missing something. Formula E, finally, is coming of age.

So did you catch the latest Gen3 Formula E race in Sao Paulo last weekend? The answer, I know, is likely to be negative. In that case, I’d urge you to watch the highlights below. It was a zinger of a motor race, featuring a high degree of tactical intrigue that then evolved into a straight sprint to the finish, between three talented drivers in equally matched cars. They were separated by just half a second at the flag after 53 minutes of action, on a fast and brand new street circuit that showcased the best side of this more powerful generation of electric racing cars.

Yes, they still whine… it really is beyond time to look past the aggravating noise. But even the big Formula E ‘gimmick’ – the mandatory Attack Mode power boost – was less offensive and much less blatantly effective on this occasion than F1’s long-derided version, DRS, had been in Jeddah. The double dose of 50kW of power, taken in a variation of time but adding up to four minutes in total, added welcome tactical variation in the continuing absence of fast-charging pitstops, but didn’t impose itself as a defining factor in the result. That’s a decent balance to achieve.

The race in Sao Paulo was the third new venue in succession, and this far in adds to the evidence pool that suggests Formula E is finally nailing the black art of designing a city street circuit. Like Cape Town before it, this was a fast circuit wide enough for wheel-to-wheel racing without endless collisions, while overtaking was eminently possible, mostly but not exclusively on the run into Turn 1. The cars have an extra 100kW at maximum power and more than double the regen capacity of Gen2, and here it showed. Again, put aside the whine… (yes, yes, we know) – these are properly quick racing cars that are proving a handful for the talented grid of top-line single-seater talent who drive them.

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In contrast – well, you know… on F1, I said it at the top. The opening two grands prix of the year haven’t completely extinguished all hope of a captivating season, thanks largely to the form of Fernando Alonso and Aston Martin. But when you are relying on Sergio Perez to take the title fight to his team-mate Max Verstappen, within a Red Bull team built around the double world champion, you know it’s time to clutch at those straws.

Over in Formula E and ahead of Sao Paulo, Porsche had caught the Gen3 zeitgest best to win four of the first five rounds – although those victories were spread between points leader Pascal Wehrlein, his team-mate António Félix da Costa and Jake Dennis of customer team Andretti. But then in Brazil form was turned on its head when the next-best option suddenly became the thing to have. Following a cagey first half where energy management created a race that carried echoes of a Tour de France stage, with drivers preferring to stay in the peloton to conserve their juice rather than drink it freely out front, a Jaguar-powered pair of Kiwis kicked on in the closing stages. Three laps from home, works perennial Mitch Evans pulled a peach of a move on Nick Cassidy, driving for new Jaguar customer Envision Virgin, then was forced to defend as the bright green car came right back at him. It was nip and tuck, pleasingly clean and left the result in doubt all the way until the final sequence of turns.

Formula E Sao Paulo 2023

Peloton formation in early laps later broke out into frantic action


Added to that, Evans’s team-mate Sam Bird shook off the despair he’s fallen into in recent months to climb into contention and threaten the pair ahead of him. The Formula E veteran had started 10th thanks to a five-place grid penalty incurred for his embarrassing collision with Evans in the Hyderabad round. He couldn’t take it in Cape Town because he didn’t even start that race following a practice crash, so the pen was carried over to Sao Paulo. But now he used all his guile to carve his way up to third, having saved energy for the sprint to the line. In the circumstances with two Jaguar-powered cars ahead of him, perhaps there was an air of sensible discretion that he didn’t try something desperate on the last lap and get greedy for more. Third in a Jaguar-powered trio was sweet enough, for Bird but more importantly for the manufacturer, which had been through a torrid run up to this point.

The best Porsche was fourth, Cape Town winner da Costa blowing his chance to challenge for the win by overshooting at Turn 1, while Hyderabad victor Jean-Éric Vergne got the better of DS Penske team-mate, pole position starter and reigning champion Stoffel Vandoorne for fifth.

And what of runaway points leader and Diriyah double-header winner Wehrlein? The German salvaged seventh after his second comeback drive from a lowly grid spot in three races. He came from 12th to fourth in India, crashed into Sébastien Buemi in South Africa, then qualified a poor 18th this time. Still, he drove like a champion in the race. It’s on the bad days where titles are often won. But he ran as high as fifth, so it could have been much better, especially as he’d saved his Attack Mode power boosts for the end – only to be undone by someone else’s bad luck: that of his closest title rival Dennis.

The British driver ended up with his third non-score in a row when countryman Dan Ticktum missed his braking into Turn 1 and tagged the Andretti car’s rear. Dennis continued, but found his handling awry at Turn 3 and biffed into the side of Wehrlein’s works Porsche. That was game over for Dennis, who somehow still remains second in the points, albeit now 24 points adrift of Wehrlein.

But there are still 10 rounds left in this series. You never know in Formula E, and now the Big Cat has woken from its slumber the chase appears to be on. Bird and Evans have a great deal to do, lying 42 and 47 points respectively behind Wehrlein. But the excellent Cassidy is just one behind Dennis now after three consecutive podiums, so he’s Jaguar’s best title hope as it stands. Then there’s Vergne and da Costa in fourth and fifth, while the other Envision Virgin of Buemi and perhaps even the McLarens of René Rast and Jake Hughes can all play a part in the run-in to the London double-header in July. It’s all to play for.

Formula E Sao Paulo 2023 Mitch Evans Jaguar

Mitch Evans was the victor in Brazil


But again, will enough people notice? In the UK, the races are still shown live, but only via Channel 4’s YouTube streaming platform. The words of watchmaker Richard Mille come back to mind, from an interview with him I conducted last year for the magazine. “We didn’t continue with Formula E because we didn’t have much return on our investment,” he said of his decision to pull his sponsorship. “It was very disappointing.”

Nine seasons in, Formula E is still struggling far in the wake of F1 in terms of global appeal. Then again, that’s the case for all motor sport beyond the supposed grand prix pinnacle. There’s no justice in that, but there it is.

What Formula E and its invested manufacturers face is the reality that for all the good work they put in, millions around the world will continue to think motor sport means F1 first – and little else. That won’t change, so Formula E’s promoters know they need to box clever. In the Gen3 reboot, at least they know they are on the right track.