How Formula E's lack of identity continues to hurt its racing

Formula E News

Formula E provided its usual chaos and carnage but still hasn't sorted out one crucial element of its racing in seven years of existence

Valencia E-Prix 2021

Formula E provides great spectacle on track but unclear operations off it hurt the overall product

François Flamand / DPPI

Nobody got an easy ride at Saturday’s Formula E race in Valencia. While drivers contended with spray from the wet track, viewers were grappling with the penalties, power deductions and crashes that were only partially picked up by static cameras. Even the commentary team struggled to keep up.

But that’s not always surprising in an action-packed race. More telling was the second E-Prix on Sunday. Fewer incidents on a dry track, things should have been much easier to follow, but a casual viewer would have been just as lost.

Formula E still needs to get the basics right. In what is its seventh season, the electric racing series continues to suffer from a lack of polish and refinement that other championships have. And that’s ignoring the crunchy nature of the competition.

The signature bumping and banging racing has brought a dedicated following since the early years of swapping cars during pitstops, and there has certainly been plenty of action and drama as a result. It’s all free to view via BBC iPlayer, but the appeal of the series is of little use if viewers tune in to a grid they can’t identify and a series of idiosyncratic rules.

Within moments of the race start, buzzwords such as ‘Attack Mode’ and ‘Fan Boost’ are hammered home by a clearly enthusiastic but sometimes overwhelmed commentary team.

Formula E graphics 2021

Neat and tidy graphics but who’s who?

Formula E/YouTube

The complexity of the series, where a driver’s ability to manage energy use — rather than their outright speed — is the key factor in their success, brings with it a steep learning curve for new viewers. And there’s very little information to help them out beyond the commentary team.

Viewers are shown how long drivers have left of their attack mode but the interactive graphic, superimposed on the track, doesn’t explain that it offers a power boost to cars that drive through the activation zone.

And the news ticker that was busily bleeping alerts about the latest reduction in power allowance, offers no explanation about the effect that this has. As this is shown at the safety car restart — when all eyes are on the battling pack — it’s easily missed.

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Undoubtedly, the series will be considering how it can simplify the spectacle, but this needs to include the full viewing experience.

Commentators can shout “Nick De Vries might be going for an overtake” but if you aren’t a seasoned fan or watching with a spotters guide in hand, which grey car is that?

You may well look to the left side of your screen where driver positions are listed in the ‘timing tower’, but it’s pitiful when it comes to explaining the very basics of what’s going on and for a casual fan, that initial learning curve is still too steep.

Full names are listed on the timing tower, but it doesn’t link the names to the cars and it doesn’t always match the three-letter abbreviations used on the cars and to identify team radio transmissions: so it’s left to you to work out that “GUE” relates to the driver listed as “Günther” on the left.

It’s not always useful to compare Formula E with Formula 1 but the latter’s clear, colour co-ordinated nameplates put the electric series to shame. And as Formula 2 and 3 are afforded the F1 treatment when it comes to TV graphics, it’s easier to identify F3 cars on first viewing than those in Formula E.

Formula E HUD

A busy but unique take on an on-board HUD from 2017

Nick Heidfeld/Facebook

The series already has a template, each major manufacturer has ample space awarded to show off its logos and title sponsors in the post-race results pages. And the 2021 grid is far more colourful than years gone by. Sure there might be two or three green cars but there is plenty about each team that’s distinctive enough to pick a single colour and use it to identify them across the product.

Formula E’s current identity was crafted back in 2018 by ‘business transformation consultants’ Prophet. It was aimed at delivering a product that was more appealing to a younger audience and one seen as more relevant.

Part of that rebranding was so it could move away from Formula 1 and carve out its own signature look but it can’t hurt to take a page out of the FOM playbook and inform the audience which car is which and assign each team its own unique on-screen identity across the product.

Where the series has been creative with how it goes about things on the track, it continues to miss big opportunities to push on beyond what other racing series do with their presentation. It hasn’t shied away from thinking a little outside of the box every now and again either.

The overloaded Terminator-esque heads-up display has quietly been put to one side but innovation like that could help capture the attention of a wider audience Formula E is taking for granted right now.

Getting influencers to endorse the racing, take part in watch-alongs and post on social media about it is all well and good, but how about a helping hand for those trying to follow along at home and get invested?