Sebastien Buemi crowned Formula E champion – but where does the electric series go from here?
Although it drops off the motorsport calendar after this weekend, London’s Battersea Park track has certainly made its mark on the Formula E seri...
Although it drops off the motorsport calendar after this weekend, London’s Battersea Park track has certainly made its mark on the Formula E series.
A year ago, Nelson Piquet Jr was celebrating after his title rival Sebastien Buemi spun in that season’s second London ePrix and lost enough places to let the Brazilian clinch the inaugural championship by a single point.
Yesterday, Buemi finally took the title after a bizarre and breathless season two finale.
First the former Toro Rosso driver was taken out at Turn 1 by his latest championship challenger, and fellow former Formula 1 driver, Lucas di Grassi.
Then, after a series of aborted attempts from both drivers to set the fastest lap, and gain two pivotal points as a result, the Swiss driver blitzed his way around the 2.925-km Battersea circuit to seal the best time and with it the title. Oh and his Renault-e.DAMS teammate Nico Prost won a race that at times was almost forgotten.
Dramatic indeed. So after its first two seasons, where does Formula E go from here? Well the short answer, for season three at least, is: everywhere.
Next year, sorry, later this year, the Formula E calendar expands to 12 events and 14 races beginning in Hong Kong on October 9 before taking in races in Marrakech, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Monaco, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Montreal and ending up in New York at the end of July 2017.
Although there are two rounds yet to be announced, and London may yet reappear, the New York race steals the headlines out of the five new cities joining the FE calendar. In much the same way as Formula E became the first championship to race on the streets of London last year, the series beats F1 to secure a glittering race in the Big Apple.
But problems with FE’s calendar still persist. There will be a five-week gap between the Hong Kong and Marrakech ePrix races and then a gaping three-month chasm until the Buenos Aires event in mid-February. The following 11 rounds, including two double headers in Montreal and New York are then squeezed into the final 17 weeks.
Formula E’s CEO Alejandro Agag points out that long-term deals with bustling and busy cities are not always practical. “We always have to be flexible in Formula E because we race in cities,” he says, “and cities are not the same as race tracks.
“Cities are like living entities. The mayors of the cities change and the circumstances of the cities change – [as] we’ve seen here in London, the local circumstances change. So we always keep a very flexible approach to our calendar.”
Keeping the ePrix events to regular cities at similar times of year would certainly help FE build familiarities with its fans, and Agag wants his series to achieve this in the future.
“This calendar is a calendar of transition,” he explains. “We want to get the races close together in the future. We want to have a base for a calendar that has more cities that stay more or less on the same weekend.”
Power train progress
So with more cities on board, how is Formula E’s technology developing? For the season just gone, the teams could produce their own powertrains – specifically the e-motor, inverter, gearbox and cooling system. But plans for them to build their own batteries next season were shelved and the FIA has invited companies to bid to supply new standard batteries from the start of season five.
The governing body is also evaluating proposals for a new spec chassis for season five, but that move will at least keep costs down for the teams.
“Obviously you want all the cars to be as close as possible but you also want the manufacturers to be involved in the series and no series goes forward without manufacturers,” Piquet told JAonF1 in London. “The only way to do that is to open the technology.”
While it may seem strange for Formula E to abandon its technology road map, which had previously called for the teams to be producing their own batteries in season three, the FIA’s calls for tenders have been done to try and get the series to a point where mid-race car swaps are no longer necessary.
“We already have more manufacturers than Formula 1,” adds Piquet, but in season three only three of those (Renault, the incoming Jaguar, and Citroen’s DS brand) will represent giant OEMs, and the ABT team’s power train comes from Schaeffler, not Audi.
BMW is keeping a close eye on Formula E through its deal to supply the series’ course cars and Nissan was linked with a deal to buy a team for season three.
But what pleases Agag is the addition of electric start-up ventures like Faraday Future, which will test its technology in Dragon Racing’s cars from next year. “These new brands are particularly attractive because we’re new [too],” he says. “We’re satisfied that this trend is consolidating and more and more manufacturers are coming to Formula E. I think manufacturers are going to play a big role in the future of the electric car because a lot of electric cars are going to be needed in a very short period of time.”
As one might expect from the boss of an all-electric racing series, Agag confidently predicts that a switchover from internal combustion engines to electricity powering most of the planet’s cars will happen by 2025-2027.
“I really believe that we’re getting towards a tipping point,” he says. “And when that happens, the demand will be exponential. We saw with Tesla, they had 400,000 orders in a period of a week or ten days. We see early signs of a huge demand and this is only going to increase.
“I think Formula E is the right platform. We tried to create the right platform for these OEMs to use Formula E as their vehicle and platform to showcase those technologies.”
The keys to survival
Di Grassi, who spoke eloquently at the recent FIA Sport Conference about the potential for autonomous vehicles to reduce the broader appeal of motorsport, nevertheless feels Formula E’s approach to technology and entertainment are correct.
“This series is on the right path with the concept and development of technology,” he told JAonF1. “Formula E will grow because I think they are balancing three important aspects very well: entertainment, technology and cost control. Other series are not, especially F1. But motorsport overall will diminish with time, that’s not an ‘if’ for me, that’s very straightforward.”
As befits a championship that seeks to be innovative, Formula E has become closely associated with virtual reality and eSports. The series has produced an immersive trackside experience with VR company Virtually Live and will host an online ePrix at the same time as the FIA Electric Mobility Forum gets underway in Las Vegas next January. That race will take place on the rFactor online platform and ten winners of a “race to Vegas” championship will compete for a large cash prize in a special event that will follow the same format as a real ePrix.
Formula E is certainly making things happen alongside its main series and its “this is not F1” message is still very much in place. There were encouraging signs at the London races over the weekend as more FE t-shirts and caps were on display than replica F1 merchandise, and there were lots of young people and families enjoying the racing and live events in Battersea park.
The big test for Formula E will be ensuring the series survives until Agag’s predicted switchover occurs. The championship only lasted the duration of season one due to the investment of media company Liberty Global and other “different” single seater series such as A1 GP and Superleague Formula both folded after four years.
But Formula E can take heart from attention it is currently getting from China. Piquet won the first championship for the China Racing team, which became NEXTEV TCR for this year, and the Chinese online entertainment firm LeECO heavily backs Faraday Future.
Shanghai-based China Media Capital has also just bought out the former F1 squad, Team Aguri, and will run the team as Techeetah in season three.
“China has definitely got Formula E on the radar,” says Agag. “We are getting great traction in China – I think China is one of the key markets for manufacturers all around the world and think the fact that very large media groups and very large business groups are coming into Formula E is a very strong sign of how strong the championship is, and how it is going in that key market for the electric vehicle.”
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