Head of Formula E says all systems in place for Saturday series debut – with one small exception.
Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E Holdings, admits that there’s a one problem going into Saturday’s debut of the Formula E series in Beijing, China.
“We are completely sold out,” he told Motorsport.com in an exclusive interview. “For the first year, we were a bit cautious. But we could have sold triple the number of tickets, if we only had them to sell.”
That’s a problem plenty of motorsports series wish they had, and Agag says it is pretty much the only problem he has. But wouldn’t he like just one more week to get everything ready?
“Absolutely not. We are completely on schedule. We’re ready to go.”
The breadth and scope of launching this new series can’t be overstated. Not only is it the first genuine, global, professional all-electric series – fully sanctioned by the FIA, just like Formula One – the schedule is stunningly ambitious, with the season starting September 14, 2014, and ending June 27, 2015. Besides China, there are races scheduled for Malaysia, Uruguay, Argentina, the U.S. (Miami and Long Beach, California), Monaco, Germany and England, with Thailand being a possibility for a TBA slot.
The cars themselves are remarkable – the chassis is a Dallara design, built by Spark Racing, and called the Spark-Renault SRT_01E. The electric motor was designed by McLaren, the battery system was created by Williams F1, the five-speed transmission is a Hewland, and the tires are from Michelin.
The series has the full backing of the FIA in general, FIA President Jean Todt in particular. “For me,” Todt says, “the electric car is really the future of motoring in the cities. And that’s why we begin with hosting races in world cities. It’s a new approach, it’s a new product.”
That said, Agag stresses that Formula E is not a replacement for Formula One, or any other series.
We don’t want to replace anything, especially since we are great fans of Formula One.
“We don’t want to replace anything, especially since we are great fans of Formula One. We love Formula One. So we would like to be compatible, complimentary to Formula One, and IndyCar. And I think that is possible because we have such different technology and a different approach. Since we are racing electric cars, we can have our own personality, present our own identity to the public. So growing, and growing together parallel with Formula One, I think is a good way to go.”
Besides the innovative car, there are innovative aspects to the race itself.
One is the 360-degree camera, which will be mounted on every car. Fans watching with a touch-screen monitor can move the camera, under speed, in a full 360-degree radius around the car, and even replay from each angle – wonder who just booted your favorite car in the rear quarter? “Paint” the camera around on the screen and see. (Full disclosure: Motorsport.com is a partner in the 360 technology).
It would be an understatement to say Agag is a fan. “What this championship is about is groundbreaking technology, and 360 clearly will be a unique experience. Fans have never been able to watch from a 360-degree perspective on a race car. And we can’t wait to have it. We won’t be able to get it ready for the first race, but we’ll working very hard to get it ready as soon as possible.”
360 Racing, led by chief technical officer Nikolay Shturkin, has developed a pair of high-grade compact megapixel sensors with two extreme fisheye lenses, each covering more than a hemisphere, thus creating the unique hardware solution, which is able to capture 360-degree by 360-degree video. A technology he calls "real-time stitching" corrects optical aberrations and automatic exposure equalization to ensure picture quality even in fast-changing light conditions. Software synchronization and automatic image processing ensure the highest quality video, while compression hardware significantly decreases stream bandwidth but maintains image integrity. The compact bullet-shaped camera is incredibly tough, lightweight aluminium and carbon case is waterproof and easy to mount. Motorsport.com has a license to use this technology from its sister company, 360Racing.com.
Teams and competitors are excited as well. “They love it. Everyone who has seen the 360 camera demonstration on the iPad – they freak out. They think it is incredible what they’ve done with that camera. It turns the fan into the driver for the race.”
'Fan Boost' another innovation
Similarly, Formula E is extending the fan-participation aspect to a new level: Fans of a particular driver can “vote” for him or her via social media, giving them an extra shot of electrical power. Called “Fan Boost,” Agag says that it “adds a completely new dimension to the race, especially for the younger fans. They like to interact, they like to participate, and I think that will be very important.” China has already had 100 million people participating in Fan Boost voting, Agag said. Winners are announced just 10 minutes before the green flag falls.
So who will be in the grandstands for a Formula E race, or watching at home?
“It will be a bit of a mix – between traditional motorsports fans, and then many people who have never come to a traditional race, what I call a ‘combustion race,’ will come see this series. A lot of young people, a lot of kids. We are very family friendly. It’s a new kind of mix, along with the traditional motorsport fan.”
So far, Agag says, sponsorship has been solid, with three new companies coming aboard just this past week. He is also pleased with the global broadcast package, with includes Fox, Sky and ITV. At the F1 race broadcast in China last weekend, “There were commercials for Formula E at every break,” Agag says.
Sound of success?
And while Agag doesn’t mention the backlash against the new sound of the 2014 Formula One cars, he says he is sensitive to the sound of the Formula E car – which is a surprisingly pleasant, almost jet-like whoosh. He does want to stress that this is what a Formula E car sounded like out of the box. There was no manipulation.
“We didn’t know what the sound would be like. We just built the car and waited to hear it, and it was amazing from the start. There is nothing artificial about the sound – the sound comes from the motor and gearbox, and that’s it – it just happens to be a really cool sound. But it could have been silent for all we knew. When we tested the car for the first time, we were curious to see what would happen, and the result was great.”
It has been a long road for Formula E, Agag said, and he is ready to prove the critics wrong. “I think people were skeptical in the beginning – many thought when we started the project that it would never happen. Then it went though a phase of ‘maybe it will happen,’ then ‘probably it will happen.’ Now, this week, it’s happening!”
One rewarding aspect has been the response from, and to the drivers, “which has been fantastic. As you know we have been working inside the world of motorsports for many years” – the 43-year-old Spanish businessman has owned GP2 and GP3 teams. “Six of my drivers have made it to Formula One. That has been good for us because the drivers knew who we were, knew we were serious. They knew we were putting together something that could be good. We are so happy with the names we have on the grid.”