This weekend’s maiden Formula E event on the streets of Beijing was touted widely as the start of ‘a new era’ in motorsport. This most hateful of sports to eco-activists across the globe has finally wised-up, knuckled down and done something about the horrendous gas-guzzling tradition upon which it was built.
But what’s to differentiate this new Formula from the many that have preceeded it and been relegated to the history books? Think A1GP, F1 Masters and a whole host of other single-seater series that have sought to challenge the dominance of Formula One as the world’s favourite wheeled sport. Therein lies the difference; Formula E has never marketed itself as a green alternative to F1.
And yet that is precisely what it is.
Never explicitly setting themselves up for a fall has been a masterstroke of Alejandro Agag and the Formula E organising body, a move they could so easily have made – particularly with F1 viewing figures on the slide in recent seasons. ‘On the slide’ doesn’t mean much in F1 terms, with in excess of 450 million viewing each race live globally. But it’s a significant decrease from over 0.5 billion in 2011.
The thorough marketing and exposure given to Formula E as it tested at Donington throughout Summer 2014 gave fans the chance to familiarise themselves with the category before it got anywhere near a race. Free admission and dates across two months of excellent weather ( not arranged by Agag and his team, it must be mentioned) produced thousands of onlookers who were granted pitlane access and close contact with teams and drivers into the bargain. If you ever wanted to get a series off to a flying start, here was the blueprint for future endeavours.
Add to the mix no fewer than sixteen drivers – from a field of twenty – who have tasted or raced F1 machinery in the past and the level of interest ramps up to epic levels. Backing from names like Alain Prost, Michael Andretti and Leonardo Di Caprio doesn’t do any harm either.
Once the racing itself got underway it didn’t disappoint. Despite the confines of a thoroughly-uninspiring and ill-thought out Beijing street circuit the event built nicely into a last-corner showdown between Nicolas Prost and Nick Heidfeld, and that it ended in such explosive fashion merely consolidated the place in the nightly news bulletins across the world. It also cultivated a potential feud between erstwhile team-mates (both men race for Rebellion Lola in the Le Mans Series) and provided some of the controversy and intrigue so consumable by the global press.
Add an unexpected – but popular – victor in the form of ABT’s Lucas di Grassi, and you have a winning combination.
The Bad – And The Ugly
While planning and holding a street circuit event is never easy, one got the feeling the choice of location – around Beijing’s dormant and atrociously-underused 2008 Olympic park – was merely for publicity rather than practicality. At some points it was hard to decide whether a car was in the pitlane or racing on track, with the barriers seemingly mere feet apart.
And as for the bizarre tactic of hosting a DJ – cringworthily re-branded an ‘EJ’ for the race – to play some tracks over the race itself, the less said the better. Not only sporting a dreadful interpretation of a Daft Punk helmet but boasting a ‘mix’ consisting of one base track, this exceedingly annoying individual suceeded only in providing an irritating undertone of noise to an event that should be embracing its unique soundtrack. The whizz and hum of an electric racing car might not stir the emotions in the way of a screaming petrol-driven V10, but it is more than adequate to engage a new generation of followers to the sport. Why try and hide it instead?
Musical choice seemed to be the nadir of the event, with both the Brazilian and German national anthems cut disrespectfully and abruptly short for reasons unknown. The bemusement of winner di Grassi was clear to see, mirroring the confusion of many watching at home.
The ’50 second rule’ – whereby cars had to remain in the pits for almost a minute at driver changeovers to ensure safety was observed – came in for some criticism too. But remember, Formula E plans to eliminate the need to change cars in 2015. By then, battery life should have improved enough for a single car to be able to make the entire distance. The last thing a new series needs is a driver injured or killed through ignorance of safety; imagine if Nick Heidfeld’s seatbelts had been hastily – and incorrectly – done up at his changeover? Would we instead be talking about Formula E for all the wrong reasons?
All in all, Beijing proved to be a hugely successful event for the new category. To secure a place on live TV in Britain – ITV4 to be precise – is a huge coup in bringing the series to a wider audience. Jennie Gow could be forgiven her vocal exuberance as the show’s anchor because of her day job – pitlane reporter for BBC F1 – while F3 racer Jan Mardenborough and Le Mans engineer Kyle Wilson-Clarke added the level of ‘insider’ know-how and knowledge that gives depth to a presenting team. Hiring Jack Nicholls as lead commentator was obviously a mistake (I might be biased here), but Dario Franchitti’s position as ‘second mic’ in the box seems to be a role into which the former IndyCar champion has settled well.
The only disappointment? There’s 68 days to wait until the next race…