Any new global motorsport championship which lasts its first four seasons has to be viewed as a success. Especially one such as Formula E, with its innovative all-electric cars, all-street calendar and growing roster of manufacturers.
Now the series is preparing to say goodbye to its first-generation machines and mid-race car swaps. With the new season four months away, @HazelSouthwell considers the state of the series.Formula 1 a year-on-year audience growth that beyond exceeds expectations and heads into only its fifth year in a position where cities are vying to host its rounds.
That’s all good news if you’re a fan or – for instance, like me – you make your living in some way surrounding it. It’s also genuinely good news for broader motorsport, which has seen across-the-board declining numbers and particularly in top-flight single seater series. Formula One, in particular, has suffered from being hidden behind a paywall – and it’s not just me saying that, Chase Carey does too.
So, even if you hate the series that should be viewed positively. And wow, do some people still hate Formula E; the insistence that it’s not ‘real motorsport,’ the reaction that it’s an offence against ‘proper’ racing continues.
There’s that old adage about first people mock you, then they hate you, then they fight you, then you win. Let’s not pretend that we’re entirely through all phases of that but it’s taken as the path to success for a disruptor brand, a business that doesn’t comply to the norms of its industry and by doing so successfully, changes the way that other businesses in the industry have to respond.
Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag absolutely considers the series to be a disruptor – it’s the word he uses most often to describe it. As far back as 2014, before we’d even gone racing, he said “Formula E is ‘disruptive motorsport’. Absolutely everything is new and pioneering. We’re trialling the unknown – the beginning of the electric motor sports era. “
He’s said it a lot since. It’s not an unfair label – disruptors upset people and agitate their more traditional counterparts; probably why Ross Brawn is bothering to pass comment on a series magnitudes smaller than Formula One currently.
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All so far, so punk. But there are some dreadful lessons in the history of disruptive upstarts. One particularly memorable example would be BrewDog, the Scottish craft brewery that has ridden the changing face of the UK’s beer consumption to its foamy crest. Back in 2010 it was two men making a beer based off the name of a pretentious book, while everyone asked why and pointed out that 55% ABV at £700 a bottle, stuffed in a dead squirrel is not exactly what you were looking for in the local.
BrewDog springs to mind because at the time I loathed them. Their stupid stunt beers, their ridiculous names. The actually unpleasant flavours they concocted. The fact it was twice the price of a pint of something I might want to put in my mouth even when it wasn’t encased in taxidermy. It was very much Not Real Ale.
Well, more fool me because now everything tastes like that and costs that much. And I find myself grudgingly acknowledging that refusing to go in any craft beer bars for years now just means I don’t see my friends. And I keep going to BrewDog’s stupid pubs because actually they have quite comfy booths and they do nice burgers. I lost, BrewDog won and honestly at this point I guess I kind of like it.
On the other hand, as a multinational and multi-hundreds-of-millions a year business, the fact they offer share options as ‘equity for punks’ feels a little disingenuous. They’ve annoyed the people they wanted to annoy (me) and finally we’ve been broken down into seeing it their way or at least putting up with it and thus the disruptor becomes the normative.
Formula E isn’t there, yet. It isn’t anywhere near there. I don’t know if they’ve ever considered making an Electric IPA but there’s no need at the moment to create the sensation of being upstarts by getting into it – the fact of it is still entirely real. Every single time I tell people I’m a Formula E journalist someone says “oh, but it’s not real racing is it?” And then usually confesses to not actually watching motorsport anyway.
Without straying into existentialism, though; Formula E has lost a bit of its total scrappiness. Which is no bad thing – back in season one, Renault looked entirely mad to have jumped into bed with the series. European viewers might not have clocked Mahindra for the scale of automotive brand they are at the time but anyone who did might well have thought the same. Manufacturers in a spec series? With diddy little electric cars tootling round streets?
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It worked out rather well for the early adopters. Renault have left the sport, at the end of this season, with three teams’ championships. Mahindra had a rockier start but were leading both drivers’ and teams’ championships after three rounds of season four.
Meanwhile Jaguar’s entry in season three left them on the back foot, floundering and coming firmly last in the teams’ title. They moved up to sixth this year – and a podium finish – with a car that, if it hadn’t quite mastered the efficiency some of the other teams have achieved, had at least found the speed. Team boss James Barclay described them as the ‘most improved’ and it’s hard to dispute that, albeit starting from a regretfully low benchmark.
Jaguar aren’t a disruptor, though. That’s not knocking them, it’s just they’re a relatively old-school company and while their announcement that they won’t make pure-ICE vehicles from the year after next is gutsy, they entered Formula E because it brought them disruptive credibility and gave that decision context, rather than because they’ve torn up all their own rule books.
Formula E certainly still considers itself a disruptor. It commissioned agency Prophet to totally rework its brand before the start of season three, when purple chevrons and a new, jagged typeface suddenly started appearing. Their philosophy had been to entirely divorce it from its larger comparator, according to a partner at the company “The answer was to stop trying to compete with Formula 1 and move the goal posts completely,”
Something Formula E’s taken on, this season. Although the drivers remain keen to point out it boasts one of the most competitive grids in terms of getting seats – and that there remain no pay drivers in the series – they’re also vocally fed up of being asked about comparisons between Formula E and Formula One.
It works, as a disruptor. Of course if you look at something like BrewDog then in reality their premise – of selling provocatively-named beers that announce how challenging they are to you before you even open them, thus flattering the consumer if they successfully enjoy them – is one that the beverage industry and indeed specifically beer companies have been using for decades, if not centuries. It’s just that they had the foresight to repackage them as looking entirely different from the keg of Dead Badger that had been on tap in the pub in your parents’ village for the last thirty years.
The thing is to get buy-in based on that. To bring in, say, ABB as series sponsors, sure but also to get manufacturers to commit their own products and say this is something they want to be part of. Formula E has a massive – if unfortunate – disruptive bias here in that the entire planet is heating to unbearable temperatures and it’s become increasingly obvious we need to do what we should have done three decades ago and address carbon dioxide emissions.
Which is another thing that FE’s detractors hate, of course. Odd, since electric vehicles, as of currently, represent the only manufacture-viable road alternative in the short-term; hydrogen vehicles may well be a better solution for, say, haulage but they aren’t commercially available and neither is the gas.
For a disruptor, Formula E has the automotive industry in the chokehold it’s placed the environment in; if you want to sell cars in a lot of countries in the near-to-middle future, you had better find out how to make electric ones.
Disruptors tend to brand with a sort of dystopian borderline-nihilism. Formula E’s problem is that it’s not depressing enough, in some ways – it attracts a growing youth audience, with 13-24 year olds its fastest-growing demographic, digitally; as someone who has worked with youth brands, I know full well how gold-dust like that is. Especially with something like motorsport, which has struggled to maintain, let alone gain a youth audience.
I asked one of the youngest drivers, Alex Lynn, whether he thought Formula E had a genuine appeal to young people and was surprised by his answer-
“I think it really does. I think in general, younger people – I’ve got a younger brother who’s sixteen years old, my sister’s nineteen – so I see with that generation, people are maybe less interested in cars in general and are more interested in what phone someone’s got, what laptop someone’s got. So I think what Formula E appeals to is 100% a new generation.”
That bit seemed fair – Formula E showcases new cars in a way that older motorsport fans might not like but which appeals to the sort of techie who will wait for new product announcements. And then hopefully fall in love with the sporting side. What Alex went on to say was different though – and why Formula E can and must continue to pull off a disruptive role –
“The big thing about Formula E, whether you’re drivers, whether you’re teams, whether you’re manufacturers: it’s our job to make it exciting because it really is the future. The best thing about Formula E is that even amongst the drivers there’s a real sense of … I’m going to use the word ‘responsibility’ to prove that electric racing is entertaining, fast and furious and that the cars are cool to drive, with technology that’s saving the planet.”
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Alex is 24. His other job is driving a honking great Aston Martin GT car around in WEC – if the idea that consciously saving the planet has become something he honestly wants to make cool, it’s because he’s of the generation that knows it has to.
Electric cars are a difficult solution; they are expensive to make, they do have a carbon cost to creation (mind you, this is far from non-existent in petrol or diesel cars) and depending on the country, grid-charging can be fossil fuel generated still. On the other hand, the extent of their environmental failings has been greatly overstated – battery life is looking to be well over a decade in normally-used road EVs and the carbon deficit in creating an electric vehicle vs a combustion car is returned in between two and five years of use.
Saying that makes people really angry. Which is why Formula E has to remain punk, in a way that Formula One can’t hope to emulate. The most recent F1 rebrand, which has seen video game-style graphics and videos slogan-ed ‘engineered insanity’ slapped across broadcasts and social channels, is their own attempt to appeal to a younger audience. It’s not (totally) misguided and it may well work or at least is an attempt but it comes as a showcase of authority, not an invitation to rebellion.
Formula E is simultaneously going through the mocking, hating and fighting stages, as it heads towards season five. It can continue to brand as a challenge, its whole existence a genuinely different attempt at seeing the future – both for existing motorsport fans and their mixed feelings about it and people who have never engaged with the sport before. In an internet age, it’s a huge advantage. And a scary one.
A disruptor stops being plausible as one when it becomes the norm. Formula E is a long way off that. For now.
@DieterRencken’s RacingLines column will return next week.
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