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Why the world’s most elite drivers are going electric

Photography By Tom Fisk, Bas Van Den Eijkhof, Todd Jiang
Published 09.06.22

The first thing people will tell you about the all-electric Formula E series is it’s quieter than the fuel-powered fury that is Formula One. But that’s only partly true.

From where we’re sitting – in a packed grandstand overlooking the streets of Hong Kong that have been transformed into a temporary race circuit – things are getting plenty loud.

The bleachers are packed with cheering fans, the punter-filled paddocks and pavilions are heaving with people, and in the nearby eVillage – which has taken over Hong Kong’s Central Harbourfront – the DJs and live bands are just warming up for a party that will go well into the night.

In fact, the only things even remotely quiet here are the Formula E cars themselves. Forget the explosion of sound and speed that is a modern F1 racer (and keep in mind that today’s F1 racers aren’t anywhere near as loud as they used to be in the V10-engine era). The cars that compete in Formula E make, at worst, a gentle whizzing as they zap past the grandstands. “No louder than a normal car sitting in traffic”, according to event organisers.

There are also no traditional racetracks on the Formula E circuit. Because the cars are nearly silent and produce nothing in the way of emissions, they can race anywhere they want, and so most races take place on the streets of some of the world’s most iconic cities. Locations that would never allow an F1 race.

@fiaformulae

This season, the series will visit Diriyah in Saudi Arabia, Mexico City, Rome, Monaco, Berlin, Jakarta, Marrakesh, New York, London and Seoul. In the past, Paris and Valencia have hosted races. Next year, Sao Paulo in Brazil will join the list, while Stockholm, Cape Town and Houston are all under consideration, too.

And while Formula One has always been a battle of engineering brains and financial brawn, with fans remote and merely holding their ears in pain, in Formula E, the spectators can decide which driver gets an extra boost of power, and can genuinely change the outcome of a race, even if they’re watching from the comfort of their couch at home.

Another point of difference is the gentle green glow that surrounds Formula E events. The electric cars are recharged using renewable bio-fuel, which powers custom-designed glycerine generators that are shipped to each location with the cars, meaning the races are largely off the grid.

If that’s not enough to convince you the sport takes its green ethos serious, there’s no parking (VIP or otherwise) offered at its races. Fans are encouraged to walk, cycle or catch public transport instead.

All of this, and more, convinced motorsport traditionalists that Formula E would flop, and that any purist with a passion for petrol-fuelled motorsport would never get on board.  

They throw in that last part as an insult. Formula E organisers, on the other hand, have made it their mission.

“That is exactly what we’re looking for. We need to capture the hearts and minds of kids who are going to charge the EV growth of the future,” says Nissan motorsport boss, Michael Carcamo. “If you are a 10-year-old kid and you’ve never been to a race, this becomes your baseline and reference point. And when that product looks familiar to you because you have grown up playing video games with those kinds of features in it, you can really relate to it.”

@fiaformulae

It’s true that the crowds surrounding the Hong Kong street circuit I visited to watch a race didn’t look like your typical F1 fans. But it’s also true that there were a lot of them.  

Many of them were busy voting for their favourite driver in a motorsport-first called Fan Boost. Just as Instagram influencers feed off likes, so do Formula E cars, with the most popular driver’s vehicle given a five-kilowatt power boost, designed to make it easier to overtake, to catch the front runners, or to extend their lead.

Others are on their feet when their favourite driver aims for the Attack Mode activation zone – a strip of track just off the racing line (which means it’s slower to drive through), but which then unlocks an extra 30kW of power. If a driver is at the back of the pack, activating Attack Mode helps narrow the gap and makes for more exciting racing.

Both are equal parts insane and ingenious and provide a gamification of motorsport so removed from traditional F1 racing, it’s like the two series exist in different timelines. And appeal to different generations.

Attack Mode and Fan Boost are only possible because every car on the grid shares the same batteries, tyres and aerodynamics, and power is capped across the grid at 254kW. Unlike Formula One – in which only the richest teams (Red Bull, Ferrari or Mercedes) have the cash needed to secure wins – Formula E levels the playing field by ensuring every team uses largely the same car.

Which is why the team owners love the sport every bit as much as the fans; it’s cheap, or at least relatively so. In 2022, team spending was capped at US$14.6 million per season (compared to F1 where the annual cap is US$140 million). It’s another reason why, in Formula E, teams like Porsche, Mercedes or Jaguar rub shoulders with teams from Nissan, Indian car maker Mahindra, and Chinese EV giants Nio.

All of this is not to say the sport is flawless. While the series has been improving every year, there are still moments of madness. Last year in Valencia, for example, the race descended into chaos when around half the field ran out of battery charge and couldn’t make the finish line.

But Formula E’s popularity is growing (TV viewership numbers were up 32 per cent in 2021 alone). And with every passing day, Formula E is feeling more like the future. One that could leave Formula One stuck in the past. 

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