A few thoughts on Formula E

Vaishali Dinakaran  /
25 Jul 2014 18:37:09 IST

Remember Steve Slater? Well, in case you don't, here's a quick refresher. Back in the early 2000s, when Michael Schumacher was busy winning nearly every single race on the Formula 1 calendar, viewers in India who tuned into Star Sports' Formula 1 coverage would listen to commentary by Slater and Chris Goodwin. Goodwin, some of you might remember him as McLaren's chief test driver, was a patient sort of chap whose commentary was extremely insightful. Slater was the one with the gift of the gab. And as entertaining as he managed to make races, sometimes Slater's commentary could be a bit much. As a result of this, several people that I knew, began watching Formula 1 on mute, claiming that focussing on the on-track action was easier without Slater's rather spirited voice in the background. Drowning out Slater's voice also meant that the sound of those V10 engines was muted, but it didn't seem to bother these Formula 1 fans. Which leads me to believe that watching the race held more allure than listening to it.

Formula-E-Donington-Park

And that brings me to the first of the concerns that some people have voiced about Formula E. That the cars will be far too silent. I'm not entirely convinced that what we need to worry about when it comes to this new championship will be the sound. To begin with, the series promoters, Formula E Holdings, have made it quite clear that the cars won't be entirely devoid of sound. While a road going car produces sounds in the range of 70dB, a Formula E racer will produce sounds of around 80dB. This means that they won't be as silent as people think they will be. And the second is that the sound is incidental. Motorsport enthusiast Jonathan Wesley, the very same chap who designed the livery on the 2013 Le Mans art car - the day/night liveried Gulf Aston Martin - grew up near the Silverstone track. And this year, despite all the fuss that surrounds the Formula 1 engine noise, wrote to me after watching the Grand Prix at Silverstone saying,To be honest, the noise wasn't overly inspiring or offensive to me, it was just there! After a couple of laps I'd forgotten about all of the fuss surrounding the engine noise issue because there was so much else going on in the race!" Hopefully, this will prove true of Formula E as well.

My concerns about Formula E are of a rather different nature. To begin with it is the very concept of electric-powered cars and a sustainable racing series that I'm not entirely convinced about. There is research aplenty that is being conducted at the moment about whether or not electric cars are as environment friendly as they are supposed to be. There is a school of thought that indicates that the pollution caused during the manufacturing process of producing a single electric car far outweighs the pollution that would be caused by just running a beat up old petrol car for the next ten years or so. And there's also the nagging thought at the back of my mind that in motorsport, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves that we are consuming less resources and saving the environment, it isn't likely to happen. The essential and unfortunate nature of this sport is that it consumes - it takes money, it takes resources, sustainable and unsustainable and it gobbles them all up very quickly. And more often than not, it doesn't give back very much.

Speaking to Dilbagh Gill, the team principal of Mahindra Racing's Formula E operations, I got a little perspective though. When I questioned the seemingly sustainable nature of the series, Gill had a pertinent reply. By that measure we ought to be still riding around in bullockcarts," he quipped. His argument was that in order for the world to reach a stage where electric cars are truly as environment friendly as they hope to be, resources will have to be used up. Without that there can be no progress. Fair point then. Gill also said that the teams who have already signed on to be a part of the Formula E championship are trying hard to ensure that they can in some way give back to the cities in which the races are being held. There will be some unused electric power still available in the batteries, and we've got some ideas of how to harness this energy and leave it behind for the cities to use." A noble enough thought.

Then there's the fundamental question of why we watch motor racing in the first place. To watch race machines go fast. To watch people overtake each other and get into scraps aplenty. And also to cheer on our motorsport heroes. Well, Formula E Holdings promises that the cars, will be fast, and the racing action too. But what leaves me slightly perplexed is whether or not people will actually want to watch drivers like Katherine Legge, Franck Montagny, Takuma Sato and Jarno Trulli race. Think about it - the FIA World Rallycross Championship (the FIA's other new-for-2014 championship) is a dramatic sport. The cars are fast, they are cars people relate to in that they are very like your road-going cars, and they fly through the air, jump over ditches and cause drama aplenty! And, the added advantage they have is that the series has some really big names competing in it - Petter Solberg (2003 World Rally Champion), Ken Block, Travis Pastrana compete on a regular basis, with the likes of Sebastien Loeb and Jacques Villeneuve thrown in as wild card entries on occasion. There's a draw there. But people tuning in to watch has-been Formula 1 drivers, with a few upcoming stars like Antonio Felix da Costa, seems a little farfetched.

And perhaps it is for this reason that the series feels the need to come up with so very many innovations that they hope will increase fan interaction. The first, and something that has been talked of a whole lot, is the 'FanBoost' button. Where, in order to ensure that your favourite racer has a little extra power, you can vote for exactly that online. I'd much rather see a bunch of equal cars scrapping it out on track, which, in effect what a single-make series like the Formula E championship is meant to be about. There are a few other ideas that have been bandied about. When we spoke to Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E Holdings, sometime last year, Agag said one idea that they had was to have fans go online and log onto a site where they could virtually race in real-time against the actual Formula E pack. Maybe this will be something that will appeal to gamers. To the fan who wants to just watch a good race, not so much.

There is, however, one reason that I believe Formula E might be successful at least in its first year. The novelty of it might just appeal to some. But more than that, these races are being held smack bang in the middle of cities. Instead of trying to get fans to come to far flung racetracks, they are attempting to get the racing to fans. If the race is being held in the middle of a city, the odds of more people turning up to watch it are fairly high. Whether or not those numbers can be replicated in subsequent years will remain to be seen.

There are more questions that have been playing on my mind. The first of which came up when I read one of Joe Saward's blog posts (you can read the original post here). Why did Drayson Racing leave the championship? Something that warrants some thought, given that Lord Drayson seemingly spends most of his time trying to make electric machines go faster, especially in a racing situation. Maybe it is because while the championship starts out as a single make series, the plan for the future, where individual teams are meant to be building their own electric cars, is not clear. Perhaps time will tell.

Meanwhile, even as all these thoughts cloud my mind, the first race of the championship is a month and a half away. And what I hope to see at Beijing is some good (old-fashioned seems a little redundant in this case) racing. Racing that will, if only briefly, silence my doubts. Who knows, maybe sparks will fly.

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