Will Formula 1 or Formula E be on top in 15 years?
Formula 1 and Formula E exist in parallel for now, but the world will be very different by the 2030s. Will the series with the clearer sense of purpose emerge as motorsport’s top category, wonders James Allen
In 15 years from now there will be only one premier single-seater racing series. But which one will it be: Formula 1 or Formula E?
This question was put to me in Barcelona by a sponsor who has been in Formula 1 for a number of years and likes to think about the way things are heading. Sponsors are certainly heading to FE; some are leaving F1 behind, such as insurance giant Allianz, others are supplementing their F1 activity with a foot in the sustainable-racing camp.
The momentum behind FE has been growing steadily in the past 12 months, with news that Porsche and Mercedes would be joining the other manufacturers in the series, then with the announcement of electricity giant ABB as title sponsor, and more recently founder and CEO Alejandro Agag’s bold offer to buy out the other FE shareholders for €600million.
Recent races in Rome, Paris and Berlin have been sell-outs. Although the TV numbers haven’t yet started to move the needle, the social media reach is decent and the crowds are certainly coming, tempted by the fan villages and other activities around the normally single-day event.
People who are deeply entrenched in F1 tend to be dismissive of FE; they find the spectacle risible, don’t see it as a proper form of motorsport, and don’t see how a full field of manufacturer-backed cars is sustainable. Motorsport history tells you manufacturers who aren’t winning will quit.
But is FE a sporting championship or is it just a technology exercise?
Readers with good memories will recall the early 2000s, when the manufacturers in F1 at the time formed themselves into a powerful block, shaping up to challenge the hegemony of then CEO Bernie Ecclestone. They founded the Grand Prix Manufacturers Association, with a view to getting a better deal on the Concorde Agreement, and there were suggestions that they might form their own series if they didn’t get their way.
It was against this backdrop that CVC bought into F1, setting the series off on a pathway that history will probably not view favourably, given that it gave rise to the uneven distribution of prize money to teams that has caused so much trouble in the past decade.
Will FE walk into a similar situation? There is the concern that the four German manufacturers in particular will turn the series into an arms race, pushing up the costs of competition unless such expenditure is tightly regulated. That’s what has happened in F1.
But what FE does have that marks it out is a purpose, a story to tell. Marketers will tell you that purpose is everything when you are creating an authentic campaign.
FE can tell the story of how in five seasons it has gone from ‘range anxiety’ – the endemic challenge of electric cars – to a battery that will do the whole race distance, so the drivers no longer need to change cars halfway through the race. That is a powerful message and a statement of the series’ purpose.
As we move through seasons six, seven and onwards the cars will get faster and faster. This will bring another challenge: the series will outgrow its tight city centre circuit layouts. For example, Paris’s Invalides layout will be too constrictive. To build a fully-fledged street circuit, in the style of Singapore’s Marina Bay or the proposed Miami Grand Prix track, for a one-day event is too expensive.
And the series cannot switch to permanent tracks such as Silverstone or Monza because the spectacle would be poor. And anyway, the point is to take the racing into the cities to promote electric mobility.
But the sense of purpose is clear. The series was created by FIA president Jean Todt in response to a brief from the European Union to do more to promote electric mobility, especially in cities.
F1 is currently being marketed by Liberty Media on the “engineered insanity” premise: the extreme emotions it stirs, the visceral quality of the cars and the heroic drivers who tame them. There is no central purpose – just racing, sport, emotion. This is the direction proposed by Liberty, hence the present push to simplify engines to get costs down and noise levels up.
Part of that process is the removal of the MGU-H, which provides 60% of the electrification in F1’s hybrid system. Although opposed by the manufacturers, if it went ahead it would move F1 away from something to benefit the mobility industry: a race to develop batteries with greater energy density.
If you look forward 15 years, with governments around the world banning petrol and diesel cars in cities, you can imagine more electric cars, more autonomous vehicles, more ride sharing.
So which will be the premier single-seater series in a world like that?