Analysis: Formula E’s Brave New World

After a successful first season, Formula E is now facing the challenge of avoiding a Sophomore Slump. Sam Smith weighs up where things are at after the Season 2 opener in Beijing.

In Aldous Huxley’s futuristic novel Brave New World, spending time alone is considered abnormal and leisure time is exclusively taken in harmonious and technologically advanced communal activity with an emphasis on continuous development.

Last weekend’s new dawn in Formula E’s own Brave New World was bright and paralleled Huxley’s future vision, yet it isn’t accurately possible to gauge and study just yet.

Was it a fresh and vibrant technological age for the all-electric series? Or a blind alley which would deliver domination by one entrant that had simply spent the most, and as a result confirmed the adage of ‘the second difficult album’?

“I think tomorrow we are going to make history in motorsport because it is going to be the first time ever that there is going to be a race between different technologies in different cars,” said Formula E chief Alejandro Agag last Friday.

“This is going to be the first time we will see seven different powertrains competing against each other. It’s going to be fascinating.”

Of course, it was fascinating. And ultimately it delivered on expectations despite Renault’s domination.
Whatever epiphany that Formula E experienced last weekend in China, there was one simple word which accurately précised it. Evolution.

The opening up of new ‘manufacturer’ powertrain technology was a vital step for the nascent series, which ended Season 1 blessed with a solid foundation.

Ever since this genesis phase ceased, its inception back in the early part of the current decade, had seen frequent discussions on how a series can comfortably exist between a tricky corridor of relevant future-technical solutions and an entertaining spectacle.

Time will tell if the FIA Formula E Championship has got it right, but as a first taste, Beijing showed there was much to savour.


The frustrations of secrecy

Yet still, some frustrations exist. Why is it that this, one of the most technologically progressive and diverse championships in current international motorsport, keeps the new powertrain details a coveted secret?

Trying to get key technical details from the vast majority of the new manufacturer teams was like trying to safely negotiate one of the deadly intersections in downtown Beijing during rush-hour. Enquiries got short shrift and prying eyes were stared out.

If the media is feeling this sequestered, in even the most basic understandings of how the teams are channelling their engineering skills, then fans and viewers must be feeling similar frustrations.

The depth and richness of the different adaptations of top-end electric engineering is obviously great, yet all we know so far are how many motors and gears the teams are running.

Nobody is asking for CAD data, IP details or anything that would compromise the teams’ hard earned work. But just some explanation of the systems and how they work, and why they were chosen, is required.

So, whose responsibility should it be to amplify these messages and quench the thirst for more knowledge of what the designers have achieved? It has to be a shared responsibility between the team and the promoters. It is, after all, mutually beneficial for their collective growth.

After all, the new generation of sports fanatics will not be the stereotypical ‘bobble-hat’ fan, but more data-thirsty, social media savvy analysts, who simultaneously want to see a great race and get immersed in ‘their sport’.

Credit where it is due

While there is a need for this to be addressed, at the same time the teams, the promoters and the FIA deserve a massive amount of credit and respect for getting in to a state-of-readiness for the first big leap on Formula E’s technology road map.

The R&D that has taken place over the last 12 months should not be underestimated. Yes, some of the teams have brought in some familiar faces from the F1 paddock, and yes three of the teams are operating on very healthy budgets with access to F1 standard expertise and capabilities, but still, the level and pace of development has been impressive and should be applauded.

Notable too is the ramping-up of the championship’s media credentials. The eve of season two was punctuated by several announcements that involved ‘new media’ staples like Dailymotion, Facebook and Grabyo to name but three.

If Formula E is to engage on a global scale, these are the avenues it has to exploit different markets and demographics. In the age of instant content, feedback and analysis, it is a little paradoxical to state this strategy needs time, but it genuinely does.

Can you think of any other major sporting series that has broken through to the true global sporting mainstream in less than a decade? It took Formula 1 three to four decades to become anything other than a niche and ramshackle championship.

On the whole, Formula E is starting to mature in to something that even the hardest cynics and doubters will soon start to appreciate. The overarching task now will be to ensure that any vested interests are diluted and checked.

This is where the two-pronged Technical Working Group and Manufacturers Advisory Board need to be strong and keep any growth spurts to a manageable level.

Just about everything in Formula E is devoid of baggage, and no skeletons will emerge from dusty cupboards in the short-term. The blank canvas that has so successfully been laid out by Alejandro Agag, the FIA and all the participants is now prepared and awaiting a beautiful abstract modern masterpiece.

As Lucas Di Grassi so gracefully put it to recently: “Commercially driven technology makes it interesting for the manufacturers, it makes it interesting for the hardcore fans and for future enthusiasts.

“It is vital that we all push this dream in the right direction and at the right pace.”

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