This Saturday and Sunday, Formula E takes to Battersea Park for the finale of its inaugural season. The famous London park is far from being the home of British motorsport – and that’s no accident.
It is often said that the aim of Formula E is to make motorsport sustainable. However, perhaps more importantly, the series has also set out to make it more accessible to a new audience.
There is an elaborate formula for achieving this. As its cars make little or no noise and no emissions, they can race in city-centre locations which show off the local landmarks on television better than a purpose-built track out of town where motor races traditionally take place.
The format of the race has even been tailor made for towns. Formula E races in some of the world’s busiest cities, including London, Long Beach, California and Berlin, but it wouldn’t be welcome if it brought with it weeks of disruption.
The aim of Formula E is to make motorsport sustainable and more accessible to a new audience
While most motorsport series stage qualifying and the race on different days, Formula E stages qualifying laps on Saturday morning followed by the main event in the afternoon. It minimises disturbance to local people – and has another trick under its bonnet.
The cars are powered by the most cutting-edge batteries available, but even these aren’t enough to go a full race distance. The batteries can’t be changed mid-race as they need to be heavily insulated for safety reasons. Instead, the drivers change cars in the middle of the action and even then their total time on track is still less than that of many other motor races.
It is designed to maintain the attention span of fans from the internet age, who are used to getting short bursts of information rather than watching an event which may seem to drag on for hours. It also helps to ease any concerns that the race will greatly interfere with everyday life, which is how the series has managed to secure such prime spots.
In turn, the central locations make it easier for fans to attend the races and the doors are literally thrown open to them in many countries. One of the biggest complaints about major sporting events is the high ticket price driven by the high overheads from hosting them.
Formula E has turned this around by not asking all its host cities to pay a hosting fee. Instead it gets them to provide prime positions for the race as well as assistance with the preparations and introductions to local sponsors. It means that tickets to some races are free, which boosts exposure for team sponsors and the series itself.
Complementing this strategy, Formula E has deliberately signed free-to-air television deals to ensure fans can see the series, giving it a solid foundation of spectators and viewers. Taking it one step further, fans can even vote online for their favourite drivers with the top three getting an additional boost of power during the race. The system, known as FanBoost, has angered racing purists, but engaged a new generation of tech-savvy fans.
Likewise, the lack of noise from the cars has fuelled criticism from die-hard petrol-heads, but attracted a new group of fans. Rather than digging its head in the tarmac, Formula E has embraced the dilemma and blasts music from speakers at the track during key parts of the race. The themes are carried through to its pre and post-race entertainment when an EJ – as in DJ with an “E” for electric – puts on free entertainment for the crowds.
It is an inclusive atmosphere both off-track and on it as Formula E teams have made a point of employing female drivers. They aren’t there for show. All drivers in Formula E stand an equal chance since the teams all have to use the same chassis, engine and tyre supplier. It is one of the reasons why there has been a different winner in almost all the races this season, which addresses one of the most common complaints about motorsport – that it can be monotonous.
Formula E is anything but and it has attracted a list of blue-chip partners, including logistics firm DHL, Michelin, Renault, luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer, Visa, Julius Baer, Qualcomm and BMW. Its tally of team owners reads like a roll call of the great and the good of racing and entertainment, from Alain Prost and Audi to Sir Richard Branson and Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio.
They are part of the action because Formula E is sustainable, but also because it is driven to attract a new audience. Formula E is succeeding in opening new doors to motorsport – and it’s only just getting started.