Formula E: the future is boring!

The first season of Formula E is drawing to an end on Sunday and Automologist, MAC, finally tells us what he thinks of the world’s first fully-electric race series. We’ll tell you now, he’s not impressed.

As the inaugural season of Formula E comes to a close on the streets of London this weekend, there is a familiar ring to the headlines, with Prost and Senna battling to beat Piquet. The names are all echos of past F1 heydays when the pinnacle of road racing was a little less processional, and the outcome of the races was a little less than the forgone conclusion that has been the norm in the past few seasons.

London’s Battersea Park sees the end of the ten-city road race series that was supposed to be a showcase for the potential of electric cars. But despite the famous names and the US$100 million that CEO Alejandro Agag claims they have spent during the launch phase, it is safe to say that the event has failed to capture the public imagination and most still know very little about the competition.

Agag believes this will change. “We are having an amazing response because of one factor – we race in the city centres,” he said. “If we were racing on a track 50 or 100km from London, no one would come to the race. Instead we already sold over 50,000 tickets for London because we bring the show to the people.” He may have a point there. Three of the more successful F1 events – Monaco, Melbourne and Singapore – are all held in the heart of the city.

Agag, who cut his teeth in Formula 1 sponsorship, admits that when the idea of creating a world championship for electric cars was floated, few thought it would succeed. But races in Miami, Monaco and Berlin all sold out. Agag said Formula E is already producing “significant revenues”.

“Many people didn’t think we were going to make it,” he said. “The first race was a surprise for many. Now we have great momentum, great sponsors; it’s a fantastic achievement.”

Unlike F1, Formula E is a more level playing field with all of the cars being the same. And to me, therein lies the problem. For a start, the cars look painfully slow on TV, with a limited speed of just 140mph. They seem to have a long way to go before they can compete with the likes of F1 or Indycars in excitement or spectacle.

The cars sound awful as well; in fact, worse than a kid’s remote control car and, coupled with the speed issue, would look completely lost on an F1 track if they ever raced on one. The organisers have rather cleverly avoided this and thus obviously the possibility that anyone, least of all me, would compare the two racing genre.

The one F1 circuit that was brought in to play – well, at least partially – was the Monaco circuit. But even here the organisers avoided going up the hill to Casino Square, assumedly to avoid the embarrassment of having to get spectators to push the cars to the top.

On top of all of that, you have this absolutely ridiculous Benny Hill routine in the middle when the drivers have to change cars because the batteries cannot last the whole race. What is that telling us about the range of electric cars? The race is only 75 kilometres long!

I really wanted to like Formula E. It certainly has an appeal on a human level with 13 of the 20 drivers on the grid having raced in F1 and those who haven’t including the likes of Sam Bird, Oriol Servia and Katherine Legge, all of whom are well known to race fans.

We even get to see the famous surnames of Prost, Senna and Piquet all on the same grid. But to my mind, the organisers have taken their desire to add human interest too far by adding an X-factor style popularity contest.

‘Fanboost’ involves fans voting online to gain their favourites a power boost over rivals during the race. Utterly ridiculous to the racing purist – but then again, I don’t care for Bernie’s double points in the final race in F1 either.

To others, though, the real attraction of Formula E lies not in the spectacle, but in what it promises to deliver to the wider world. Sir Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin Racing team, currently in sixth place in the championship, believes the sport will push the development of electric road cars, with significant consequences for global health.

“We spend a lot of time these days looking to a world that is carbon neutral by 2050, and unless you have sports like Formula E we will never get there,” Branson said in an interview posted on the team’s website. “It’s a tremendously exciting aim and Formula E will pioneer technology that will be used on normal road cars. I hope 10 years from now the smell of exhaust from cars will be a thing of the past, much like the smell of cigarettes in restaurants.” There is an irony at work here. A new version of a sport that helped glamourize smoking is now helping normalise the idea of cities free from petrol fumes.

As the Virgin Racing team explains in its mission statement: “It is now proven that pollution in cities is directly linked to the increase of cancer and other lung diseases. It is critical that we move the pollution from tailpipes away from cities to the power plants where electricity is generated.”

Yeah, sorry, Richard. Go put your hemp trousers on because I somehow doubt we will be seeing Formula E for a second series and if we do, I probably won’t tune in again.

So is Formula E the future of racing or just rubbish? My fear is that it is both!

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