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Maro Engel (DEU), Venturi, Sam Bird (GBR), DS Virgin Racing and Nick Heidfeld (DEU), Mahindra Racing on track at the 2016 FIA Formula E Marrakesh ePrix (L-R) | Courtesy Formula E
Maro Engel (DEU), Venturi, Sam Bird (GBR), DS Virgin Racing and Nick Heidfeld (DEU), Mahindra Racing on track at the 2016 FIA Formula E Marrakesh ePrix (L-R) | Courtesy Formula E
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Steering Motorsports Towards an Electric Future

Picture of Peter Ward
Tech Editor
Updated: 12 July 2017
Formula E is a relative newcomer in motorsports, launching its inaugural season in 2014. The championship uses a similar format to the likes of Formula 1 but with one key difference: all the cars are electric. What does the future hold for a sport aiming to capture the imagination of a new generation of fans?

Alejandro Agag has a strong history in sports. He was previously involved in Formula 1 and was briefly chairman of Queen Park Rangers, a soccer team in the U.K. Now he has an opportunity to take a new sport in whatever direction he wants.

“We felt something was missing in motorsports, which was a championship that would be relevant to the industry and to the new generation of fans,” Agag says in an interview. “And we thought that championship could only be electric because it would be sustainable and it would be the technology that would be driving the industry in the future.”

Alejandro Agag at a Formula E race | Courtesy Formula E
Alejandro Agag at a Formula E race | Courtesy Formula E

For Agag, the relatively young age of the sport makes running it even more exciting. “I’ve always been involved in sports that are more traditional. With Formula E the really nice difference is everyone approaches it from a feeling that it is the future. It’s very excited to have partners and the teams that feel that, and they’re all very motivated not because of what Formula E is today, but what they think it will be in five years or 10 years.”

In order to appeal further to new fans, Formula E has embraced new marketing techniques to reach out to racing enthusiasts. In Las Vegas in January the organization arranged an e-race – where drivers compete via video games rather than real cars – and pitted professional sim racers against some of the top drivers from Formula E. The competition had a prize fund of $1 million and the winning driver – a pro sim racer – walked away with $200,000.

Those kinds of events are an integral part of the promotion of Formula E. “I think new ways of fun engagement are key to the success of any new sport,” says Agag. “To allow fans to compete in eSports, Formula E in this case, and to engage with the championship and the real drivers, we think is a huge opportunity. Of course, we have to continue improving it and I think we should go to games that combine mobile and sim. So, more people can play on the mobile game and then the best mobile players go to the sim phase.”

The Forumla E eRace in Vegas in 2017. | Courtesy Formula E Zak Mauger/LAT
The Forumla E eRace in Vegas in 2017. | Courtesy Formula E Zak Mauger/LAT

Some of the rules and regulations of Formula E may at first be confusing for fans of Formula 1 or American racing. Drivers each use two cars, and must make a pit stop at some point to switch vehicles. The power of the cars is restricted to 170 kilowatts during the race, but some cars receive a ‘fan boost’. This boost is given to the most popular racers in polls conducted prior and during the first six minutes of the race. Drivers with a fan boost can use the power enhancement only once while in their second car.

As with all motorsports, Formula E has had to choose between having each driver race in the same car and allowing teams to innovate and improve. Agag has attempted to find a balance.

“It’s not easy. We’re trying to apply a lot of lessons we learned when we were in the world of Formula 1 and in GP 2 and those competitions, to apply those lessons here to try and avoid the arms race in terms of cost that happens in Formula 1,” he says.

Teams in the GP 2 championship all use the same chassis, engine, and tire supplier, in an effort to highlight who the best driver is. In contrast, Formula 1 teams can build their own cars within certain regulations, and huge amounts of money are spent making cars even a tenth of a second quicker.

“In between those, somewhere in the middle is where the right level is, and you can move it more to one side or to the other and then you will increase the cost or decrease the cost. You always have to leave a window open for innovation,” says Agag.

Maro Engel (DEU), Venturi, Sam Bird (GBR), DS Virgin Racing and Nick Heidfeld (DEU), Mahindra Racing on track at the 2016 FIA Formula E Marrakesh ePrix (L-R) | Courtesy Formula E
Maro Engel (DEU), Venturi, Sam Bird (GBR), DS Virgin Racing and Nick Heidfeld (DEU), Mahindra Racing on track at the 2016 FIA Formula E Marrakesh ePrix (L-R) | Courtesy Formula E

One of the major challenges Agag faces now is to crack the U.S., which even Formula 1 has found difficult. He says Formula E has had successful events in Miami, Fla., and Long Beach, Calif., and sometimes reaches huge audiences on television, but the sport has got the most traction in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, perhaps because of the drivers. There are no American drivers currently in Formula E.

In October 2016, it was announced that Mercedes-Benz would be taking part in the championship from season five. The company saw Formula E as an opportunity to test out its technology for electronic vehicles. “Electrification will play a major role in the future of the automotive industry – racing has always been a technology R&D platform for the motor industry, and this will make Formula E very relevant in the future.” Toto Wolff, Head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, said in a statement.

Season five is set to be an important one for Agag and Formula E. Agag says drivers will go from two cars per race to one which will mean they have doubled the capacity of the cars in the space of four years. He also says there will be a new look for the cars, which will be a lot more “futuristic.”

New sports launch rarely and succeed even less often. For that reason, Agag can be proud of where he is now, and aiming for the future. “I’m very excited but I’m also very happy because I really didn’t know if I was going to make year one, so for me to already be pretty sure we’re going to make year five and year 10 and 15 – it’s a pretty good feeling.”