Formula E Boldly Goes Where No Racing Series Has Gone Before

Formula E, the racing series for electric open wheel cars, has been an innovator since the very beginning. The brainchild of Spanish entrepreneur and former race driver Alejandro Agag, the series is similar to Formula One in many respects, but in other ways it is totally different.

Formula E in Berlin
Formula E race In Berlin. Credit: REUTERS/HANNIBAL HANSCHKE

Formula E was born at the right time. While electric cars are but a curiosity to much of the car buying public, car companies are anxious to use motor sports to promote the idea of electric transportation. That’s because emissions regulations around the world are making it tougher and tougher for internal combustion engines to remain relevant. The companies know electricity will replace fossil fuels in the foreseeable future. Formula E gives them a chance to learn more about the technology and promote their electric car models at the same time.

Every Formula E event is a street race run through the heart of a major world city. Fans don’t go off to some exotic race track in the countryside. They can take the bus into the city to watch the action. Cities like that because it burnishes their luster on the world stage and attracts visitors both local and distant. Formula E has cities lining up at its door, begging for the opportunity to host a race.

Today, the Financial  Times reports that New York City authorities and the FIA have agreed to stage a race featuring the New York skyline as a backdrop. Racing in The Big Apple has long been a dream of Formula Impresario Bernie Ecclestone, even though he calls North America “a shit hole.” Street races are not universally popular, however. Local residents don’t like having large sections of downtown blocked off for some silly race. Earlier this year, residents of Boston put the kibosh on a proposed IndyCar race through the streets of Beantown.

The second season of Formula E is wrapping up this weekend in London, but that city will not be on the calendar next year. Too many people complained about the disruption to their daily lives. Moscow also has decided hosting a Formula E race is more trouble than it is worth. Formula One just staged its first street race in Baku, Azerbaijan last week, but it’s a lot easier to get people to cooperate when authorities can arrest dissidents and torture them.

The first ever virtual race will take place next January in Las Vegas while the Consumer Electronics show is in town. Five video game enthusiasts will  compete against the actual drivers. Formula E says first prize will be worth “six figures”, but rumors suggest the actual reward will be $1,000,000. Finally, a way for people who live in their parents’ basement and play video games all day to make their addiction pay off.

“We are only going to disclose and show the virtual track to all the players that morning. It’s going to be like the real Formula E. You come for the first time to a city and race in a city, you never practice before,” says  Formula E promoter Agag. “Gamers…are normally better at games than drivers. On the other hand, drivers are better than gamers at quickly getting the feel of a racetrack. It’s going to be an interesting competition.”

Virtual reality. Racing on city streets. Electric race cars. The Formula E concept was laughed at 5 years ago. Today, it is becoming almost as popular as Formula One. Now, if only it could figure out a way to become profitable. Agag says that milestone should happen in a season or two.

Meanwhile, companies like BMW, Jaguar, and Mahindra have hitched their stars to the Formula E wagon. For them, the future is now.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.