Is Formula E the future of racing?

There are only two races left in Formula E’s second season, making this as good a time as any to review whether electric racing is the future of motor sports. I tend to think it is the future, but there are some definite growing pains to be worked through.

Some good reasons for Formula E to be the future of racing:

  • It’s electric. Electric cars, along with hybrids, plug-in hybrids and even hydrogen fuel cell cars, are a growing segment of the market. Just witness the hundreds of thousands of people who plunked down deposits for a Tesla Model 3 within hours of its announcement. As Anthony Thompson of Qualcomm said in a press conference at the beginning of the Faraday Future Long Beach Formula E Grand Prix, “The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of rocks. We developed better technology.” Oil and internal combustion engines, in this analogy, are going the way of rocks and making way for electric motors.
  • It’s family friendly. The entire series, from practice to race, happens in one day. No overnights are required, and tickets are still pretty cheap — $25 for a whole day at the Long Beach event. There are support events all day long, so whenever the cars aren’t on the track, you can watch the race drivers compete against one another in a virtual race, or test drive an electric scooter, or eat hot dogs and drink beer like you would at any race. The cars are quiet, so little ones don’t need to wear protective headsets over their ears. I saw a family of at least three generations watching qualifying laps in the stands, all in race gear, even the infant laying on the bench with her attentive grandmother and the preschool boys who hooted at every car that passed.
  • It’s urban. More people are moving to urban areas worldwide, and Formula E insists that its events be held on city circuits, like Berlin and Buenos Aires. People in these cities and their suburbs can take public transit or rideshare cheaply; if they have electric cars, the race is probably well within range without a recharge. Rather than building it and waiting for them to come, Formula E wants to build it where the people already are or can get to with the lowest emissions possible.
  • It’s interactive. FanBoost gives fans the power to add power to their favorite driver’s car. The driver who receives the most votes via website or app gets a short burst of power to use at his or her discretion on the track during the race — enough to make a strategic pass.

Some reasons Formula E is not the race series of today:

  • Technical difficulties. Every driver has two cars. They deplete the batteries in the first one then pull into the pits about halfway through the race. They hop out of the nearly dead car and into one with fresh batteries to finish. Most Formula E drivers do this at roughly the same time, similar to how most teams in a NASCAR race will come in for gas within a lap or two of each other. At the 2016 Long Beach race, the feed to the giant screens went out, leaving the crowd with no information during the change. There were no cars on the track, and we couldn’t see what was happening in the pits. Also, it turned out that the feed shown to the spectators is the same feed used by the race announcer. If he couldn’t see the feed, he couldn’t give information either. He had to check the website to determine standings, which everyone was already doing on their phones in the stands.
  • Battery technology. The swap does add a new dimension of interest and excitement, if you can see it happening. But the fact that the drivers have to swap cars mid-race just shines a spotlight on the fact that batteries aren’t quite up to the task of racing yet. The goal is to prove that electric cars are fast and sexy and fun, which they are, but being able to race all-out for an hour on one charge seems like another reasonable goal. Formula E is probably working on this.
  • More differentiation, more competition. Formula E began with a fleet of identical cars in its inaugural season to help ease teams into this brave new world of electric Formula racing. In its second season, it allowed teams to develop their own drivetrains. In future seasons, teams will be able to make more changes and further differentiate the cars. That is when, we hope, the competition of the series will really shine. At the 2016 Long Beach race, the biggest battle was in the middle of the pack, for sixth and seventh place. Everybody loves a good battle on the track, but it’s nice when the first five places aren’t set in stone by the halfway point of the race.

Depending on who you talk to, the lack of roaring engines is either a plus or a minus. There are other pluses, like the design possibilities for a car that doesn’t need to exhaust any gases, and there are other minuses, like holdover rules from the FIA governing body that don’t apply to electric cars and frustrate officials. But the 2016-17 season is already a go, so things can only move forward from here.