At a recent F1 related event I was approached by a senior figure from one of the leading F1 teams; “This Formula E series, what do you think? Will it happen?”
The question, laced with a mixture if curiosity and scepticism, still arises.
“We are on schedule,” says Formula E chief executive Alejandro Agag, when I put this question to him in his office in London’s Hammersmith area. “We just ran a test with the car using the large battery for the first time (on a test track outside Paris) and we did 55 laps with no glitches. Williams have done a fantastic job on the batteries.”
It is exactly seven months until the first Formula E race, in Beijing and the focus is now moving on to race organisation and logistics; the team behind the FIA’s newest world series is growing fast – 45 employees at the moment, with another 30 joining in the next four weeks, mainly on the operations side and marketing.
“Most of the work is done already, “says Agag. “The actors are there; the cites where the races are taking place, the teams, the partners and the drivers. The teams will gradually announce the drivers over the coming weeks with Audisport ABT announcing former F1 driver Lucas di Grassi and DTM driver Daniel Abt.”
Among the teams are some interesting names, like Hollywood star Leonardo di Caprio and Sir Richard Branson via his Virgin Group, which failed to get a grip of F1, but is trying its hand at the new series.
Meanwhile other former F1 stars including Jaime Alguersuari and Christian Klien have joined the drivers’ club and will be announced by their respective teams shortly.
Formula E Holdings has also taken on some investors, including Boston Celtics managing partner Wyc Grousbeck and his co-owners in the NBA franchise who invested $21 million into the fledgling series.
Agag says that two other investors are following Grousbeck in, “from a different region”, which is likely to mean Asia.
So the infrastructure is in place, but what about the racing and some of the fundamental problems, like the range of the cars? Does Agag still plan to run a single race with drivers forced to change cars part way through? He does, although he admits that they have considered the alternative which is to run two 30 minute races with a short break between races for a change of vehicles, allowing broadcasters to take a commercial break. This is a model which Flavio Briatore once proposed for F1 races, with viewers unhappy about interrupting races for commercial breaks, as networks do in most countries around the world.
Agag is setting great store by the “fan boost” initiative, whereby fans can vote for which driver should get a special push to pass opportunity in a race. This would see fans actually entering into the competitive picture of the race and influencing the outcome. Fans will vote via social media using #drivername
“No other sport allows direct interaction from fans, allowing them to affect the result,” says Agag.
The planning around the two-car concept has recently developed a twist, with drivers having cars with two different profiles; an energy car and an attack car and so there is a level of strategy involved in when you deploy which car.
If they stick with the single race format and the frantic change of cars, they hope that the development race which will start in Year 2, when teams get the chance to race their own technology, will highlight technological progress as the need for a change of cars reduces over five years or so of development. The idea is that this technology will filter down to the automotive industry and help to counter range anxiety.
I put it to Agag that since FIA president Jean Todt first floated the idea of Formula E in April 2011, the car industry has moved on from pure Electric cars towards plug in hybrids, which can run electric in cities and then have a small petrol hybrid engine for long distance motoring.
Agag accepts this, but feels that it doesn’t affect his series, which is still all about technology, sustainability and innovation; battery and range development and making electric motoring look sexy to younger consumers.
“The host cities will become synonymous with electric,” says Agag. Maybe 10 years from now most major cities in the world will have the equivalent of a congestion charge zone only for vehicles running on zero emissions and in the intervening years we hope to give confidence to the industry and to consumers.
Formula E will cost about the same for a team to compete in as GP2, roughly £2.5 million for two cars a year.
They plan to simulate two complete race weekends at Donington in July and August, to iron out any glitches and operational problems in what is a brand new racing series, from scrutineering to chequered flag fall.
A UK TV deal will be announced in the next two weeks.