E-Sports looks like a great conduit to bring new fans and competitors into motorsport while autonomous cars will prompt the sport to take some tough decisions very soon; those are the conclusions after a weekend where motorsport was showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
On Saturday I moderated a panel discussion on the main stage in the CES on “Technology and Fan Accessibility”, featuring FIA president Jean Todt, Alejandro Agag, the CEO of Formula E and Zak Brown, who represented both McLaren Technology Group and Motorsport Network, which has just bought a stake in Formula E. A representative of Formula E sponsor Visa was also on the panel.
Also on Saturday the Formula E racers went head to head with the world’s leading drivers from ESports in a US$1 million E-Race. The race was won by another teenage Dutch racing sensation, Bono Huis, ahead of Formula E racer Felix Rosenqvist.
It was fascinating to see the real racers adapting; they had to drive in their socks, for example, as the brake pedal was very sensitive. They also had to adapt to braking without the aerodynamic effect of a real car.
Several of the ERacers present are part of Team Redline, a community of which Red Bull F1 star Max Verstappen is very much part.
ESports is developing into a huge business and engages millions of milennials around the world. It is well advanced in many game areas; motorsport games are technologically and graphically inferior at present, but developing quickly. For the FIA it brings in the chance to introduce a new level of licence holders and the federation has been working with Japanese Gran Turismo Creator Kazunori Yamauchi for two years to create an FIA certified Gran Turismo championship.
All around us at CES was evidence of a fast changing world; the Las Vegas Convention Centre looked more like Geneva Motor Show than a consumer electronics fair. Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Chevrolet, Mercedes and Ford all had massive stands and autonomous self-drive vehicles were the clear focus.
Carlos Ghosn made a key note speech on Nissan’s stand about the importance of autonomous and electric vehicles in the future.
On the Mercedes stand not only were they talking about self-driving Mercedes vans and drones operating a delivery service for goods, like Amazon, but they also contemplated a future where people feel that car ownership is unnecessary and car sharing will become the norm, especially in cities in developed countries.
Car ownership in a country typically kicks in when per capita income reaches US$10,000 to $20,000. By 2025 India is projected to be the world’s third largest car maker and China is moving forward quickly on automotive. So the emerging markets will still have a strong appetite for car ownership.
By 2025 the emerging markets are projected to account for 78m new car sales a year whereas in the developed world the number will be dropping to 34m, from a peak of 37m in 2015, according to a report from Goldman Sachs. And 25% of those cars will be pure electric or plug in hybrid.
Meanwhile manufacturer spending on technology to make engines more fuel efficient will reach an average of $2,600 per vehicle by 2025, compared to just $270 in 2012. The work that is going on currently in F1 on hybrid turbos, which has taken the competing manufacturers close to 50% thermal efficiency, is part of that work.
But there’s no disguising the fact that it’s a story that has left many F1 fans cold.
So the question must be faced – whether motorsport is an entertainment or a technology exercise? Of course it’s both, but which should be the dominant story?
Clearly entertainment is the answer as far as F1 is concerned. So it needs some strong decisions in the next few years to set it on the right path post 2020.
As Ross Brawn said in his book ‘Total Competition’:
“For F1 to succeed people have got to watch it. If people don’t watch it, F1 is in a vacuum and it will just disappear. They watch it because they want to see drivers racing against each other. They want to see all the entertainment.
“..I think that the technological element excites a lot of fans… You have got to have that technical element.”
This topic as well as the move away from people actually driving cars and the accompanying threat to motorsport were hot topics on the CES panel – as well as the opportunity for growth through ESports. Brown argued that society stopped riding horses and using them to pull carriages over 100 years ago, but horse racing and equestrianism are still very popular,
“People will always want to race cars,” said Brown. “Clearly autonomous cars are going to be the future for many of us for our daily commute. But people want to see the personalities and the competition.
“I mean what does baseball have to do with anything, other than it’s a great sport?
“So I think you’ll find that motorsports is always going to be an exciting sport, it’s here to stay and it’s only going to get stronger.”
The presence of Todt, as president of the sport’s governing body, at CES was a clear signal that big decisions about the future will need to be taken soon. He can see the threats all around; if car sharing takes over from car ownership, for example, then the FIA might need to change its model as the motor clubs like RAC, ADAC and ACI would lose membership and thus revenue and influence.
Coming back to the decision on whether motorsport is an entertainment or a technology story, Formula E plays up its role as the incubator of EV tech, batteries and so on as its core message, which has been effective in building up its standing among host cities and attracting manufacturers. But it’s taking time to build a fan base, partly because the tech story dominates and partly because the drivers are second tier names and partly because of the range issue.
McLaren has the contract to develop a battery that, from Season 5 onwards, (ie 2018) will power the cars for the whole hour long race.
This will be the turning point for the series and the point at which Mercedes is set to enter. If they add in drivers of the calibre of Felipe Massa, for example, after his well-paid ‘bonus season’ in F1 with Williams, then they might be in a strong position to capitalise.
What do you think of the balance between entertainment and technology in motorsport? This will be a theme we will return to throughout 2017 on JA on F1. Leave your comments in the section below