The rise of Formula E: Is F1 facing a relevance crisis?

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    The press release dropped innocently and with little warning on an unspectacular late Tuesday morning in Britain, but it reverberated through the motorsport landscape.

    ‘Mercedes-Benz GP Ltd takes an option to enter Formula E in Season 5′ the statement was headed. It was accompanied by a smiley photo of Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff and Formula E chief executive Alejandro Agag.

    Though you’d be forgiven for knowing relatively little about the fledgling Formula E series, on the cusp of just its third season this weekend, its lack of notoriety in the general public consciousness shouldn’t be mistaken for its lack of importance.

    From its bold conception by the FIA to its unlikely establishment two years ago, Formula E has staked its claim to a place in the motorsport hierarchy on relevance.

    The technology is arguably still underdeveloped for purpose. Drivers still have to change cars part of the way through a race to complete the distance because no battery can hold the required charge.

    But, as has long been the case with elite motorsport, half the purpose of the competition is development.

    This has long been one of Formula One’s key pillars. Manufacturers would enter the sport to show off their technical abilities and learn new skills as they conceive new ideas in the competitive arena. Some of the current energy recovery and internal combustion technology in a modern F1 car is certainly an example of this.

    Formula E, though still small, is rapidly moving to challenge to supersede Formula One in this regard.

    “We have been watching the growth of Formula E with great interest,” said Wolff.

    “Racing has always been a technology research and development platform for industry, and this will make Formula E very relevant in the future.”

    Mercedes wouldn’t be the first to draw this conclusion, either. As Agag notes, its potential entry in the 2018–19 season would make it just one of many leading manufacturers.

    “Formula E is becoming an exciting mix of consolidated manufacturers, like Renault, CitroenDS, Audi, Mahindra or Jaguar, and new futuristic brands like Faraday Future, NextEV.

    “Mercedes would be a great addition to that growing line up.”

    Mercedes joining the fray would have Formula E boasting twice as many manufacturers operating teams as Formula One – and that’s before someone fills season five’s second team licence alongside Mercedes, which could well be BMW after its period as technical partner to Andretti Autosport, further tipping the scales.

    Worse, though, for Formula One is that the dominoes are lined up for a Mercedes scale-back or withdrawal from the sport at the end of 2018, as suggested by Autosport.

    Niki Lauda

    With both drivers contracted to the end of 2018 – and having two driver contracts expiring in the same season is unusual in itself for a major team – and with team bigwigs Niki Lauda and Dieter Zetsche out of contract at the end of 2017 and 2019 respectively, the stars are aligned for a switch of focus.

    Even if the manufacturer were to persist with both entries, it seems inconceivable that Mercedes could justify a continued significant spend on Formula One while pursuing research and development in another category. The company could conceivably press on with a reduced budget, but with its chief competitors outspending it, the days of Silver Arrows leading the pack would be numbered – and when results don’t come, boards pull the plug.

    Such a change would be profound for F1.

    Formula One is a brand that exists to be the pinnacle of motorsport – you don’t get to use ‘One’ in your title any other way – so to be seen as being less in any sense, whether it is by featuring inferior drivers, substandard circuits or lacklustre teams, is a deeply existential problem.

    Inherent in either Mercedes situation – a long-term scale-back or a short-term withdrawal – is the prioritising of another motorsport category over Formula One. In other words, Formula One is no longer option number one.

    “Electrification will play a major role in the future of the automotive industry,” Toto Wolff said pointedly.

    Inarguably electric motoring is the direction in which the majority of the industry is moving – which means in sport the industry will gravitate towards Formula E, particularly now that Mercedes is set to forge a path in that direction.

    For Formula One there can only be one more response: there can be no more talk about a return to thirsty and archaic engines, no more tolerance for anachronisms, and no more tendency for conservatism.

    This is the wake-up call the sport must heed. F1 must revolutionise; it must reinvent and reimagine itself as a sport of the future lest it arrive there and find Formula E, even if stands today a sport some years away from maturity, has already taken its place at the pinnacle of motorsport.

    —–

    Follow @MichaelLamonato from the #JapaneseGP paddock.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart — but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (9)

    • October 7th 2016 @ 8:43pm
      Simoc said | October 7th 2016 @ 8:43pm | ! Report

      Formula E is perfectly suited to do street races anywhere in the world. There is no noise problem.

      I think electrification of everything motorised is happening rapidly now and in a decade that will be obviously be the way to go (being faster, quieter, and potentially free).

      So it would make sense for Mercedes to quit F1 with their dominance complete and go to Formula E.

      • Columnist

        October 9th 2016 @ 10:48pm
        Michael Lamonato said | October 9th 2016 @ 10:48pm | ! Report

        The Formula E race in Paris is a prime example of the power the brand has — no other racing category in the world could’ve hoped to pull that off, but Formula E made it possible because of how it works and what it represents.

    • Editor

      October 8th 2016 @ 6:39am
      Tristan Rayner said | October 8th 2016 @ 6:39am | ! Report

      I wonder if Tesla will join Formula E?

      • Columnist

        October 9th 2016 @ 10:51pm
        Michael Lamonato said | October 9th 2016 @ 10:51pm | ! Report

        Hard to say, but it’s been surprising how few links have been drawn between Tesla and the sport. One good theory I’ve heard it that it actually benefits Tesla’s brand not to join because everyone already considers it a successful pioneer of this technology, whereas entering a sport that it could lose risks undermining that brand.

    • October 8th 2016 @ 7:58pm
      Bill said | October 8th 2016 @ 7:58pm | ! Report

      I can’t believe f1 didn’t try and partner with fe as it started up. The FIA is killing the top of the sport and I wonder if e racing will be good enough to replace? The initial races of development will be cool though.

      Good point above about road races, tight twisty circuits not power circuits for these guys.

      • Columnist

        October 9th 2016 @ 10:53pm
        Michael Lamonato said | October 9th 2016 @ 10:53pm | ! Report

        Formula One doesn’t really associate with anything it doesn’t have a stake in or might otherwise be threatened by. Formula E has definitely featured good racing, the only thing lacking is the spectacle of all-out speed we get from traditional motorsport — but that’ll come with development.

    • Roar Guru

      October 8th 2016 @ 9:48pm
      Paul Roach said | October 8th 2016 @ 9:48pm | ! Report

      Interesting.

      Formula E is most definitely a timely and challenging innovation – just like Tesla – but crucially, as the article mentions, it is a construct of the FIA itself. Who also oversee F1. So any challenge of FE to F1 is naturally moderated by the governing body. Which puts the FIA in the convenient position of being able to back/nurture whichever the most appropriate formula to take into the future is. And I would go so far as to say that 66 years of history, of exhibiting the skills of the best drivers on the planet, has much to commend it.

      Interesting point in an earlier comment about the lack of noise making FE suitable for inner city circuits. That hadn’t occurred to me but makes perfect sense. That said, given the overwhelming objection of F1 fans to the neutering of the noise coming out of the tailpipes of F1 cars as a consequence of the current regulations, perhaps the noise is a key component of any show. Again, lending itself to the survival of Formula 1.

      It all smells a bit of the 2 litre vs V8 ‘war’ of the late ’90’s in Australia and people power, not technology, won out there. As much as electric road cars are clearly the way of the future today, while ever F1 attracts the best talent in the world, it will remain the premier motor sport category in the world. And as long as it remains vaguely technologically relevant – as it very much does today – then it will survive.

      • Columnist

        October 9th 2016 @ 10:59pm
        Michael Lamonato said | October 9th 2016 @ 10:59pm | ! Report

        The FIA only governs both sports. It is correct to say it owns both, but both are operated by independent companies — although, that said, Liberty Global has a minority stake in Formula E, and by next year Formula One will be owned by Global’s sister company Liberty Media, so there is a small amount of cross-over. I don’t think that this threatens either series with deliberately stunted growth, however.

        I always think the racing is primary to the other elements. Formula E might not be loud, but it sounds interesting, and as they become faster, the spectacle will improve in any case.

        I agree that as long as F1 attracts the best talent in the world it will continue to be the premier racing category, but when brands like Mercedes switch camps, so to does their money, and talent still follows money. Investment is key to all of this, and the more investment Formula E gets, the more powerful/relevant/interesting it becomes.

        • Roar Guru

          October 10th 2016 @ 10:25pm
          Paul Roach said | October 10th 2016 @ 10:25pm | ! Report

          If, as you say, the racing is always primary – an eminently debatable point of itself (e.g. why aren’t we all just following Indycar, given how close and open that racing always is?) – then Mercedes moving to FE might ironically aid the ongoing survival of F1….there might actually be other winners in F1 for a change! That would certainly make it more interesting.

          In short, I think there’s plenty of room for both. Meet you back here in 10 years time and see how we’ve gone.

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