There is a rush by former and current Formula One manufacturers to enter the electrically powered Formula-e series. Like F1, FE is for single-seater race cars, with teams and drivers competing for a world championship crown.
But that’s where similarities end. The cars and series are completely different – from the power source and performance figures to the format of the races and future objectives.
Surprisingly, for many incredulous F1 fans, manufacturers are being drawn to the series like moths to a flame. BMW, a team with a long history of involvement in F1, will join FE for the fifth season in 2018/19.
Mercedes-Benz, the current F1 title holder, has an option to enter FE next year joining established FE brands such as Jaguar, Renault, Citroën and Mahindra. Audi has already given up its massive LeMans effort for FE, as will Porsche, the reigning World Endurance champions.
Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne is on record as saying that one of the brands in the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) group, most likely Maserati or Alfa Romeo, will enter FE. Obviously, Ferrari input and support would be forthcoming.
Word in the FE paddock links Honda with a future FE entry along with fellow Japanese manufacturer Nissan.
Other top F1 names are involved in FE. McLaren recently took over the supply of standard-spec batteries from Williams. The Woking company previously supplied the standard electric motors, but for the 2018/19 season regulation changes allow the use of other motor designs. Expect McLaren to be a major player. (Battery design will be freed for the 2020/21 season.)
Alejandro Agag, the Spanish-born businessman and former politician who is the founder and CEO of the FE championship, says his series is now preferred by manufacturers over F1.
He’s not wrong. FE’s attraction is its positioning within the global ‘green’ movement. With one of the biggest global threats said to be climate change, governments and car manufacturers are fully committed to finding a more eco-friendly and sustainable form of mobility.
Now they must be seen to ‘walk the talk’ and actively support the electrification of the automotive industry. What better way than to back FE and hold races for near-silent race cars in city centres where the publicity effect is multiplied?
Much like Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s former supremo, Agag is motorsport savvy. Many years ago, he bought the F1 TV rights for Spain where television audiences have multiplied many times in recent years.
Today, Agag is heavily involved in sourcing sponsorship and is behind some of FE’s most important deals, such as bringing on board CBMM, the Brazilian mining giant and world-leading supplier of niobium technology. Most significantly, Agag oversaw the purchase of shares in FE by Discovery Communications and Liberty Global, sister company to new F1 owner Liberty Media.
Like a thief in the night, FE has stolen F1’s high-ground: Road relevance. The high-tech V6-turbo hybrid power plants previously demanded by the manufacturers for their involvement in F1 have proven to be too expensive and too complex. Honda has not produced a competitive powerplant after three years of trying and must see its F1 involvement as an embarrassment. Its plight has done little to attract other manufacturers to the cause – particularly since hybrids are increasingly ‘yesterday’s news’.
Let’s face it, with almost every manufacturer building electric vehicles (Volvo will only produce EVs from 2019 onwards) they are the future.
For F1 to survive it must revert to its sporting roots, decisively cut the ‘road relevance’ apron strings and bring back loud, fast, obviously difficult-to-drive cars powered by cheap, basic engines that are readily available to smaller teams. Having the ‘most fuel-efficient F1 engines in history’ is not going to mean much in an all-electric future.
After all, how road relevant are F1 cars? The rule-makers have banned ABS, ESP, automatic braking, automatic gear changing and a raft of other ‘driver aids’. If F1 wanted to be at the forefront of road car evolution it would be pioneering autonomous cars.
Amazingly, this is exactly what FE is set to do in an audacious move to bolster its lead in the road-relevance race.
Far from looking to spawn driver-heroes with the stature of past ‘greats’ like Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Niki Lauda, James Hunt or Michael Schumacher, FE is forming an association with Roborace, the manufacturer of full-scale autonomous electric-powered racing cars.
FE support races will be held counting towards a Roborace ‘world championship’ – the first for driverless cars. The cars will be standard, but teams will have to develop their own computing algorithms and artificial intelligence technologies.
Surely this shattering news should be enough to spur die-hard F1 fans, dedicated teams and concerned race engine builders into action. Failure to change course now could also mean the end of adrenaline-fuelled motorsport as we know it.