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15 Jan 2014 03:01:57

Formula E to Complement, Not Substitute Formula One Series

In August 2012, former Ferrari F1 chief Jean Todt signed an agreement with private investors to stage an entirely new class of auto racing. The plan was to establish the first internationally recognized competition for electrically-powered racing cars, which would consist of 10 teams and 20 drivers in its first season of operation. Todt will see his proposal realized in the second half of this year, with the inaugural FIA Formula E Championship is set to launch in September 2014. It signals a major shift towards sustainable mobility for Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the governing body for Formula One and World Rally Championship motor racing.

The 2014-15 season will feature ten host cities around the world, including Monte Carlo, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro. Beijing will host the first race of the season – the first time a Grand Prix has ever been held in the Chinese capital. It is a bold statement for a city where clean air is considered a luxury and the fog is so thick that it appears as layers of greyish-white paint strokes from outer space. More significantly, it demonstrates the country’s commitment towards sustainability and alleviating its severe air pollution problems.

In contrast to its Formula One predecessor, the Formula E governing body has opted for street circuits rather than those specifically designed for races. Formula E’s decision to move the competition to the streets was motivated in part by the desire to bring the races to the people, rather than the converse. Furthermore, Formula E wanted to demonstrate electric power in its natural habitat – an urban environment.

It seems premature to interpret Formula E’s entrance as a herald to the impending downfall of fossil fuel vehicles. Formula E has stated explicitly that they are not trying to compete with their more established sibling, and perceive themselves to be a complement to Formula One. They also acknowledge that the industry for electric vehicles still faces many technological restraints, meaning that a showdown between the Formula series titans is improbable, at least in the short-term.

Electrically-powered racing is still in its nascent stages of development, with only one car manufacturer signed on for the 2014-15 Formula E season. The Spark-Renault SRT-01E battery has a projected run time of 25 minutes, meaning that drivers will have to make two mandatory pit stops during the hour-long race. Renault’s model also lags behind in the speed department, clocking in a maximum of 225km/h. In comparison, the Red Bull RB9 that helped propel Sebastian Vettel to his fourth consecutive Formula One World Drivers’ Championship has a maximum speed of 335km/h. Ironically, Red Bull’s top speed falls at the lower end of the spectrum compared to rival car manufacturers.

Formula E has moderate expectations for the upcoming season, noting that it would be unreasonable to match the hype of the Formula One series, whose legacy dates back to 1950. Nevertheless, the competition has the support of influential figures such as Richard Branson, who will play a crucial role in inspiring a new legion of dedicated followers.

With its genetic makeup comprised of clean technology, the Formula E series aims to differentiate itself from other spectator sports and is on a mission to promote electric power in the industry. By the second season, 3-5 teams are expected to become car manufacturers, which will create a platform for the technological advancement of electric vehicles. This is the area in which Formula E has the greatest potential to impact society, by contributing towards the development of sustainable mobility.


This article was originally published in the January 2014 edition of Global Energy Affairs.

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