Formula E’s stakeholders analyse the successes and failures of its innaugural season.
No-one could have dreamt of such an explosive start for a new sports property.
It was the last corner of the last lap at Formula E’s first ever race in the streets of Beijing, first-placed driver Nicolas Prost – son of four-time Formula One champion Alain Prost – barged Nick Heidfeld as he attempted to overtake for the win. Heidfeld – who made his Formula One debut with Alain’s racing team in 2000 – hit the curb sending him and his racing car flying before smashing into a barrier, spinning in the air and landing upside down. Third-placed Lucas di Grassi went down in history to become the first ePrix winner as Prost retired just before the chequered flag.
Sanctioned by the FIA (International Automobile Federation), Formula E is an electric, single-seat racing series led by motor sport businessman and former politician, Alejandro Agag.
Ten teams participated in the championship, each with two cars per race. As part of the race format, the two driver spots can be swapped with other racers – with 35 male and female drivers taking part over the season that ran from September 13, 2014, to June 28, 2015.
Nelson Piquet Jr – son of the namesake three-time Formula One world champion – finished first in the inaugural drivers’ championship by one point.
Formula E was viewed with scepticism on its announcement by many purist motor racing fans who rejected the lack of power, speed and noise created by the electric and uniform cars. Despite this, the season finale in London’s Battersea Park attracted over 55,000 spectators, from new-generation motor sport fans to old-school Formula One racing legends.
“One of the biggest achievements that Formula E had was that it was still running at the end of the season,” Crispin Bolt, client services director for motor sport at GMR Marketing agency, told SportBusiness International. Bolt was also senior partner manager at Formula One team McLaren.
“It’s a pretty big challenge to set up an international racing series, which attracts major host cities, hundreds of thousands of fans, global TV coverage and major sponsorship deals in its first year,” he added.
In between season bookends Beijing and London, Formula E travelled to Putrajaya (Malaysia), Punta del Este (Uruguay), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Miami and Long Beach (United States), Monaco, Berlin (Germany) and Moscow (Russia).
“From my perspective, seeing Formula E racing on the streets of Monaco is a big statement,” said Oliver Weingarten, general secretary of the series’ teams association. Before Formula E, Weingarten represented Formula One teams and was also a solicitor for the English Premier League.
“Beyond that, London was my favourite race because so many fans flocked to Battersea
Park, with such a fantastic demographic from young children to purist racing fans who probably initially thought Formula E is too gimmicky for them, but after seeing it pan out through the course of the season, they’ve converted to its competitiveness.”
The London race weekend was heralded as the highlight of the season, especially given the long-awaited confirmation of Battersea Park as the host, according to Sarah Neill, major events manager at the city’s official promotional company London & Partners.
“Formula E was definitely a property that we wanted to be involved with from the outset. Sustainability and clean air are factors that the Mayor of London is really behind,” Neill told SportBusiness International.
The Mall, which acted as the starting line and finishing point for both the Olympic marathon and road cycling events during the London 2012 Games, was the first choice venue for the Formula E organisers and senior city officials.
However, when they discovered it was not available, Agag and deputy mayor of London, Sir Edward Lister, began protracted negotiations before eventually signing a contract to stage the race in Battersea Park.
When asked about future Formula E races in London, Neill added it would be a “no-brainer” to continue hosting the event, even if the race weekend was one day.
New Season, New Ideas
The second Formula E season will see a couple of changes, with the calendar submitted to the FIA excluding Miami and Monaco – the latter due to a clash with the region’s biennial hosting of the Historic Grand Prix. While Monaco has been replaced by Paris, it has been reported that Mexico City will take Miami’s place
— FIAFormulaE (@FIAformulaE) July 10, 2015
The United States is the only region to submit two teams into Formula E – Andretti and Dragon Racing – so Miami is a big loss to the sport. This is especially given that the United States has the largest fleet of plug-in electric vehicles in the world, and it is also a region that Formula One has historically struggled to gain a foothold in comparison to Europe.
“Knocking Miami off next year’s calendar will really disappoint the many Formula E brands whose target market is North America,” said Bolt. “There’s now only Long Beach on the calendar in that region, and Paris may not resonate with their target markets. However, from another point of view, Paris is one of the most iconic cities in the world.”
“Formula E also can’t ignore some of the emerging markets where the brands are desperate to be – that’s the case with any sport,” Misha Sher – head of sport in Europe, Middle East and Africa, at sponsorship consultancy MediaCom – told SportBusiness International.
“So hosting a race in India has got to be on the radar, as well as Africa in the distant future. If you also think of the iconic cities where Formula E should be, Barcelona has to be one of the hosts because it’s the Silicon Valley of Europe.”
— FIAFormulaE (@FIAformulaE) July 10, 2015
When first organising the Formula E calendar, races were all strategically scheduled to take place on Saturdays – excluding London’s finale – so that they did not clash with Formula One’s races on Sundays, as well as other motor sport series.
“I’m sure Formula E doesn’t want to tiptoe around other motor sports, and its longer-term plan is to establish a series that’s credible in its own right – which it is to some extent now, but Rome wasn’t built in day,” said Sher. “These things take time, and I’m sure discussions are taking place about how Formula E should position itself within the market without creating a property that isn’t playing second fiddle to other series.”
The second Formula E season – beginning October 17 – will see the major change of allowing teams to develop their own cars and technology, unlike last year where all cars were identical and technology was led by car manufacturer Renault.
“There will definitely be a number of other high-profile companies entering Formula E next season – and I’ve noticed that a number of GMR Marketing clients have been looking into the space,” said Bolt. “It will be interesting to see whether they partner with the teams or the rights-holder.”
“Everyone can openly say that Formula E can improve, there’s a whole list of aspects it can develop whether that’s host circuits or infrastructure,” added Weingarten. “It’s a start-up business, and there will be a lot more promotion and marketing around it once more manufacturers come on board, which could also benefit the racing.
“Organising a whole racing series where you have to close the streets of major regions, such as Long Beach and Miami, is no mean feat, but the fact that investors such as Liberty Global and Discovery Communications came on board sends out a strong message that Formula E is here to stay.”
To continue reading SportBusiness International's Formula E event focus, please click the links below:
1. The IT Crowd: When the electric Formula E racing series was first launched, it aimed to plug-in to a new generation of motor sport enthusiasts. Industry experts reveal how successful it was in engaging fans.
2. Racing for Pole Position: Elisha Chauhan speaks to the man driving Formula E, Alejandro Agag, to find out how he thought the inaugural season panned out and what’s in store for the future of the electric racing series.