2017. Formula 1 enters its 68th season. Formula E enters the middle of its 3rd.
It’s hard earning the respect of your grandparents sometimes.
Formula E has had a unique birth. The vast majority of emergent sports series: from the successful UFC, to the less successful XFL, to steady growers like American Rugby, gaming, can trace back to grassroots movements. Campus teams, or online forums that eventually built a base from which to move into (literally) their own leagues.
Formula E was a planned birth. Practically overnight this child king of a series was given an ex-F1 body shape, an ex-F1 race format and immediate, international broadcast coverage. The manufacturers immediately weighed in, citing an opportunity to advance electric technology. Formula 1’s audience immediately called it out, citing “we can’t hear the (2014, V8) engine roar”.
Like the infant monarch inheriting a vast but outdated and ageing empire, Formula E’s ambitions are wide, but it’s reformist policies are met with stiff competition from a grandparent that isn’t held to the same account.
Channel 5 and Fox Sports are among the channels that currently host Formula E, with rumours the brand will move into China too. Video: Virgin Racing
Formula 1 still clings onto the same glamour that Formula E’s generation, our generation, will call sexist, the same exotic locations that our generation will call elitist, and the same industry ‘personalities’ which our generation call “incredibly wealthy, connected white men”. By virtue of it pushing 70, it avoids the potential scrutiny on its policy of low-key hating fans, the fact that the financial rewards are opaque and the fact that it’ll shortly be losing its terrestrial coverage..
As the upstart descendant Formula E subsequently takes regular batterings in the motorsport press. Even the positive coverage is handed out grudgingly.
Yet it could be argued Formula E’s only genuine teething problems are a focus on the future (particularly Season 5 with the entry of new manufacturers and the move to a single battery) at the expense of heavy media investment team-side now, and a reluctance to publicly stand up to Formula 1 in terms of online commentary.
In fact broadcast TV blog naysayers and balding F1 podcasters making snide jokes aside, Formula E’s biggest challenge of all is something Formula 1 never had to even consider: the current generation’s relationship with cars.
When car ownership was a de-facto rite of passage: a young adult’s independence, a middle-manager’s proof of progress, an executive’s automatic entry to the golf club, it made sense to have a sport that specialised in super fast, super loud, deliberately pricey cars.
In an age where less and less people are learning to drive, where it’s increasingly likely in the near future far few people will own or be manually driving at all, many people’s relationship to cars is changing altogether.
Formula E’s teams are working on a number of ways to try and attract younger fans to the sport. Credit: Virgin Racing
Formula E recognises that enough to be experimenting with a number of initiatives: virtual-eRaces, ensuring its races are all in city centres to draw a new and wider fanbase, and preceding each race with an autonomous car demo-run.
Whilst even newer than Formula E, Roborace is already raising questions on how people react to autonomous sport. Credit: Roborace
Formula E is only in its 3rd season. It’s already attracting the top drivers on earth, many of them jumping ship from F1. The major manufacturers are either in, or waiting for the next slot to open up.
It’s just getting started. At present, It’s roundly disliked by large segments of the Formula 1 community, and largely misunderstood by the wider sport population. But the series, and those who staff it remain wonderfully optimistic. The issue, we realise, isn’t that Formula E is getting it wrong, it’s that Formula E is the leading edge of motorsport, a sporting genre itself going through an awkward new-generation transition.
The future of motorsport is uncertain. Formula 1 knows it and continues to protest. Formula E, with its manufacturers, long-term view on media and veritable universe of offshoot ideas and philosophies, is banking on it.