Electric Racing: The Future of Motorsport?

In times gone by, it seeemed that petrol and other non-renewable fuels would always be in fashion. Motorsport revolved around them, becoming it’s backbone. However, fast forward to the present day, and, whilst sports such as Formula 1 are still much-loved and much-followed around the world, the future appears to revolve around electric motorsport. In the last few years, we have seen Formula E rise in popularity and following, and BBC Sport even acquired the rights to show every race live on their platforms. That is enough to show that electric sport is grabbing everyone’s attention in the modern day. However, is it the future of motorsport, or does non-renewable fuel-powered racing still have a place in modern society.

Let’s look at Formula 1 first. It’s popularity has never been in question, with those who can’t get to the circuits always tuning in to watch it on their televisions. This season has unfortunately seen the regular, planned calendar decimated, with several double headers being inserted to fill the gaps in the calendar, such as at the Red Bull Ring, Austria, Silverstone and the upcoming two races in Sakhir, Bahrain. The season has also visited some new tracks, such as Mugello in Italy, Portimao in Portugal, and is returning to Imola and Istanbul.

These new and returning circuits have produced some spectacular races, with collisions, breakdowns, impressive overtakes, and generally excellent wheel-to-wheel action; something that some of the more familiar tracks haven’t given us as much of. Tracks like Sochi are not the greatest to watch, whilst Monza, a historically significant track in Formula 1, is a tight circuit and is very short, meaning that overtaking opportunities are at a premium. However, there is no doubting that Formula 1 has not lost its appeal to fans, even if other forms of fuel are coming into the market.

Other members of the motorsport family, such as NASCAR, rally driving and Le Mans, are all in the same boat. They still maintain popularity amongst motorsport fans, and plenty still keep up with them; Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500, as well as the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix, are still considered the three most prestigious races in the whole of motorsport, and many drivers aspire to win all three; so far, only one driver has managed to do that, earning the Triple Crown of Motorsport, which is Graham Hill. What we can say is that motorsport of this kind is still very popular.

However, does it need to adapt? That is the question many are throwing at the organisers of these races, especially in these times, when the environmental impact of non-renewable fuels is being widely discussed and debated by many. It is not a simple thing to do, because it would require the cars being redesigned, rebuilt and new technology needing to be brought into the sport to accomodate any changes made.

Perhaps, then, these disciplines in motorsport simply can’t change, which means that the market is still open for electric motorsport. This is where Formula E comes in.

We have now had six seasons of Formula E, the all-electric motorsport that has thrilled fans since its inception. It is exciting, it is nerve-wrangling, and it takes its fans to places that Formula 1 has never been to, such as Saudi Arabia (although F1 will be going to Jeddah in 2021), Morocco, Chile, Hong Kong and Switzerland. Fans love to be taken to different places all around the world, and this is part of the reason why Formula E appeals to so many people. The races also take place on tight street- circuits, or, in Berlin’s case, former international airports, meaning that the corners are tight and drivers need to be skilled to negotiate them. This increases the action in the races, and therefore increases popularity.

Another reason is that it is so unpredictable. If we take the 2018-2019 season, for example, there were eight different winners in the first eight races, meaning that the table was changing every round. Compare that to Formula 1, when, realistically, Lewis Hamilton will win the race, Mercedes will get a one-two, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen will take the final podium place, and Williams will finish bottom, and you can see why fans have really taken to Formula E since it came into existence. This is not to say that Formula 1 is always boring, because the battles in the middle of the grid are always interesting to keep an eye on, and the recent mass improvements of McLaren and Renault, as well as the spectacular fall of Ferrari, have given us something to talk about and watch in each race. However, in Formula E, every team is on a level playing field. Anyone can win the race, and everyone has to perform to have a chance of doing so; there are no lucky wins.

If we look at the way that big names have plunged themselves into Formula E, then it is clear that the whole concept of it is widely supported. The 12 teams for the 2020/2021 season include many well-known manufacturers, such as Jaguar, Mercedes, Audi, Nissan, BMW and Porsche, who all have their own teams or are involved in a team. Others include current consecutive constructors’ champions DS TeCheetah, from China, and NIO, another Chinese manufacturer who are working on releasing fast electric cars, such as the EP9, to rival the likes of Lambourghini in that market. Indian company Mahindra also have a team, as do Virgin, who were one of the first to sign up before the first season started, confirming their entry back in December 2013.

When you consider how many big names want to have a part of this for themselves, especially the big four German brands, it really does show how fast the sport has grown, how popular it is becoming, and the importance people are labelling it with, especially when we are all looking to ensure that we do what we can to save the environment. Another key point to make is that, ahead of the 2020/2021 season, which will start with a double-header in the Chilean capital of Santiago in mid-January, the FIA have given it World Championship status, meaning that it is now in the same playing field as Formula 1. Therefore, it is clear that they see Formula E as a cleaner way of racing, whilst also enjoying the thrill we get from motorsport.

It’s not just the team though, as the calibre of drivers getting involved in the sport and making it their own also adds to its draw for fans. Those who have raced in the series have included former Formula 1 drivers Sebastien Buemi, Jerome d’Ambrosio, Lucas di Grassi, Nick Heidfeld, Felipe Massa, Jarno Trulli, Stoffel Vandoorne, Jean-Eric Vergne, Jacques Villeneuve and Pascal Wehrlein, just to name a few. Buemi, di Grassi and Vergne have all won the Formula E Championship (Vergne twice in consecutive seasons, in 2017/2018 and 2018/2019). Other drivers have included former F1 driver and now Sky Sports analyst Karun Chandhok, former World Endurance Championship driver Sam Bird, former DTM driver Antonio Felix da Costa, who is the reigning world champion, and 2016 Le Mans winner Neel Jani, so there are plenty of big names involved in the series.

The founder of Formula E, Spanish businessman Alejandro Agag, has not just stopped here though. He is constantly coming up with new ideas for racing using electricity, therefore giving fans new experiences whilst also keeping the environment in mind. Over the last two seasons, in conjunction with the Formula E schedule, we have had the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy series, which has taken place generally on the same tracks of each round.

There are also two new series coming to us in the near future, with Extreme E starting next season. This will see drivers compete in electric SUVs in remote locations around the world, such as Senegal, Greenland, Ushuaia in Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego, the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil, and the desert in Saudi Arabia, with the aim being to race in all different conditions and settings, which is what makes it “extreme”.

Just to prove even more that this is a series many people see as exciting and want to be a part of, the teams for the inaugural season include Rosberg Xtreme Racing, established by former Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg, and Team X44, a team set up by Lewis Hamilton, with the number 44 being Hamilton’s Formula 1 car number. If two world champions are getting involved in this new electric discipline, then surely it’s clear that electricity is coming more and more into fashion as a way of fans enjoying their racing, but in a way that keeps the environment at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

The race settings have been especially chosen to highlight how the world is being affected in every corner, and in every way. Before you ask or wonder about the pollution caused by travelling to each race, the organisers have already thought of that; a former Royal Mail ship, RMS St Helena, has been enlisted to move everything around, and will be modified to ensure that it’s CO2 emissions are reduced.

The second thing that is coming our way, although not for a while yet, is something called E1. This is particularly exciting, because it doesn’t involve cars; it involves boats. The aim is that 12 teams will race against each other in specially-designed electric powerboats, called the Racebird 01, which will have a top speed of 60 knots, and will race in city-based and remote locations around the world. These are planned to be the same locations as Extreme E, though not for a year or so yet, as the idea is still to be fully developed. Travel to each location will take place on the same vessel, RMS St Helena, used to get to the Extreme E race locations, and it will be used as a “floating paddock” during races.

What we have shown in this article is the rise of electricity as a way of powering our enthusiasm for motorsport, whilst also keeping the environment in our minds at the same time. However, the big question throughout has been whether it will replace the likes of Formula 1, or whether the two can work alongside each other. There is no definite answer to that, with Formula 1’s popularity meaning it won’t go out of fashion any time soon, but there has been plenty of criticism thrown at them for the amount of pollution caused by moving around the globe.

However, electric motorsport seems to have found a gap in the market and exploited it, and is now looking to force that gap open even more with the introduction of new forms of racing on land and on water, all serving to highlight the impact that climate change and fossil fuel usage is having on our planet. It is the opinion of this article that both types of racing can work together, and the fact that Formula 1 drivers have gone into or become involved in the electric disciplines has shown how the drivers want to help in the fight to save the planet. If some of this can then be added into Formula 1, even if only a little bit, then that would help to ensure it is not left behind by the electric revolution.

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