When the revolutionary, all-electric racing series Formula E started its first ever race in Beijing on September 13, 2014, it was ridiculed by die-hard racing fans and labeled a nonstarter. A racing series with cars that were hardly faster than a road sports car and whose electric motors only hummed a little instead of making deafening noise? That can’t be happening. And what is that all about? Isn’t it enough that Formula 1 became the first racing series to break new ground in renewable energies with the KERS system in 2009? Do you really have to exaggerate and try to race with all-electric engines that don’t even last a full race distance?

The majority of long-time racing and Formula 1 fans will probably still think so, but change is happening. “I can’t look into the future, but with this technology in the background, it looks like Formula E is the right series to race in – if you could look into the future,” said ex-Formula 1 driver Nick Heidfeld at the Formula E presentation in London. “Everyone you talk to, even the sponsors, seem to be very interested because the series is much greener. That’s why I like it because it can become something big.”

One “real racer”, four-time Formula 1 champion Alain Prost, immediately saw the writing on the wall and has been running his own Formula E team since the beginning. And the four-time champion is not the only big name to be found. Andretti Motorsport from the USA, SuperNova, DAMS, and Audi Sports Abt have been there from the very beginning, as has Richard Branson with Virgin.

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The latter, however, was often cited as a negative example of the fact that Formula E consisted largely of people who did not make it in Formula 1 – and many people still think the same. In season 1, a number of former Grand Prix drivers also took their chance In Formula E, such as Jarno Trulli, Sébastien Buemi, Bruno Senna, Jaime Alguersuari, Lucas di Grassi, Karun Chandhok, Franck Montagny, Stéphane Sarrazin, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Jean-Eric Vergne, Charles Pic, Scott Speed, Justin Wilson, Takuma Sato, and of course Nick Heidfeld.

“Of course, we could have waited another ten years.”

However, many fans who have followed the races over the first four seasons have changed their minds and see a bright future for Formula E. The biggest advantage is no longer just a promising green technology that was originally the focus of the series. Formula E races are really exciting, even if the cars (still) lack a lot of power compared to Formula 1.

“Remember mobile phones when they were like, one kilo? We are there. But we took the decision to jump, basically. We feel like pioneers in a sense,” the founder of the series, Alejandro Agag, said in 2014. “We took the decision to go before technology was ready now. Of course, we could have waited 10 years for the perfect solution but then probably somebody else would have already done it.”

And the decision was obviously spot-on. Since the first race on the grounds of the Olympic Park in Beijing in 2014, Formula E has become more and more popular and the races are held on temporary street circuits right in the city centers. They want to bring the event to the spectators without having them travel long distances to race tracks somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Alongside Beijing, metropolises such as Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Marrakech, Santiago, and New York City were on the racing calendar over the years. Alejandro Agag was especially pleased about the latter. “I think we are far beyond our best expectations. The series has had an incredible evolution,” Agag stressed before the first New York ePrix 2017.

“Sending a very strong message that the electric car is a solution for mobility in the city”

“When I was in Beijing my dream was to maybe go back to Beijing the year after to continue with it. Instead, we’ve been expanding, we’re here with Manhattan behind me, in Brooklyn, in an amazing venue to race in a market that many people have tried to have a race but very few people have made it,” the Spanish entrepreneur hinted at the futile attempts of Formula One to stage a Grand Prix in New York. Ex-Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone already dreamed of a Grand Prix of America in front of the skyline of the “Big Apple” in 2012 – something that the top class has not managed to realize to this day.

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Formula E and New York would be a great match, Agag stressed. Not only because the city has the largest electric subway network in the world. “Both share the same values. We want to promote electric mobility. We want to clean the city. We want to make the city less polluted. And that can be achieved with electric cars. I think that symbol of having Formula E, the electric race, here in the city will show that.”

That’s what Formula E is all about. “Being in these cities sends a very strong message that the electric car is a solution for mobility in the city and that pollution in cities can be really challenged by electric cars. That’s the message that we want to bring.” Formula E’s core values are sustainability, efficiency, and technological progress, and the series is intended to be an environment for the development of electric cars for the automotive industry.

Currently, there are 11 teams with 22 drivers competing in 13 races in 12 cities on 5 continents, and the championship attracts motorsport teams and talent from all over the world. In season 5, a total of nine manufacturers are on board – including Renault, Audi, BMW, Mercedes (currently still as HWA), Jaguar, and Nissan. The new batteries are from McLaren Applied Technologies and the times when drivers had to switch to a fully charged car in the middle of the race due to empty batteries have been over since the start of the current fifth season.

Right now, one can only guess what Formula E will look like in a few years’ time. If you consider people’s ambition to measure themselves against each other again and again in new ways as a point of reference, Formula E could well be the future and become “something really big”. In the long run, Formula 1 will have to prepare itself for the worst – despite the quiet humming of Formula E’s electric engines.

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Competition for Formula 1?

Nico Rosberg, Formula 1 World Champion 2016, also recognized “the immense potential of green technology” and invested in the series a few years ago. Although he doesn’t believe that Formula E will completely outstrip the premier class, he thinks that electromobility is the future, also in racing. “Formula 1 is and will remain the top of motorsport,” he recently explained in an interview with the German weekly Sports Bild. “It will remain like that. And I’m still a huge fan. But as for the drivetrain, Formula 1 will have to think about it at some point. Not today, but in ten years’ time. If only e-mobility is sold, Formula 1 must remain in tune with the times and cannot continue with combustion engines.” Rosberg even believes that a merger of both series is possible: “Formula E has the rights of electric engines in formula cars for the next 20 years. That’s why I can well imagine a merger of both series. They also have the same owner. That would make sense. Not tomorrow, but the day after tomorrow.”

In the 2018/19 season, which heralds the start of a new era in Formula E, the Gen2 car has replaced its predecessor from the first four seasons. Now, the cars with twice the energy storage capacity of the Gen1 car can last the entire race distance – without changing cars in the middle of the race. Moreover, the cars have also gained speed since the first season and accelerate with 250 kW in 2.8 seconds from 0-100km/h, their maximum speed is 280km/h.

We will take a closer look at season 5 of Formula E and its technology in part two of our miniseries about Formula E.

Cover photo: © BMW