How Formula E is disrupting the world of motorsport
The climax of the debut Formula E Championship season takes place this weekend around Battersea Park in South London.
Insights got behind-the-scenes access to the electric-powered series to examine how it’s shaking up the world of motorsport
Nine out of ten startups fail. For every high-profile success, there are dozens of companies that had similar ideas but failed. Ahead of this weekend’s London ePrix double-header, we investigate how Formula E – the new kid on the block in the world of motorsport - is positioning itself in a market dominated by one major player – Formula 1 – and how it’s fared in its rookie year.
It’s in tune with social changes
Formula E is the brainchild of Jean Todt, president of the FIA, the global governing body for many top-level motorsport series, including Formula 1. Aware of its often negative, gas-guzzling image, Todt spotted an opportunity for motor racing to promote the technology of electric cars in city centres – and reflect changes seen in daily life. Formally launched in 2012, the series counts US billionaire John Malone, tech giant Qualcomm and private equity firm Amura Capital amongst its backers; while the likes of Virgin and Mahindra own teams.
”The new series is different in three very distinct ways”, says Ross Ringham, editor of Current E – the media channel that covers the championship. “First, its environmental approach – cars produce zero emissions and the goal of the series is to promote and help develop the electric car industry.
“Second, its social approach – FE has made a conscious effort to target a younger audience, as it’s future generations who will most likely be purchasing electric cars. You can see this in its social media strategy, for example.
“And finally, its commercial approach – costs are controlled with the aim of creating a stable and sustainable business model for both the series and all the teams.”
Not just environmental sustainability
The premise of electric cars gives the series a unique selling point, but it’s neither enough to get teams to sign up, nor people watching. Motor racing is an inherently expensive sport. You only need to look at the failures of A1 Grand Prix and Superleague Formula, two categories that launched in the 2000s and were soon beset by a multitude of problems including poor series management and a somewhat rudderless direction; as well as Formula 1’s ongoing economic struggle with trying to maintain a full grid of cars.
“Establishing the right mix between competition and cost control is one of the trickiest things to do,” says Colajanni, head of communications at Formula E, “but it’s significantly easier to do when you start from zero.”
“In other series, where certain aspects are strongly established, it can be difficult to expect teams to renounce certain privileges. When you are a startup, everyone is equal and it’s much easier, we are in a position to maintain a constant dialogue with the teams regarding the future of the sport.”
Interaction, innovation, instant gratification
The whizziest innovation in Formula E, conceived by series chief executive Alejandro Agag, is FanBoost, whereby fans can vote for their favourite three drivers to receive two bursts of extra power during the race. “FanBoost has been a success, not just in terms of numbers [of fans casting votes online] but in terms of concept,” says Colajanni, who was also a former press officer for Ferrari’s Formula 1 team. “It’s the first time the public can interact with a motorsport event. Spectators are no longer just passive – we live in a world in which they want to take part.”
Then there’s Formula E’s ‘eVillage’ fan parks, where fans can find out more about electric motoring technology, while providing entertainment for people of all ages.
What fans want from sport is changing, says Ringham: “Look at cricket; five-day test matches used to be the most popular format but you only have to see how Twenty20 has taken off in the past decade to understand fans want a more instant sense of satisfaction. Formula E has replicated this with all its sessions taking place over the course of a single day, as opposed to the traditional weekend format seen across most professional motorsports.” And, of course, cities are far more accessible than traditional racing circuits.
Fan engagement is everything
Comparisons between Formula E and Formula 1 were always inevitable – and not just because the cars look vaguely similar. Several drivers and team personnel are ex-F1, and even ex-A1GP, but this is far from a second-rate series. From the ground up, Formula E operates in a fundamentally different way to the notoriously standoffish world of Formula 1.
“Unlike my previous experiences at the Premier League and in F1, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the amount of fan engagement that takes place,” says Oliver Weingarten, chief executive of OW Advisory, which advises sports businesses on fan engagement. He spent a decade working for the Premier League and in the F1 paddock, and is now general secretary of the Formula E Teams’ Association, which brokers dialogue between the teams and stakeholders while also ensuring costs are controlled and competition is high.
“Formula 1 does not promote from the centre, it has traditionally been left to the teams,” adds Weingarten who previously held the same role of general secretary at the Formula One Teams’ Association (FOTA). “At FOTA we tried to coordinate a lot of activities between the teams, host “Fans’ Forums” across the world, and assist the circuit promoters in the build-up to their events.”
Social media is the heart of fan engagement. “Formula E has been a lot more aggressive with its social media approach, from Twitter to YouTube, and embracing Periscope and Grabyo,” says Ringham.
To illustrate how this social media energy has impacted the wider motorsports’ market, just one week after Formula E made its debut in Beijing in September last year, Formula 1 dragged itself into the social media world at the Singapore Grand Prix – to the collective amusement of both industry observers and fans alike (maybe it was just coincidence…). Since Formula E’s launch, Formula 1 has overhauled its online services, relaunching its website, introducing a YouTube channel and curating a previously neglected Twitter account.
It’s too early to tell whether Formula E will be a sustainable success but the foundations look solid and the vision is clear.