Sir Richard Branson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Alain Prost walk into a bar… Sounds like the beginning of a terrible joke or a very, very strange dream. However, it could easily become a reality, all thanks to Formula E. Let’s just hope the newest version of motorsport doesn’t end up as the punchline.
For those of you who don’t already know, Formula E is essentially the same as F1 except that the cars are run entirely by electric batteries. It is the brainchild of current FIA President Jean Todt and has developed at an extraordinary rate – just 3 years ago it was a fantasy, now it’s ready to launch. There are still a number of teething problems though, the main one being that the batteries in each car will only last half the race distance! You’d think that this would have been the first thing those in power thought of but clearly not… Credit to Williams F1 though, as they only had a year to design and build the batteries, but you would have thought they would have designed the races around the battery life and not vice versa… Still, it will create a unique form of excitement as each driver has just minute to enter the pits, jump from one car into another and get back out on the track when the battery gets low.
It’s here though that the major problems seem to end (unless you hate the idea of noiseless engines). Formula E is seen as a wonderful idea by many environmental campaigners, none more famous than DiCaprio himself. Indeed, he’s so excited by the prospect that he has become the co-founder of the Venturi team. F1 is used to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood stars, but none have ever owned a team as far as I’m aware. The presence of such a famous face is bound to attract a lot of sponsors, making the Venturi team and Formula E much more marketable and much more likely to succeed in a sporting world run by money. His presence is also likely to attract a lot of his fans so they can see what all the fuss is about, which is a brilliant way of generating motor racing to a wider audience. This will also be helped with the presence of Team China and Mahindra Racing, an Indian-run team. Formula E has done really well to acquire these two teams in order to attract new fans from two of the largest nations in the world and increase interest in a sport which is losing many European fans. Branson is also bringing back his Virgin Racing franchise and his presence will also undoubtedly attract a lot of financial interest.
As well as there being plenty to attract new fans, there is also a hell of a lot for racing purists to get excited about. Both the well-renowned Audi ABT and Dragon Racing franchises have set up teams in the championship – which will attract audiences from DTM and IndyCar respectively – whilst Aguri Suzuki, Mario Andretti, Jarno Trulli and Alain Prost bring a wealth of experience from Formula 1. There are also a host of famous names who will be racing too – for those of a certain generation, hearing the names Prost, Senna, Sarrazin and Piquet lining up on the same grid will stir memories of great battles at a time when F1 was arguably at its best. Whilst the current crop may not be as good as their predecessors, they are still an extremely strong bunch who should make the racing absolutely fascinating.
Overall, the line-up contains 12 drivers who have raced in F1 and another handful who have tested with various teams. These aren’t just drivers selected at random; they are some of the finest drivers around. Some are bringing their vast experience to get this format up and running – Nick Heidfeld, Takuma Sato and Trulli, driving for his own team, have raced in around 600 Grand Prix between them – but many of the drivers will view this new format as another platform on which to establish their credentials and get to the very top. Jaime Alguersuari, Sébastien Buemi, Bruno Senna and Nelson Piquet Jr. can class themselves unlucky to not still be in F1 and will be fighting hard to attract attention, whilst youngsters Antonio Felix da Costa and Daniel Abt will want to burst onto the scene.
More importantly for me, however, is the fact that there will be two women on the grid in Beijing. In a sport that for so long has been dominated by men, it finally seems as though women are starting to break onto the scene. In the US, Danica Patrick has performed strongly in both NASCAR and IndyCar, but that’s about it. The British and German F1 GPs this year also saw Susie Wolff test the Williams in first practice and, although she was hugely unlucky to have an engine problem at her home event, she did a solid job in the latter and was only a small fraction behind Felipe Massa. However, these two are the only females to have had any real chance since the 1990s. Wolff’s fellow Brit Katherine Legge will be one of the women on the grid for Amlin Aguri, whilst Michela Cerruti will be driving alongside compatriot Trulli. Both women will see this as the perfect opportunity to kick-start their careers, although Cerruti has had a superb season in the Auto GP series, and the fact that Formula E is free to view (all the races are live on ITV4) will hopefully attract many young women and get them wanting to race.
As well as being a feeder system, Formula E will most likely serve as a technological guinea pig for F1 too. The introduction of the hybrid system and ERS into F1 this year shows that the sport is already moving into the electrical market and it is more than probable that it will incorporate ideas from this format before long. Although this season all cars will be the same, as of next year each team can come up with its own design and it will be this that F1 designers and engineers will be very interested in – what is the best way to run an electrical car? Don’t be surprised if, before too long, F1 becomes entirely electric as a result of this series.
It’s going to be different, it’s going to be a bit whacky, but all the signs suggest that Formula E is going to be brilliant. Let’s just hope it doesn’t go the way of A1GP and Formula 2, both of which were great ideas but weren’t managed very well. Somehow, with DiCaprio investing a lot of money, I don’t think that’s going to happen…