The unstoppable rise of Formula E

For every waking moment since the sport got serious in the 1960s, F1 cars have been the quickest things on four wheels. On a very long road with no corners, other supercars would eventually overtake them due to their larger engines and lack of aerodynamic impairments, but name any track imaginable and an F1 car won’t be beaten. But could electric cars one day catch up? That’s part of the intrigue behind Formula E, F1’s electric-powered junior apprentice.

Season five concept livery from Jaguar Racing. Formula E leads the world in making everyone who looks at the cars go “phwoar”.

First conceived in 2011, the inaugural Formula E championship began three years later. Boasting around 270 bhp, the cars maxed out at a top speed of just under 140 mph and took three seconds to reach 60 mph. A bigger difference could be seen with the pit stops, as drivers had to hop out, grab their steering wheel and jump into another car so as not to run out of juice. An F1 team manager would sooner harpoon his millionaire driver than allow a pit stop to take longer than ten seconds.

Due to the above reasons, the race courses themselves are quite different. Rather than the long, sweeping tracks of F1, Formula E takes its action to the streets of some of the world’s biggest cities, including Rome, Hong Kong and Mexico City.

The result may not be to the tastes of purists who enjoy the pilgrimage to traditional tracks like Silverstone and Spa, but Formula E takes pride in aiming itself at a younger, more urban demographic.

Title image: The Spark Renault SRT_01 E, designed for the first Formula E Championship. Credit: Smokeonthewater (unaltered)

Formula E’s fifth anniversary is already shaping up to be the most competitive yet. The cars in season five — which starts Saturday, December 15 and is titled like an American sitcom for some reason — have been given a new chassis, giving them a distinctively Batmobile-esque look, and are expected to be capable of 0–60 in 2.7 seconds and exceeding 170 mph for the first time, bringing them ever closer to F1. This is thanks to increased battery and powertrain performances, which in layman terms means an extra 67 bhp over the current model. The improved batteries will also mean cars will be able to last an entire race without conking out.

But perhaps the most entertaining change for the season will occur in Monaco, where the drivers will get to tackle the full Grand Prix circuit and test their mettle against F1’s finest.

Progress will naturally slow or even be put in reverse at some point, as it did notably with F1 after the turbocharger ban and the death of the V10s, but for the time being Formula E is booming. And with the cost of cars being capped at £740,000 — a snip compared to the millions of pounds an F1 car is worth — more teams should find it easier to join. Already, Mercedes and Porsche have been given the green light to enter season six.

During pre-season testing at Donington Park race track in 2016, a Formula E car driven by Sebastien Buemi posted a faster time than the lap record of the McLaren MP4–12C GT3 supercar during the 2012 British GT season.

Perhaps the biggest fault of Formula E is the ‘FanBoost’, a system where viewers vote for their favourite drivers to receive a five second power boost. Is it a gimmick with pointless capital letters that threatens to turn the whole thing into a popularity contest or a clever way of getting viewers to engage with the races? Probably the first one, but it’s a relatively small part of Formula E as a whole, and we can always hope they decide to do away with it if the sport reaches a more mainstream audience.

Comparisons to the petrol-powered cars will always be inevitable, but defining Formula E as a poor man’s F1 does a disservice to the sport. The advances that have been made in just a few years on relatively small budgets ought to worry the big dogs of F1. Bernie Ecclestone — of all people — told the Guardian earlier this year that F1 would have to go all-electric or risk being left behind. It’s not hard to believe that, with enough time and resources, the world could eventually see an electric challenger to the throne.

This article was first published with Direct Gap.