There will be some who dismiss the first international motor racing event to be held in London for 43 years, since the last meeting at Crystal Palace in 1972, as the sport returning with a whimper rather than a bang, but that would be to do Saturday’s all-electric Formula E race a disservice.
The battery-powered cars admittedly make very little noise but that they are here amid an atmosphere of positivity and a real sense that there is a future for the series, is something the sport should celebrate.
Equally the return could not have had a better location. Entering Battersea Park, the light and shade of trees and parkland was reminiscent of the glorious landscape of Imola. A favourable comparison if ever there was one, although perhaps one lost on the temporarily displaced dog walkers and joggers of Carriage Drive, which now boasted a 1.81 mile, 17-turn track in the heart of the capital.
That lack of noise was crucial to the race being held here – the cars sound rather like polite but volatile washing machines – as was not altering any of the park’s existing structures. The latter meaning the bumpy, uneven and testing surface of the Drive, with its high crown, offered a unique challenge to the drivers. It was one they took to with aplomb.
Sébastien Buemi made the most of it, taking his e.dams Renault from pole to the flag and only dropping the lead during the pit stop, in which drivers must change cars. But in his wake the action delivered just what the series needed for its debut in London. The championship leaders, Nelson Piquet Jr and Lucas Di Grassi, were nip and tuck throughout, while the former F1 Toro Rosso driver Jean-Éric Vergne was both opportunistic and determined, particularly through the chicane at Turn 14 to take third.
On a difficult track to overtake there were more moves than might have been expected and seeing cars inches from one another, nose to tail and looking for tiny advantages through the corners is a sight to be savoured. There was only one safety car, to which but three laps were lost, and by the end of the race, which lasted just under an hour, less than three seconds separated the front four drivers. It means e.dams have taken the constructors’ championship but has also set up Sunday’s finale for the drivers’ title perfectly. Piquet leads Buemi by five points with Di Grassi eight more behind. The scoring system is the same as F1, starting with 25 points for a win.
All of this buoyed the mood further but it must be acknowledged the series is far from perfect. The organiser, Alejandro Agag, had emphasised, before the first round in Beijing last September, FE’s sustainable business model, including not charging hosting fees to certain cities, and the attractiveness of the sustainable green agenda to sponsors. But after the fourth race it was in financial trouble and only the arrival of two new backers ensured it made it to London. Completing the first season is an achievement to celebrate but to prosper in the long term, financial security will be needed.
The show itself is vital to that and elements of it are likely to remain unattractive to traditional fans. Fanboost, a system of voting that awards three drivers extra power to the engine during the race, may be a good way to engage with social media but detracts from both the technology and real skill. It is a gimmick that could happily be ditched.
More important, however, is that need to change cars midway through the race because the batteries will not run the distance. There is possibly no worse an advertisement for electric-powered racing than watching a driver climb out of one perfectly good car into another to complete 29 laps. A corollary of which is that the cars are just not that quick.
Agag has acknowledged both issues and admitted there is no silver bullet but one of the purposes of the series was to drive the technology forward and he believes that going racing was the best way to do so. As of next year the teams can develop their own powertrains and the intent is to have manufacturers developing every part of the car themselves by season five – getting a car to the finish on one set of batteries is part of that goal. Switching cars may be a rather blunt and aesthetically ugly solution but equally it is hard not to accept that fossil fuels are very much finite and FE is at least the beginning of a journey to a solution.
The Virgin team owner Richard Branson was bullish about its prospects. “Four or five years from now Formula E will overtake F1 in terms of numbers of people,” he said after announcing his team would work in partnership with Citroën next season. This is classic Branson hyperbole and something FE is in no danger of doing but, always eager to promote London’s green agenda, Boris Johnson was also firmly in favour, the London mayor calling for Battersea to host the race for five years.
But some remain unconvinced. “We have nothing against Formula E itself, E racing cars are great but this is not the way to promote them,” said Lois Davis, a local resident and co-ordinator of the Wandsworth Green party. “It’s not an appropriate use for a grade II listed Victorian park.” Her love for said park is clear but this weekend 25,000 fans – a sell-out in the stands – came to share it with her and they found something that enhanced its bucolic charm on the day London went racing again.
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