Don’t forget the human factor in electric motorsport

Features editor

The Formula E electric motor racing series has ambitious goals to help the development of practical electric vehicles. But the contributors to the series need to remember that, first and foremost, it’s a sport — and that’s a human, not technological, pursuit

The idea of super-futuristic cars racing through city streets is a seductive one, seemingly ripped straight from the pages of science fiction. Yet it’ll become fact next year with the launch of the electric car Formula E championship, set to be staged in ten cities around the world, as we explain in this month’s feature.

Motor racing is, of course, entertainment, but Formula E has a serious set of  goals: to promote electric cars, changing their image from something slow or staid to something fast, exciting and attractive; to position motorsport to its main customer, the automotive sector, as a ready-for-action R&D outsourcing contractor; and to accelerate the development of the technologies needed to take the next steps towards practical electric cars.

Can this approach work? To my knowledge, it’s never been done before — it certainly wasn’t part of the goals of motorsport when it started out. That was more to do with people wanting to drive as fast as they could against each other; sport, in other words. But yes, it seems likely that this series could work in the way the promotors want it to. It’s an intriguing reversal of the ideas of sport, to make use of its (originally unintentional) power to attract attention, something which has previously been the province of advertisers and sponsors.

Initially, the promoters will provide most, if not all, of the teams with a common car, developed by a consortium of technology providers including the UK’s own McLaren, in the important position of supplying the drive train. This is unfortunate. Although it will develop electric car technology to the point where it’ll be a practical tool for racing, it lacks the competitive element which acts as a spur to development, and it’s also not the best way to keep costs down; that, again, tends to be a by-product of competition.

As for whether it will bring in business for motorsport from the mainstream automotive sector; well, that’s yet to be seen. It’s certainly a worthwhile goal (and something which, incidentally, would be very good for the UK, which is where much of the motorsport industry is based), but mainstream automotive is a rather conservative sector, understandably. While it’s easy to imagine the premium automotive companies incorporating motorsport technology into sports cars, with their less risk-averse customers, it’s harder to see these innovations filtering down to the regular road cars. It’ll be interesting to see whether Formula E’s insistence on all techology being applicable to road cars helps in encouraging technology transfer.

But all of this will be academic if Formula E doesn’t succeed in its primary goal, which is to be entertaining. It absolutely has to capture the imagination, and its appeal has to spread beyond the current fanbase for motorsport. That means there has to be good racing, and that will need something which, I feel, has been slightly lacking in the discussions around the series. It needs to be a sport. It needs a human element. It needs drivers.

Sector insiders sometimes talk about motorsport as an ‘engineering entertainment’, but let’s be honest, it isn’t the engineering that’s entertaining. And while afficionados will doubtless have favourite cars from all the periods of motor racing (I have a soft spot for 1950s Vanwalls and the 1980s Ferraris, myself) what most people remember is Sterling Moss, Niki Lauda, James Hunt, Ayrton Senna and so on. Motor racing began because of drivers, and it succeeds or fails on the flair, skill and talent of drivers.

Everybody says that electric motor cars are exciting — the huge torque of electric motors means that they accelerate fast. And those bike racers who have ridden electric bikes soon become fans, likening the experience to flying on a magic carpet. Hopefully, this will attract drivers to having a go in an electric racer and developing an enthusiasm which will see them flinging the cars around in exciting, engaging racing. That’s what will attract the audiences, keep the series going, and in turn feed into the competition to develop faster, better, and crucially for the automotive sector, more industrially relevant electric vehicles.