The battery powered alternative to Formula 1 has confounded critics and continues to flourish, but the sport still can’t seem to attract female competitors. Richard Williams asks why.
From the howl of a supercharged Bugatti to the scream of a 12-cylinder Ferrari, the sound of high-revving engines has always seemed to play a vital role in the drama of motor racing. But then along came Formula E, whose cars may bear a visual resemblance to those driven by Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel in Formula 1, but whose almost equally rapid progress around the world’s race tracks takes place in near-silence.
When the series made its bow in 2014, sceptics said the lack of noise produced by the battery-driven vehicles would kill spectator enthusiasm stone dead. Four years on, Formula E has not just survived but is flourishing as 20 cars featuring drivers from 14 countries compete in a 12-race schedule taking place on five continents.
“When we started, it wasn’t obvious that we were going to make it,” says Alejandro Agag, a 47-year-old, Madrid-born businessman and former politician who dreamed up the new formula and became its impresario. “Now it’s clear that this is the direction the whole world needs to go in if we want the planet to continue to be a home for humans. So, you could say we have the wind of history behind us.”
Within two years of its arrival, several major car manufacturers were applying to join the series. Over the next two years the existing teams from Audi, Renault and Jaguar will be joined by Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and BMW, a sign that some very bright people are convinced that this could be the future of motor sport.
The race winners to date include several former F1 stars, including Lucas Di Grassi of Brazil, Nick Heidfeld of Germany and Sébastien Buemi of Switzerland. Famous surnames on the grid include those of Nelson Piquet Jr of Brazil and Nico Prost of France, whose fathers won seven F1 titles between them. This year’s schedule, which started in Hong Kong before Christmas, ends in July on a street circuit in Brooklyn, New York, and includes such imaginative venues as Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport and the Uruguayan resort of Punta del Este. On Formula E’s first visit to Rome this April, 45,000 people turned up to watch the racing on a circuit laid out in a residential and business suburb.
That race was won by Sam Bird, a 31-year-old Englishman who drives for Richard Branson’s DS Virgin Racing team and has been in the series since its inaugural round in Beijing four years ago. “On the first day the lack of engine noise seemed bizarre,” he says, “but after that it wasn’t an issue at all. In the car, you’re actually hearing plenty of noise from the tyres, the suspension, the brakes and the gearbox.”
Back in 2014 the available technology could not enable the cars to complete a 50-minute race on the charge from the single battery, compelling them to switch between two cars in a mid-race pit stop. Next year’s introduction will see battery life sufficiently extended for each driver to complete the race in a single vehicle. “We want everybody in the world to drive an electric car,” Agag says, “and they won’t do that until they’re better and cheaper. The development of the technology is where we can play our part.”
Where Formula E has not thrived, surprisingly enough, is in its appeal to women as competitors. There was a promising start when Katherine Legge, an experienced British driver who has raced at Indianapolis, took part in the first two rounds of the inaugural season, finishing 15th on both occasions. She was followed by Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland, who made a dozen appearances in 2015-16, with two ninth places as her best performances. But for the last two seasons the field has been exclusively male.
Women may have been deterred by the physical demands of Formula 1 since the 1970s, when Lella Lombardi of Italy became the only driver of her gender ever to score a world championship point. Bird sees no reason why they should not be competitive in the electric-powered cars. “The lack of power steering in our cars can make a street circuit like Mexico City tough on the arms – all the guys notice that,” he says, “but your neck doesn’t take a pounding in the way that it does in F1. I’m sure that if there’s a woman out there with the necessary talent, she’ll get the chance.”
For Agag, the absence of women competing in his races is a rare disappointment in the short but impressive history of the series. “For us, the championship would be richer if we had women drivers fighting alongside the men,” he says. “I don’t choose the drivers. That’s the job of the teams, so all we can do is encourage them. The dream would be to have a woman winning a race.”
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The FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) Women in Motorsport Commission website promotes the full participation of women in all aspects of motor sports. Though not specifically confined to Formula E, it lists international events and useful contacts for girls and women who want to get started. www.fia.com/fia-women-motorsport
Started by former racing driver Susie Wolff, who joined forces with the Motor Sports Association, the Dare to be Different campaign links women who work in motor sports and showcases new talent. To attract girls to compete from a young age, the organisation visits karting tracks across the UK and invites schools to attend. www.daretobedifferent.org/events/schools/
Follow racing teams on social media – "98 per cent of our recruitment is done in-house via our website and social media channels," says John Steele, M-Sport Commercial Director.
The Formula E website regularly highlights women’s roles in the sport, such as that of Francesca Valdani, Team Coordinator at Techeetah, as well as providing a useful fixtures list. www.fiaformulae.com/en/news/2018/april/paddock-pass-francesca-valdani/