I tuned in this morning to watch the inaugural Formula E grand prix live from Beijing. While I was more entertained than I had expected to be, there are just a couple of points which I feel count slightly against Formula E, though the positives outweigh the negatives.

Location, Location, Location

Apparently this race was held in Beijing, but it could have been anywhere. Granted, one could level this argument against any Formula 1 grand prix, but while Formula 1 mostly runs on dedicated circuits which are usually located outside of cities, Formula E is going to run on street circuits in some of the world’s premier cities.

Surely those cities paid up to promote their destination?

The grey tarmac, grey fencing and little else was pretty much the view for the entire race. [Image from here.]

I think the problem here is two-fold: the safety measures which need to be put in place block views of all but the tarmac and the grey fencing, and consequently without being able to place one part of the circuit in relation to another part, the circuit becomes quite monotonous on television. This morning’s race ended in high drama as Nick Heidfeld’s car was catapulted into fencing about 10’ off the ground, so there’s absolutely no doubt that such protection is a necessity, even though the cars are comparatively slower than Formula 1 or US-based racing series (where tragedies have occurred in recent years by cars catapulted into the fencing). However, cameras focused on the circuit and the TV image framed by high, grey fencing means that I expect most circuits around the world to take on the same appearance.

Nick Heidfeld's crash can leave no-one in doubt that the safety fences are a necessity.

Nick Heidfeld’s crash can leave no-one in doubt that the safety fences are a necessity. [Image from here.]

The Line-up

A look at the list of drivers shows that every team has a former Formula 1 driver (Mahindra Racing have two). I can understand that if Formula 1 is the peak discipline of motor racing, non-current (i.e. available) Formula 1-capable drivers are therefore the most likely candidates. And even though most of those drivers (perhaps Nick Heidfeld being the exception) drove for middle-running or back-marking teams, I don’t doubt their skill and talent as being amongst the top drivers in the world. In many cases the only thing stopping a driver from moving up through the rankings of teams is financial backing.

The only problem I have with this line-up of drivers is that it gives the fledgling Formula E the appearance of being a discipline for Formula 1 also-rans.

The Positives

Nonetheless, for a conceptually brand new series, there are a lot of things to like about Formula E

  • I actually really like the noise that the electric cars make and it was loud enough on TV to offer a sense of what the driver was doing
  • While technology is limiting the sport at this stage (in terms of race distances, the requirement for the drivers to change cars halfway through because of battery life, speed) there can be no doubt, as Formula 1 has shown, that a competitive racing series will drive the technology forward. For this first year the Formula E cars have mostly the same components, but from next year onwards this is due to change. And this change will obviously in turn drive greater competition in electric vehicles and battery technology.
  • I felt that a lot of the corners were too tight on the Beijing circuit, and that the circuit consisted of short straights with corners so tight as to permit only a single car. Combined with the comparatively low speeds of the cars, I didn’t expect the racing to be as competitive as it was. It was also noticeable that the slipstreaming effect wasn’t as great as in faster disciplines, but perhaps this meant that the drivers had to use more race-craft to pass the car in front.

In May next year Formula E moves to Monaco. Two weeks later the Formula 1 Grand Prix takes place around the same circuit. This weekend I think will be the truest showcase for how competitive these cars can be in the first year of a new technology and racing discipline.