As Formula E hits the road again, Jim McClelland looks at whether it's time has come

Billed as the world’s first electric street-racing series and now in its sixth year, Formula E is on the eve of a new season — one that promises to be ‘defined by real rivalries, raw performance, and renewable energy within reach’.

For the carmakers concerned, the commercial logic for investment is clear.

Jim McClelland Jim McClelland Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker

Extra horsepower in the E-stable

Ahead of the opening meets scheduled for late November, the full line-up of competing teams has now officially been announced, with much FIA-supported fanfare. A sign of success and the times, there are two new auto additions to the racing E-stable for 2019-20 — both premium marques, one with a luxury Swiss watch brand attached: namely, Tag Heuer Porsche and Mercedes-Benz EQ.

Why invest in Formula E? Well, for the carmakers concerned, the commercial logic is clear.

With suitably good timing, Porsche launched its first fully electric production vehicle in the very same month as the Formula E reveal — with a high-performance 4-door coupe, the turbo-charged Taycan, making its mass-market debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

Similarly in sync with the move into Formula E was the electric mobility arm of Mercedes Benz, EQ, with its recent release of an emission-free SUV, the EQC. In fact, parent company Daimler also revealed this September that, for the first time in its history, no new internal combustion engine is even on the drawing board, with the firm having flicked the switch to all-electric for future R&D.

E-mobility on the world map

Whilst the car might be the star, however, it is only really half the story. In total, the race calendar will see 12 teams and 24 drivers compete in 15 races around 13 cities and across 4 continents.

Speeding off the starting grid in the historic setting of Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, the championship will make its way around the world: motoring along in South America via Santiago and Mexico City; then hitting Hong Kong and China; rolling into Rome, Paris and Berlin; sweeping through Seoul and Jakarta; before racing over New York City to cross the finish line in London, UK.

The global tour itinerary effectively constitutes not only a promotional roadshow for the participating automotive manufacturers, but also provides a PR platform for the clean and green aspirations of the smart cities and carbon-reduction development agendas of the countries concerned. Formula E is putting electric mobility on the world map, literally.

The racing return to Diriyah, though, might raise a few eco eyebrows. Running a very close second only to Venezuela in the global ranking for proven oil reserves, but by far the largest exporter of petroleum in the world, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia appears an unlikely host for an E-Prix. Last year’s event, however, proved a sell-out debut for Formula E in the Middle East, attracting big-name entertainers such as David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas. So, with talk of crowds of up to 100,000 in 2019, the 10-year Saudi association smacks simply of making mainstream business sense.

Slipstream of the electric dream

Not surprisingly, where there is audience to be won and money to be made, advertising and marketing are seldom far behind. Official Partners of Formula E range from global brands such as DHL and Heineken, to Allianz and Hugo Boss — all sitting in the slipstream of the electric dream.

The sustainability credentials of Formula E are a serious business, though.

As well as the more obvious aims of pushing technological innovation in fields such as enhanced battery capacity, the visions and objectives of Formula E include improving driver behaviours and transferring from race to road.

Claiming its integrated sustainability mindset to be a motorsport disruptor, the series is raced on temporary tracks in the hearts of leading and iconic world cities. This not only eliminates the need for new infrastructure, but being held city-centre, the events are more readily accessible and, with no additional parking purposely provided, fans are encouraged to use public transport to attend.

With seasons of sustainability reports already available to view online, Formula E is accredited to the international standard for sustainable events management ISO 20121, plus a champion of Life Cycle Assessment. Its LCA calculates not only carbon and water footprints, but collects data around impacts on climate change, ecosystems quality, natural resources and human health, too.

A breath of fresh air

With urban air quality a critical concern for congested 21st-century cities, as well as a key selling-point for emissions-free electric road vehicles and the race series itself, Formula E is also a partner of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), actively involved in its BreatheLife campaign.

This concerted eco commitment has not gone unnoticed. Accolades received by Formula E have ranged from winning Sustainability Team of the Year at the Business Green Leaders Awards, to recognition by Greenpeace for its visionary role in the automotive industry.

So, whilst deeper greens might still understandably mistrust traditional petrolhead perceptions of motorsport, the Formula E Championship is busy hitting the road and the campaign trail, emissions-free. The relatively quiet electric revolution is coming to a city near you — but be warned: capable of 0-100km/h in only 2.8 seconds, blink and you just might miss it!

Jim McClelland is a Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker