Prost drives through the shadows c/o FIA Formula E

Prost drives through the shadows
c/o FIA Formula E

So, the inaugural Formula E e-prix has been and gone. I’d expected to hate every cringe-worthy second of it. That high-pitched shriek of the car, setting my teeth on edge and forcing my spine to contort at acute angles in a reaction normally reserved for the sound of nails scraping down a chalkboard. I was prepared to despise the hastily planned and built street track that wouldn’t allow any overtaking, if the cars even got that close given the disparity expected between racing machines. And I didn’t expect more than a handful to limp over the finish line with the dregs of battery left in them, the Duracell bunny doing his very best to keep running inside that wheel that powered the engine, or however the hell they worked.

In short, ever since that video of Lucas di Grassi pulling “donuts” in a Las Vegas carpark emerged however long ago it was, I expected complete and utter farce.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I saw today in Beijing got me massively excited for the future of our sport. Was it perfect? No. But was it racing? Was it wheel to wheel, was it gutsy, did I jump out of my seat shouting at the TV? To every question, a resounding YES. It surprised me. And I’m so glad it did.

Are there issues, well yes of course, but what I think is vitally important to take into consideration is the fact that this was the first weekend of a new championship that has been rushed into existence by a governing body and President determined to show it is aware of the need for the sport to show its 21st Century credentials and to prove that it can remain relevant into the modern era and long after we have run out of dinosaur gloop to power our cars.

In Alejandro (Oui Monsieur President, Alejandro, not Alessandro as you managed to call him on the grid) Agag, Formula E has at its helm a businessman, politician and race team owner who isn’t used to failure. What he has achieved in even getting this championship to its first race must be commended because, if we are being brutally honest, this technology is nowhere near ready to be able to showcase what the future really could be.

I have long believed that until such a time as future tech can do the job of current tech, it simply isn’t a viable alternative let alone replacement. As such, seeing the test times come in from Donington had many in the motorsport community scoffing. The Formula E cars were barely over Formula Ford pace and were losing about 10% of their power per lap, meaning with in and out laps included, drivers would only get about 8 timed laps. They were never going to last a full race distance.

And so to the biggest issue the championship has: that of swapping cars mid-race. I don’t think it matters if you are a motorsport purist, a fan of 50 years, a fan of 5 years or someone whose first experience of a motor race was today in Beijing… it just doesn’t work. We are supposed to be living in economical times. The keyword is Austerity. And yet here we are, looking at a situation in which when a car runs out of power, rather than filling it up, we’re told it’s fine to just unbuckle and jump into a new one. It doesn’t and it can’t sit well with… well, frankly, anyone.

Factor in also the green credentials. Forget, for the moment, the fact that it is quite possible the worst advertisement for electric cars that the industry could possibly hope for and let’s instead focus on the bizarre situation in which each team has to double their freight in order to take two cars per driver to every single race. Cars which are flown internationally by DHL. In big, gas guzzling, airplanes.

The concept of the stops themselves are scrappy and ill thought through. They occur in individual garages which are relatively private and almost impossible to cover successfully on television without 20 unique RF cameras and multi split-screen. A minimum time erases some advantage a quick stop holds, and is too arbitrary in a closely fought race as we saw today when mere tenths split the top 6 coming in for their first stops.

I’ve got to say though, that overall I felt this was the only real major issue with the championship. It was rather nice to be sat at home watching from afar, and so half as a fan and half watching on with a critical eye, here are my takes on a few of what will no doubt be talking points over the coming days and weeks.

The inaugural race mid-flow c/o FIA Formula E

The inaugural race mid-flow
c/o FIA Formula E

Sound

Thought I’d hate it, actually really liked it. The only problem for me was it wasn’t loud enough. Those at the track say they’re actually far louder in real life than on TV. Ring any bells, F1 fans? The Formula E car sounds like something out of an early 2000s sci-fi futuristic racing game. At least it would if they positioned the mics better and pumped up the volume. I tweeted during the race, and in hinsight it is the one thing that has stuck with me throughout the day, but there were times when I was transported back to playing F-Zero X on the Nintendo N64, or Wipeout on the Playstation. It was high pitched whooshes and whirrs, chattering around corners… with added tyre squeal. I loved it!

Ahhh yes, many of you will say, but what about that god awful music? Again… and perhaps I’ve played too many computer games in my life, but I enjoyed this aspect of the product too. The musical selection was in the hands of the, let’s say interestingly dubbed “EJ” instead of DJ. You can insert your own witty line about controversial noise here. Suffice to say there weren’t any coloured shirts and wild theories on display, just a dude at some decks wearing a helmet that made him look like the bastard lovechild of Dedmau5 and Daft Punk, trying to find the right tunes to suit the mood.

The music was used sparingly and, at least on the ITV4 broadcast we had in the UK, was at the right level in the mix so as not to drown out the cars nor the great commentary team of Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti. We had a nice build of musical anticipation from the grid all around the formation lap to a crescendo at lights out. Then we had nothing but race sound until the safety car came out, at which point the music returned. And I’ve got to say that, from my perspective, it really worked. The safety car periods are a moment at which the race is effectively paused, and as such it did feel like we were going back to a menu screen or hitting that pause button on a computer game. Then back to the racing and the sound of the cars until, with two laps to go, in crept that music again. And as the music built over those last two laps, so did the anticipation right to the flag.

It was a great idea and, for this championship at least, I felt it worked really well.

Speed

Cars that don’t sound fast don’t look fast. It is a very simple equation. This equation does, however, have factors that can influence the result. And they’re all to do with camerawork. The long, wide shots of the cars, the overhead down the start-finish stretch, all played out to show the real speed of the cars. And they looked as slow as they are.

But sitting onboard on a street track (as all the circuits will be), using the trackside cams either on a static or quickly panning with the cars, gave an increased sensitivity and an exaggerated feeling of speed.

The solution to this is quite simple. Improve the sound of the cars via better positioning of microphones and simply making them louder in the mix on the world feed and then again in comparative levels to commentators and, when it is used, the music. Cut down the number of wide angle long shots, and keep the action close and engaging.

No, on the straights they didn’t look great. But in the corners and under braking, they looked mega. Particularly side by side, engaged in battle.

As the technology improves so will energy storage capacity, so will speed. If and when this championship takes off, one hopes the regs will be opened up and car manufacturers will enter to showcase their electric credentials, and then we will see the real development race and the true advancement of this technology.

A huge achievement c/o FIA Formula E

A huge achievement
c/o FIA Formula E

Circuit

It reminded me tremendously of an Indycar style street circuit. I didn’t think we would see any overtaking, and yet we did on almost every lap. It might not have been for the lead (until the very end) but Montagny’s incredible ascent through the field and Piquet and Sato’s many dices were just a few of the fights that kept us enthralled and entertained. When those first damned stops arrived, the top six were split by a handful of car lengths… on a street track! It was incredibly close.

Bear in mind also that this was a brand new championship at its first event. Not only did the organisers have the running of 20 cars to contend with and a global audience ready to mock a single failure, they also had responsibility for the complete infrastructure of the track. That means facilities (from media centre to medical centre, pitlane buildings to toilets, fencing and safety barriers, timing loops, television cables, satellites. This was an absolutely massive effort.

When the lights went out I was reminded of my own nerves as Press Officer at the very first GP2 race at Imola in 2005. It was bedlam. The electronics had all gone to hell on the cars in practice. Our pole sitter’s engine had gone on the way to the grid for the first race. And then everyone’s brakes started exploding. And that was just the car. The organisation had its own issues, but we had just simply turned up and tagged onto the side of an F1 weekend. It was, comparatively, easy.

Formula E ran its own weekend. Everything that is taken for granted at a race weekend had to be done from scratch by an organization that, while all experienced in their own fields, had never worked together and had no idea if this concept would work. They were trying to do it all in a country that isn’t the easiest to work in, and for a championship that relies on social media they were making their debut in a country where Twitter is outlawed.

The safety car seemed incredibly slow as did the reaction to Heidfeld’s crash. Marshals need to be aware of what they can and can’t do in terms of touching these incredibly dangerous cars in the event of an accident, and if they can’t go near the things then safety crews need to be more numerous and dotted around the track to be on the scene faster, with someone trained in earthing these things in every car.

Overall, Formula E did an unbelievable job. If this was the start, the following rounds should be incredible.

Lucas di Grassi celebrates his win c/o FIA Formula E

Lucas di Grassi celebrates his win
c/o FIA Formula E

Drivers

If the script had landed on a Hollywood director’s desk, he’d have laughed and thrown it in the bin.

Son of one of the all-time greats of Formula 1 is leading the first race of the championship of the future from pole position. On his tail, the perennial underdog, the nearly man, at the wheel of a car owned by a Hollywood megastar, himself the nearly man of the Oscars. They are team-mates in a separate championship, and friends. On the final corner of the final lap they collide, ending both their races in a massive accident.

Pulling through the carnage to win is the driver in whose hands as test driver the championship was taken from concept to reality and without whom the cars would likely not have been close to being race ready. Behind him, the car run by the most famous name in American racing, Andretti. And completing the podium, after a post race penalty nonetheless, the car owned by Sir Richard Branson.

If you were a cynic you’d say it was all scripted. But the quality of the field and the interest in the championship that has led so many interesting people to enter teams has led to such stories simply occurring no matter what result Formula E ends up with. For the most part the racing was hard and fair, and surprisingly so on such a tight track.

Prost was handed a ten-place grid-penalty for the next race for his moment of utter madness with Heidfeld. Frankly, he’s got off lightly. His move was idiotic at best, callous and downright life-threatening at worst. The angle Heidfeld went into the barrier left me with one of those thankfully all too rare lump-in-your-throat moments where everything goes very quiet until you see that movement that lets you know the guy is OK. That Prost didn’t even go and check on his “friend” spoke volumes, and his immediate comments left a sour taste. His later contrition may well have something to do with the fact that, having written as its mantra its social media engagement, Formula E’s new fans had already judged and sentenced the Frenchman before he’d returned to the pits.

Fans are engaged. Their continued faith in the series is crucial. I’m still no fan of the “fan boost” system, particularly if there is no way of showing the folks at home when it is being used, but if it gets people invested in the championship then so be it.

What that crash gave Formula E however was a calling card. That incident has got it onto every news bulletin and every newspaper in the world today. A simple electric race wouldn’t have done that. It’s brilliant publicity!

The Future

Just how far could this go? Screengrab - Wipeout HD

Just how far could this go?
Screengrab – Wipeout HD

The thing I’ve kept thinking about today, is just how good this could be. This championship should never have started in 2014. The technology is not ready. But the fact that it has started, and the fact it has started so positively is a tremendous achievement and must make us incredibly excited for the future. The racing of cars utilizing the internal combustion engine did not become what it is overnight. It took over a century. Formula E has taken the first very small step of what could be an amazing future for electric racing.

There is already talk that in the future, tracks will feature charging lanes so as to completely eradicate the need for the car swap mid race. Indeed, Formula E’s safety car is already fitted with wireless charging capabilities thanks to series partner Qualcomm. On hearing that, my thoughts again fly back to those computer games. Those futuristic vehicles, flying through high-tech cities, picking up extra power, using it to boost. I used to love those games. They seemed so fantastic. Totally at odds to the clunky, blocky graphics of the F1 games of the time, Wipeout and F-Zero X were a vision of the future.

And today, perhaps, we took the first step towards that. If that sounds stupid, do you really think those crazy folks who raced those early motorcars from Paris to Rouen in 1894 ever imagined that over 100 years later there would exist the sheer number of car racing championships in the world, from Formula 1 to NASCAR, from WEC to karting, the WRC to Indycar. Why then, is it so silly to think that in 100 years time, those fantastical computer games of my youth might not become reality? And all because of what we saw today.

Electric racing. I’ve tasted it. And it might just be the future.

Georges Lemaître (peugeot 3hp) Winner of the Paris-Rouen 1894

Georges Lemaître (peugeot 3hp)
Winner of the Paris-Rouen 1894

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