Why Formula E is going all Mario Kart for Season 5
Formula E has grown into a giant-killer, ironically by being an underdog. Here's how it's staying edgy under manufacturer pressure.
Formula E is an outsider. Its charismatic CEO Alejandro Agag, who put himself forward for the job with a smiley face scrawled on a Parisian napkin, is very fond of referring to it as a "disruptor", an upstart, a thing nothing like the staid and class-stoic traditional motorsport series.
It's true, to a large extent. Formula E does things other motorsport series would consider beneath them or embarrassing – from having a resident DJ to fanboost – but the thing is, they work. Could Formula One pull them off? Good god, no, but to the chagrin of its detractors, Formula E's quirks, from car swaps to street circuits, have been some of its major strengths.
When I went to report on the Season 3 finale in Montreal I was suddenly hit by a sense of scale. All the time I'd been in Formula E it had felt like the proverbial handcart just about staying on rails that kept disappearing via some implausible leaps of risk. Pulling off an event was such a feat I barely had brain space to worry about whether it was a spectacle.
Alejandro Agag has worked tirelessly to establish Formula E as a major racing series
But Montreal was different – the scale of the eVillage, the paddock, was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Huge banners above the track welcomed Porsche and Mercedes and a terrible, tight fear in my chest evaporated because suddenly there was no doubt that this was going to survive.
At the time, I'd been so worried that it didn't occur to me this great scale could change the thing. It wouldn't really hit me until ages later, gormlessly staring at a rainy Circuit Ricardo Tormo at pre-season testing this year, that now it wasn't about survival, it was about doing something good. There's probably some appalling life lesson for me somewhere in there.
With great manufacturers comes great pressure. Although Formula E had always had three manufacturers in the series and steadily added to its collection, none of the first entrants had been keen to throw their weight around. Renault's extraordinarily successful team was largely ignored by a company focussed on Formula One, Mahindra's roaring success didn't come from a motorsport-dependent background and most people forget Venturi is a manufacturer. Even NIO are a startup, not used to breathing down the back of a committee to insist on favourable regulatory conditions.
Mercedes, though, they know what's up. Porsche and Audi too. Formula E has succeeded through sheer obnoxious guile but now it needs to diplomatically manage its own middle-finger-enthusiast nature against manufacturers who all-too-well know the game of skilful cheating that is motorsport manipulation.
Which is why we're going to play a great, big game of Mario Kart.
Formula E is bizarre and silly, it's what makes drivers love it so fiercely. It's a return to something like karting while doing insane maths in your head and wrestling the best part of a tonne around a corner against a multiple Le Mans winner. The ultra-competitive grid is packed with talent and with nine R&D departments furiously bearing down on the technology, it's only going to get more fiercely-fought and more prized to win.
Formula E's Gen2 car is as much a victim of its own success as the series could have been; it's gorgeous: mean flashing LEDs crowning the Halo and Batmobile lines making it look like a bad decision you're going to very much enjoy. And with higher power (going to 250kW for both maximum output and regeneration) and a beefed up battery, it accidentally ruined the race format.
Formula E doesn't use slick tyres – racing on road circuits rather than specialist track surfaces, they'd make no sense and certainly be less road-relevant. As a consequence, there's no advantage to a pit stop – although the ridged Michelins do degrade, they're perfectly fine to run the distance and extracting any extra performance with a change would be against Formula E's low-resource-use principles.
Without a car swap, then, there was no pit stop in the race. No tactical element linking pit crew and team to the success of the driver, bar energy usage numbers given in code on the radio. Which could be pre-simulated beforehand, by enormous computational facilities in, say, Brackley. Or Neckersulm.
The teams, drivers and cars are ready for Season 5
What's been done is pretty brilliant: in season 5 the action is being forced back to the track, to calls made by the drivers, by Attack Mode. It sounds silly, it seems like a ludicrous concept but actually what it is is an unpredictable tactical race element.
Drivers will be able – and obliged – to run off the racing line in certain areas in order to obtain a burst of an extra 25kW of power. And they won't be told where or how long that will be until one hour before the race.
That might seem straightforward to you – go over the special bit of track, maybe lose a bit of time but gain a huge speed burst. It's not, though. Speaking to Nelson Piquet Jr at the Jaguar Season 5 launch event earlier this year, he explained the difficulty of balancing the extra power against what the car can reasonably use.
"I think the drivers are going to have to think a little bit more because there’s attack mode, the tyres are a little bit softer so there’s going to be different tyre degradations," he said.
The Gen2 cars on track
"It’s not simply putting 225kW and stepping on it. When you put more power, you’re asking more out of the tyre as well so heating up more of the tyre, you’re consuming more tyres so doing that at the beginning or the end of the race – all of these things, you’re going to have to be thinking constantly what’s going on, to manage all of it at the same time.
"Because there’s no point in you saving this 225 power towards the end of the race when your tyres are dead – you’re still going to be slow so there’s a lot of different things that are going to be playing."
Switching on the ridged Michelin tyres in Formula E has been the key to sudden success or total failure for many teams – Mahindra swiped their first victory by getting the knack of Tempelhof's concrete before anyone else - and putting extra strain on them will be a crucial balance.
But more than that, this is something the drivers have to think about. It's something the teams have to monitor and inform them about during the race – the gap to their rivals, whether an advantage could be gained this lap or the next, who's activated the chasing red Halo lights that mean they're on the hunt. You can't simulate 20 other cars' strategy in a single hour, no matter how hard you try or how much resource you throw at it so this gives Formula E a way of offering a genuine driving and strategy challenge without letting manufacturers take guaranteed wins.
Ex-McLaren racer is one of a growing number of former F1 drivers to make the switch to Formula E
It's a cunning, and very Formula E, solution. Enthusiastically referred to as a Mario Kart mode, it's the sort of thing that wildly annoys "traditional" racing fans in the way Formula E always has, while appealing to a bigger audience. After all, Mario Kart is the biggest-selling racing franchise in the world.
Talking about it like that appeals to a certain, new audience – and masks what it really is with a soft salve of being faintly ridiculous, almost harmless. Who could be threatened by Mario Kart, after all?
Well, they said that about electric racing full stop four years ago. And now everyone's here, with our silly Mario Kart system. The proof will come on Saturday, when this all-new format is tested on track for the first time but from its history, Formula E has a tendency to pull things off, especially if they piss someone off.
Formula E's second generation of racing starts in Ad Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, on December 15th.