Motorsport has been manufacturers’ preferred proving ground to test new technologies and market their products since the 1920s. Most technologies that make modern automobiles efficient, safe and reliable originate from ideas meant to improve performance around the racetrack. The Formula One World Championship has been the flagbearer of motorsport worldwide, with elite competition and the usage of road-relevant technologies. However, over the past few years, the allure of motorsport among manufacturers has diminished significantly. This can be put down predominantly to the decreasing relevance of the Internal Combustion Engine - an essential part of motorsport - in everyday cars. Manufacturers simply don’t have the incentive to develop combustion engines anymore as the rhetoric in favour of EVs roots itself.
Electric motorsport is a complicated affair. The weight penalty incurred with fitting large batteries to reach performance levels comparable to ICE cars over longer race stints is too much to justify. However, the continuous development in improving energy densities of battery cells has brought electric motorsport into the limelight of manufacturers’ notice, with Formula E leading the foray. Formula E is a single seat electric car racing series, where every team uses the same chassis and battery packs. Teams are allowed to design and develop their own motors and gearbox assemblies, resulting in creative and different designs from each team. The races are held on street circuits, creating a festival atmosphere in the host cities and bringing fans closer to the action. Formula E is also a very approachable series to watch for newcomers to motorsport because of its ‘videogame-like’ rules and execution, which most people can relate with.
The fact that components are standardized means Formula E is relatively affordable for manufacturers and smaller teams alike to enter and compete. Manufacturers receive the added bonus of boosting their eco-friendly credentials through the marketing platform that Formula E offers. The importance of motorsport as a platform for branding cannot be underestimated, as winning on track associates a company with success. The racing is also extremely close, as there are very limited avenues to gain a lasting advantage over the competition.
However, this very reason that makes Formula E exciting is what causes very few manufacturers to commit long term to the series. For starters, the mere fact that teams aren’t allowed to develop their own battery packs means manufacturers have very little knowledge to gain about what is probably the most critical aspect of an EV. Formula E is not at a stage where it can compete against larger racing leagues like Formula 1 and MotoGP in commercial and marketing terms. Hence, large manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and Renault have left the series to focus on more prestigious racing leagues like Formula 1 and WEC. The sheen of winning in the highest levels of motorsport at the end of an era ultimately meant that Formula E couldn’t hold on to these manufacturers. Formula E has also received a lukewarm reception from fans, with purists not warming up to the lack of sound and cheesier aspects of the series.
Despite all this, the Formula E project has been nothing short of a success. In just six years, it has grown from a rich man’s pet project to a bonafide World Championship where some of the world’s most prestigious manufacturers and teams race against each other. It has also paved the way for other forms of electric motorsport like Extreme E - an off-road electric racing series that races in some of the most remote locations in the world to highlight the effect of climate change. Formula E also claims to be Net Carbon Neutral, which considering the size of the operation and the logistics involved, is an incredible feat. It was also very close to making a profit before the COVID-19 pandemic, which bodes well for the future prospects of the series. Though it might not be all rosy at the moment, Formula E has been a significant step towards electrified motorsport. It has made what was thought impossible just a few years ago into a thriving, exciting product that is slowly engraining itself into the fabric of motorsport. Like it or not, the future looks bright for electric motorsport, with more liberal regulations and an increase in road relevance. As a result, Formula E might bring in many more manufacturers in the long term and is certainly poised to take over at the top of the world motorsport scene.
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