WORDS BY ADAM DICKINSON | IMAGES BY FORMULA E
If a driver wins an exciting four-way title fight and nobody sees it, how much does it matter?
It’s an exaggeration to say no one saw Stoffel Vandoorne clinch the championship on Sunday, the first title in any series for the Belgian since 2015. The wind certainly seems to have dropped from the series’ sails, and they’re not likely to fire up a diesel motor any time soon.
As the world moves on from the COVID-19 pandemic, Formula E seems masked by ambivalence from casual fans it could rely on in the Techeetah years.
All is far from lost but ePrix weekends have lost a certain buzz aside from the drillish whirring of the cars themselves and the championship could do with a shakeup.
The Seoul finale was a low-key affair for anyone not completely plugged into the series and the championship should use its next evolution to Gen3 cars to spark wider a reinvigoration.
To a casual fan, the series really rose to prominence around 2018/19, fired by the brilliant And We Go Green documentary, the futuristic Gen2 chassis and the unequivocal characters of Jean-Eric Vergne and Lucas di Grassi.
The bite-size nature of races made it easy for viewers to give it a go and many stayed beyond that first hour of racing.
But ironically, what could’ve been its crowning achievement seems to have slammed the brakes on the series.
The 2020 hextuple-header at Tempelhoff Airport was a remarkable feat of organisation and logistics, and could’ve dominated a full week for sports fans had it retained jeopardy until the end, but Antonio Felix da Costa effectively locked up the championship with his first two races and the event petered out.
PR headlines from the series heralded their last season’s viewing figures as record-breaking, up 32% on the cumulative audience, but carefully omitted the average race audience, with good reason.
With four more races than season six, last year represented a 3% drop on average audience, which was itself down on season five - overall the '21 campaign saw a 34% slump in per-race viewership compared to two years prior.
The strange thing is, the strengths Formula E had pre-pandemic are still strengths. Exciting, close, short, sharp and unpredictable are what enticed fans to watch in the first place and transfixed them to stay.
Yes, some of the gimmicks have got a bit… Gimmicky. Fan Boost’s popularity has waned and waned and waned, and Attack Mode has plenty of critics too, though also more supporters.
Perhaps it’s just experiencing some eighth-season syndrome as the novelties and differences that attracted fans become the norm.
One thing that definitely doesn’t help is the location - a big draw of the championship is the way it takes racing to the hearts of some of the world’s most famous cities, but too often ePrix are instead raced on industrial estates miles away from the hearts of those cities.
Why are they going to London and spend half of the race inside a half-empty warehouse? Or start the Rome ePrix under a flyover? Every street in Manhattan has an iconic building, but they take the race to a Brooklyn dockyard.
These problems aren’t just limited to Formula E, the Miami Grand Prix flopped partly because it had nothing quintessentially Miami about it except the stickers on the NFL stadium - remove those and it could’ve been in any city east of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon line.
But Miami aside, F1’s resurgence seems to have shocked its electric counterpart into submission.
Part of what made FE so attractive pre-COVID was the stark contrast to F1. Post-Rosberg retirement the Hamilton and Mercedes monopoly and archaic regulations strangled most weekends, and to top it off UK fans had to pay Sky Sports’ equally sky-high prices for the privilege.
But on the other side there was guaranteed overtaking, the entire field in one camera shot for most of the race and title fights consistently decided on the final weekend of the year, all completely free in the UK at least.
Now with the series potentially struggling with fatigue, it now has to compete with an entirely different beast. Last year’s stunning battle between Verstappen and Hamilton was must-watch viewing for any motorsport fan and that groundswell has continued into this season with Ferrari, the most recognisable team for casuals, back in the fight.
The cars are closer and more competitive than they’ve been in a generation of drivers, the calendar is packed with exciting tracks (even Barcelona is good again) and teams can’t move for young talent - 12 drivers on the grid are champions in F1, F2 or F3 or past equivalent.
Ultimately, every sport other than football has a level that fans can take, and currently F1 is taking up a larger amount of that capacity than it has in a decade.
Simultaneously, IndyCar’s enjoyed a post-pandemic resurgence in Europe that’s further muscled in on FE’s fringe turf.
All is not lost but the wake of Vandoorne’s title is a moment of critical self-reflection for the championship, that’s it’s not had to face before in its still short lifespan.
Cutting the gimmicks, actually going to the iconic parts of its iconic cities would help, and McLaren and Maserati’s entry should already bring new fans to the sport.
Having three January ePrix in 2023 will likely reduce a clash with F1, although a December season opener to feed race-starved fans after Abu Dhabi might’ve been even more effective.
So all is not lost for Formula E but after two seasons where the series has flashed amber, it’s more important than ever that season nine brings it back into the green.
The Pit Stop is a quarterly motorsport magazine providing detailed stories from across the world of motorsport, regardless of the series.
So if you enjoyed this article, then why not begin a subscription today.