For­mula 1’s sta­tus as the van­guard of au­to­mo­tive in­no­va­tion is ebbing away. Kravitz ex­plores the chal­lenges that lie ahead

Evo - - DRIVEN -

FOR­MULA 1 HAS A LIT­TLE PROB­LEM: it’s quickly be­com­ing com­pletely ir­rel­e­vant to the global car in­dus­try. It used to take pride in be­ing a big re­search and de­vel­op­ment plat­form, where the red-hot time de­mands of weekly com­pe­ti­tion re­sulted in lat­eral think­ing that pro­duced in­no­va­tions from trans­mis­sions to car­bon­fi­bre, aero­dy­nam­ics to en­gines. In­deed, F1’s 2014 switch to tur­bocharged hy­brids was in­sti­gated to keep up this ‘pin­na­cle of mo­tor­sport’ tra­di­tion, the man­u­fac­tur­ers happy and the boffins en­gaged. But a few years on, the tech is ob­so­lete and the big brands have a new fancy.

It’s the FIA For­mula E cham­pi­onship for elec­tric cars. Re­nault, Mahin­dra and Audi have been there since the start and have been joined by Citroën and Jaguar. Com­ing soon are BMW, Porsche, Mercedes and Fiat (as Alfa or Maserati). That means that, as far as road-rel­e­vance goes, the fu­ture of top-class mo­tor­sport isn’t F1, it’s FE.

Which is as­ton­ish­ing, for three key rea­sons, the first be­ing that For­mula E cars are re­ally slow. You won’t no­tice it too much on TV be­cause the pro­duc­ers use clever cam­era an­gles to give a sense of high speed. It’s also hard to see how slow they are in com­par­i­son to For­mula 1, as For­mula E doesn’t race on cir­cuits used by F1. Even when it’s in a city that has a Grade 1 cir­cuit, such as Mon­treal, For­mula E builds a street track. The ex­cep­tion is Monaco, where you do no­tice how much slower the cars are.

The sec­ond rea­son is that For­mula E had a very shaky for­ma­tive sea­son, in 2014-15, with un­re­li­able technology and un­suit­able tracks. The re­sult­ing em­bar­rass­ment could have put man­u­fac­tur­ers off, but with ma­tu­rity has come sta­bil­ity and cred­i­bil­ity.

Which leaves the rac­ing. In the be­gin­ning it looked, to the av­er­age mo­tor­sport en­thu­si­ast, like the rac­ing in For­mula E was a bit staged. An ex­hi­bi­tion. Like the demon­stra­tion of a se­ries con­cept ex­tended to the race it­self. Over­tak­ing ma­noeu­vres were lined up and ac­cepted largely with­out protest and the only crash­ing tended to be into the all-too-close con­crete bar­ri­ers. It was hard to get ex­cited about on-track bat­tles that looked more like some­thing you see on a track­day safety-brief­ing video.

But while For­mula E es­sen­tially re­mains an ex­hi­bi­tion, a show­case to prove that race cars can be run on purely elec­tric mo­tors, the rac­ing has now grown up to the ex­tent that over­tak­ing mat­ters and you get the feel­ing the driv­ers re­ally care. In Sébastien Buemi’s case, a lit­tle too much, judg­ing from the af­ter­math of the re­cent ‘eprix’ (ugh) in Canada, when he marched up the pit­lane in an at­tempt to find who­ever had driven into him so he could give them a bloody good talk­ing to.

There is still a ma­jor lim­i­ta­tion, in that the cars run out of bat­tery mid-race, ne­ces­si­tat­ing a pit stop where the driver jumps out of their soon-to-conk-out car and into a fully charged one. But credit to the rule-mak­ers on this one – it takes balls to turn the big­gest draw­back of own­ing an EV into an en­ter­tain­ing mid-race event.

But even that changes for the 2018-19 sea­son thanks to a 54kwh bat­tery supplied by Mclaren, which will last an en­tire race. And that’s the wider point – com­pe­ti­tion is still push­ing and im­prov­ing the technology, but it’s be­ing done in For­mula E, where it’s road-rel­e­vant, and in not For­mula 1.

It’s log­i­cal to sug­gest that if you in­creas­ingly sell pre­dom­i­nantly elec­tric cars, there isn’t much point spend­ing mar­ket­ing mil­lions demon­strat­ing how good your com­bus­tion-engine technology is in For­mula 1. So, it’s not alarmist to sug­gest that Mercedes, Re­nault and Honda will leave F1 be­cause it won’t help them sell their road cars. In this case, who sup­plies the en­gines? The an­swer, of course, is Cos­worth and Il­mor, both of whom have been the ca­naries in the coal mine on this is­sue, sig­nalling the im­pend­ing need for their ser­vices but warn­ing that un­der the cur­rent com­plex reg­u­la­tions it’s too ex­pen­sive.

So how about re­turn­ing to nor­mally as­pi­rated V8s? They al­ready ex­ist so are cheap and, cru­cially, their screams would bring the wow-fac­tor back to For­mula 1. The FIA doesn’t like the idea but with no man­u­fac­tur­ers sup­ply­ing, they might not have a choice. F1’s in­de­pen­dent teams can see this com­ing, while Mercedes’ F1 team are not pre-empt­ing fu­ture board de­ci­sions.

F1 could evolve to be­come the ex­act op­po­site of what it once was. For­mula E will be the R&D lab while Fer­rari, Mclaren, Wil­liams, Red Bull and who­ever else is left em­ploy the best driv­ers to drive fast, loud cars that pro­duce en­ter­tain­ingly close rac­ing around the best cir­cuits in the world. And when put like that, per­haps F1 doesn’t have such a prob­lem af­ter all.

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