Formula 1’s status as the vanguard of automotive innovation is ebbing away. Kravitz explores the challenges that lie ahead
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 But a few years on, the tech is obsolete and the big brands have a new fancy.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.