Formula One stuck in the slow lane as electric rival races ahead

·6-min read
Formula E E-prix London ExCel - Jonathan Brady/PA
Formula E E-prix London ExCel - Jonathan Brady/PA

Some 40,000 motorsport fans crammed into London’s docklands to revel in a weekend of car racing. But it wasn't Formula One, the crown jewel, that drew spectators to the ExCel earlier this month, it was its electric rival: Formula E.

Spectators weren’t disappointed: British hopeful Jake Dennis whizzed to victory for Avalanche Andretti on the opening day of E-Prix’s eighth season. Yet over the same weekend, F1 heavyweights Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton battled it out at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Fans couldn’t watch both at the same time.

Comparisons between the two have ramped up, particularly since FE was granted world championship status by the FIA, the motorsport governing body, in December 2019.

While F1 has a rich history, breakneck speed and diehard fans, FE offers a tantalising glimpse of the possible future. It has made great strides in improving battery technology and the performance of electric vehicles (EVs), but is the upstart championship on course to unseat F1?

If the number of fans alone is anything to go by, the answer is ‘no’. In the UK, there are 11.5m fans of F1, compared with 3.2m for FE, according to data collected by YouGov.

Formula One Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Hungarian Grand Prix - Anna Szilagyi/AP
Formula One Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Hungarian Grand Prix - Anna Szilagyi/AP

There is substantial overlap between the two groups, with 2.5m Brits supporting both series, but FE fans skew younger. Around 18pc are 18-24 years old, which is 2.5 times greater than general motorsports fans.

“People that like watching fast wheels going around in circles is good for all of us,” says Hannah Brown, chief of staff at Formula E.

“You can be a golf fan and a football fan, just as you can be a F1 fan and you can be a FE fan. It’s how we differentiate our product to make it something unique that people can get excited about, that’s what’s important.”

F1 races last two hours, on largely purpose-built circuits, while FE races are a short 45 minutes on streets. The roar of a 1.6-litre V6 internal combustion engine requires fans to wear earmuffs, while electric powertrains are deathly quiet – making it a more family-friendly outing.

But the main differentiating factor is the question of the environment, with growing calls for sustainability to also become ingrained in F1.

Chief executive Stefano Domenicali has pledged green operations, from making it a net-zero sport by 2030 to banning single-use plastics at events. He has, however, decried total electrification.

Some argue, however, that with an increasing global focus on the environment, and the push towards electrification, there will come a point when innovations in FE outpace F1.

FE races are a short 45-minute circuit on streets - Steven Paston/PA Wire
FE races are a short 45-minute circuit on streets - Steven Paston/PA Wire

In a recent interview with Forbes, Sylvain Filippi, the managing director of FE team Envision Racing, likened motorsports that cling to the internal combustion engine as an antique form of racing. He predicted that by 2035, EV race cars could be as fast as their F1 counterparts.

F1 can currently reach speeds of around 247mph, compared with 200mph for the newest Gen3 EVs, which will be introduced in time for the 2022-23 season. On rate of acceleration, it’s much more evenly matched: 0-60mph in 2.6 seconds, compared with 2.8 seconds. Notoriously, EVs aren’t great over long distances, but better battery chemistry and regeneration technology – the ability to decelerate rather than brake, and return lost energy to the battery – are quickly changing that.

Meanwhile, the wider trend toward electrification of all cars will be another tailwind for FE. If EVs become the norm among consumers, the sport’s popularity will likely grow alongside it – at least in theory.

For FE to become as popular as F1, it needs the support of automotive giants. In 2021, however, Audi and BMW quit FE, while Mercedes is exiting the series after this season.

Mercedes, the seventh season champion, said it will “reallocate resources” away from its FE programme to focus on F1, which it called “the fastest laboratory for developing and proving sustainable and scalable future performance technologies”. It also wants to put efforts into becoming an all-electric brand, having announced £34bn worth of investment to electrify its entire product line-up by 2030.

However, McLaren Racing will enter FE via its acquisition of the Mercedes team, while Maserati will end a 60-year hiatus from single-seater motorsport when it joins the championship next season.

Meanwhile, Jaguar, Porsche, Nissan and DS (Citroen) are among the big names that have all committed to the Gen 3 era, which lasts until 2026.

According to research from Wood MacKenzie, sales of EVs will reach 62m units per year by 2050, taking the global stock of fully electric cars to 700m. That would make up 56pc of global sales, compared with 44pc for cars powered by fossil fuels.

McKinsey has warned accelerated EV adoption “would come very close to exceeding” the supply of lithium-ion batteries in the medium-term, with supply chain crises popping up periodically for other key mineral inputs. This could limit the production of EVs, dampening FE’s growth prospects.

“Lithium is in a structural deficit and there is no short term fix,” says Simon Moores, chief executive at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. “If EVs mean lithium ion batteries, then EVs must mean mining.”

This year, demand for lithium has exceeded supply for the first time. Moores estimates lithium production must grow from 630,000 to 3m tonnes by the early 2030s – a fivefold increase in under a decade – to keep up with demand.

As a result, the global weighted average price of lithium has increased by 738pc to $61,390 (£50,668) per tonne in the two years to July 2022.

“The mining space hasn’t seen anything like this before,” he adds. “This is a gold rush on steroids.”

There are also concerns existing infrastructure cannot support EVs. In Britain, for instance, developers in west London were recently prevented from building new stock until 2035 due to a lack of capacity on the electricity grid.

The National Grid has argued that even if Britain switched to EVs overnight, electricity demand would only increase by 10pc.

Meanwhile, batteries face competition from other novel technologies. A hydrogen fuel-cell class, which will showcase the H24 prototype car, will be included at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2025, potentially hinting at things to come.

Whether FE can successfully topple F1’s dominance remains to be seen. What is certain, is that innovations in motorsport will continue to challenge the incumbent crown jewel – the jury is out on which technologies might win.