‘Racing with reason’ and football crossovers: How does Formula E continue to grow?

·6-min read
 (USA TODAY Sports)
(USA TODAY Sports)

As over 20,000 fans descend on east London and the ExCel this weekend, the increased presence of Formula E will be clear in some subtle, and some deliberately not-so-subtle, ways.

From a grander pre-race entrance for the drivers to the packed stands watching cars fly around the street circuit and inside the arena, the London E-Prix should make for a larger-than-life experience as Season 8 draws toward a close.

Already, FE is the world’s second-biggest racing championship, comfortably less than a decade after its inception. But there’s still a long journey ahead to increase not just awareness, but outright fandom and enjoyment from a new and growing audience.

But how does that happen? In an era when the attentions of fans in the sports and entertainment worlds are more fiercely fought over than ever before, how does a sporting organisation push their message to the front of the queue and captivate more and more people?

It’s a difficult job to balance the message from Formula E in particular, with its uniquely twin heritage and meaning, but ahead of the London race, chief marketing officer Henry Chilcott - who switched to FE from McLaren Racing - explained all about the expansion plans.

“The answer should be the fans are the focus. We have to grow the championship and a fanbase. But to do that we have to keep partners happy, attract new ones, keep the teams positive about the direction of the championship. So there are a lot of demands, but if we don’t work hard to make it a fan-focused sport, we will lose,” he told The Independent.

“To grow the sport you have to go right to the heart - which is the racing itself.

“So there’s been a huge amount of work to ensure the sport is as compelling and dramatic as it can be. Some significant changes have been made this year such as the qualifying format; it was complex last year which is a problem from a ‘product’ point of view. It didn’t allow the best drivers to rise to the top and you need those narratives in sport.

“Otherwise it’s difficult for fans to care - they want to know who are the best. So genuinely, the most important key to grow the sport is to make sure the sport itself is great. It sounds obvious but we’ve made strides to make sure it’s right.

“Once you get that, you can start using the platform of the sport to tell compelling and exciting stories.”

To do exactly that, it involves a dedicated team within the FE organisation in the first instance, but as has ever been the case, collaboration with other stakeholders is the only way to gain greater reach than is possible alone.

Using FE’s partners to tell stories through their own platforms which suit both parties’ brand messages is a natural route, including UK broadcaster Channel 4, sponsors and car manufacturers. It can be slow going initially to convince others that they should expend time and resources on your own, still growing, business.

But gradually, it’s happening more frequently and with greater success, Chilcott says. Convincing a European or American channel to run season adverts or storylines would similarly “escalate the reach many times over”. Even so, television is far from the only medium to increase awareness.

Take a well-timed sporting crossover collaboration, for instance, between Liverpool and England footballer Trent Alexander-Arnold and Formula E racing team Envision. In it, a ‘man vs. machine’ head-to-head offers the excitement and intrigue to generate more interest into who the defender is racing; his Twitter social media profile alone carries more weight (ie, followers) than the FIA, Formula E and every single one of the teams in it combined.

That kind of exposure ahead of the London E-Prix offers the chance to grab a new audience before the end of the season, while for next year a bigger, wider message is again on the agenda.

It’s the “speed and excitement” of the sport, but also its “ability to make positive impact in the world” which makes it stand out from other championships and even other entertainment options as a whole, according to Chilcott, who points out that Formula E is effectively competing with PlayStation games and other such leisure activities. But making a difference is, in fact, what might make the difference, and it’s important to always keep that in mind.

“We’re a sport that was conceived for a purpose bigger than ourselves.

“Formula E’s right to exist is about trying to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles in the fight against climate change - it’s unique.

“It’s about working out which message works where - but the ultimate reason people tune in is because of racing. They love the fact we’re making a positive impact on the world, that’s a reason for a deeper relationship and being a bigger advocate, but the sport is first. If we’re not incredibly exciting and dramatic, we’ll be shouting really good stuff in an empty room.”

By November, before testing even starts for the new season, presentations will be held with key partners to show the vision and the narrative for the year ahead - in other words, what the big selling points will be.

 (USA TODAY Sports)
(USA TODAY Sports)

For Season 9 that will be the Gen3 cars in particular: quicker, newer technology, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible once more. “The power of Formula E lies in the ecosystem. Having highly active partners is incredibly valuable - you need them to drive awareness in all corners of the world. Fans follow teams so engaging them is a very powerful way to capture audiences,” Chilcott points out. There are two particularly big ones who will make up part of the grid in 2023, which should generate further excitement.

“Having McLaren join us this year brings a whole new cohort of fans into the FE ecosystem. Maserati are joining our grid too.

“A lot of people who tune into watch are early adopters of technology.

“Having an extraordinary piece of new technology ripping through iconic cities all around the world is a big deal for us. It’s racing and reason: it’s going to break 200mph, it’s faster and lighter than ever before, but it’s also regenerating up to 45% of the energy it uses during the race itself. From a sustainability perspective that’s pretty exciting.

“The car very much represents that intersection of racing and reason.”

Two more weekends, four more races. The season is coming to its natural and exciting climax, but Formula E as an entity is still only just getting started.

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The 2022 London E-Prix will be broadcast live on terrestrial television on Channel 4 on July 30 & 31. Buy tickets and follow all updates from the race at ExCeL London here.

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