This weekend sees the round 5 of the Formula E championship from Miami on Saturday followed just 10 hours later by round 1 of the Formula 1 championship from Melbourne. For the first time these two championships will share the same weekend.
This seems a good time to contrast the two. Let’s be honest, they are not in direct competition for audiences and if they were both to be televised at the same time it would undoubtedly be F1 that would win the ratings battle. FE is in its inaugural season and F1 is in its 66th year, but what might they look like in the future as FE matures.
The transport landscape is changing and electric power is becoming an integral part of this. Even true petrolheads such as BBC Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson have come out of denial to acknowledged this fact. The Isle of Man TT now has electric bikes racing round the island, the Formula Student championship has been won by an electric car, railway electrification is widespread and electric trams are back. Right now an electrically powered aircraft is trying to fly round the world on solar power and the fastest supercars from Ferrari, McLaren, Porsche and Lamborghini all have hybrid electric power trains.
So how will this changing world impact on single seat motorsport? Certainly, in my opinion, there will be some parallel with what is happening on road cars. There is a small minority of car buyers who opt for full electric cars but the numbers are growing rapidly. Then there is a larger minority who buy hybrid vehicles and this is growing as hybridisation is becoming more common on standard vehicles. So hybridisation is moving conventional vehicles towards electrification over time by stealth, whereas full electrics have boldly gone there directly. Electric technology is growing in F1 and the kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) has been used for a number of years and has begun the journey towards hybrid F1 cars. Whereas FE, being a new championship has been able to jump straight into a full electric drive train.
If we follow this parallel it is logical that F1 and FE can happily co-exit, some will favour one over the other, but they are not exclusive. F1 represents an older demographic with a large following and a certain resistance to fast paced change. It seem clear that FE has a younger following and more likely to embrace a more rapid evolution. The potential for FE audiences to increase is considerable and possibly at some expense to the more saturated F1 audience. F1 is extremely expensive and some teams have collapsed as a result of this – and not all expensive F1 technology is relevant to road cars. The cost of FE is high but considerably less than F1 and only technology that is relevant to road cars is open for teams to develop. As road cars move toward heavier electrification then FE will become more relevant to car manufacturers and so there is likely to be a funding shift towards FE – especially as audiences grow. If F1 does not shift more rapidly toward hybridisation then it might become less relevant – dare I suggest plug-in hybrids for future F1!
So will F1 and FE converge and will FE overtake F1? My view is that F1 will embrace more hybrid technology and become more efficient with more rapid acceleration as a result. The only way FE is likely to overtake F1 in popularity is if the raw performance of the FE cars matches F1 cars over a race duration. This will never happen while the energy density of batteries remains low compared with petrol. But wait a minute – when I was a kid the scale speed of my electrically powered Scalextric car was way ahead of the real thing. Why was that? Well the track provided the energy and so the car did not need to carry its power source! And did I not just read about a wireless charging test track. FE could potentially overtake F1 in raw performance terms if the cars had small batteries that could be continuously charged. I think I might just go and buy shares in Qualcomm’s wireless charging technology!