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Formula E debuts in India but it still needs a ‘fan boost’

The Formula E race in Hyderabad will take place in the middle of the city, near the Secretariat and Hussain Sagar Lake. The circuit is just 2.83-km long.

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The Formula E will make its India debut in Hyderabad on 11 February. When the race ends, the organisers will hope to expand their fan base further, especially because of the India connection—there are two Indian teams participating (one in a matter of speaking). So far, the marquee event has faced difficulties in building up a fan base. Will that change?

But first things first: what is Formula E? Well, as the name suggests, it is a racing series where teams race electric cars. First conceived by then president of the motorsports regulatory body, the FIA, Jean Todt and Spanish businessman Alejandro Agag over a dinner in 2011, the series was founded to underline a clear transition in the global automotive industry from internal combustion engines toward electric propulsion. It took Agag a few years to convince the series and persuade teams and manufacturers to get onboard.

The series was conceived from the ground-up, allowing Agag and his associates to avoid some of the pitfalls of Formula 1, especially keeping development costs under check. All teams use the same vehicle chassis and battery pack and other associated hardware. While the teams are allowed to make adjustments to their suspension and vehicle set-up, by keeping costs under control, Formula E wanted to bring in new players into the sport. One of those ‘new’ players was India’s Mahindra Racing, which has been part of the series from the very first season in 2014-15.

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Race in the city centre

The Formula E race in Hyderabad will take place in the middle of the city, near the Secretariat and Hussain Sagar Lake. The circuit is just 2.83-km long, compared to the 5.125-km long Buddh International Circuit (BIC) in Greater Noida, which has hosted Formula 1 races in the past. While the road surface has been spruced up and manhole covers secured, so that the downforce from the cars do not suck them up, a cursory look at the Hyderabad circuit, or any Formula E circuit belies the nature of the racing. Sharp turns and short straights do not make for speedy racing, but because the racing is in the middle of the city, Formula E wants to make it easy for spectators to come and watch a race, the BIC for example is almost 50 km from Central Delhi. Hussain Sagar Lake is pretty much in the middle of Hyderabad.

Why is the excitement lacking?

Since Formula E began, it has seen a revolving door of global manufacturers come and go; Mahindra Racing being one of the few constant competitors. Manufacturers such as the German big three Audi, BMW and Mercedes have all taken part in the competition. In fact the Mercedes-EQ won the last two championships 2020-21 and 2021-22. And while the series has managed to attract new entrants such as the Tata Motors-owned Jaguar racing team, sports car manufacturer Porsche, Japanese manufacturer Nissan as well as the famous McLaren motorsports outfit, this lack of consistent teams has led to difficulties in building up a support base for the racing series among all but a small but hardcore fanbase. Alongside that, other than the season-ending double-headers in Rome and London, the racing series has also moved around the world with few permanent homes.

Part of the reason is that while electric cars are gradually becoming a reality with more consumer choice, Formula E’s nature of using similar hardware and tight city-center circuits doesn’t really lend itself to exciting racing. In the initial years of racing when battery technology both in chemistry and energy management was developing, the drivers had to physically swap cars in the middle of the race. In addition, there was something called ‘FanBoost’ where fans could vote for their favorite driver and give them a few seconds of extra power. In fact, unlike any other major racing series in the world, Formula E’s race authorities can physically adjust the amount of power available to a car ‘over the air’. But despite some of these gimmicks, the racing was just not all that exciting for the casual fan.

Sure, you can have barnstorming races and the overall equality of the hardware makes the drivers’ abilities shine through much more than say Formula 1 where there can be massive differences in the cars between a top-team. Say between a Red Bull Racing and a mid-tier team like Aston-Martin Racing. This led to the Formula E series trying gimmicks such as ‘Fan Boost’ where fans could vote for their favourite drivers on the grid to give them a ‘boost’ of power.

While the series helps the best drivers rise to the top, the first few years of Formula E saw drivers who, for one reason or another, had not made it to the top in Formula 1. But this is changing in no small part thanks to the fact that Formula E’s attempt to schedule its ePrix differently from both Formula 1 and other major racing series such as the World Endurance Championship (WEC). This has helped them acquire talent such as Dutch driver Nick De Vries, who was a Formula 1 reserve for the Mercedes-AMG race team. And this year, he will make his Formula 1 debut for the Alpha Tauri team.

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Should you watch it?

Herein lies another problem for the ABB Formula E racing series. While it is available on Disney+ Hotstar in India, the same OTT content service that has Formula 1, it is not being broadcast on a satellite channel. Also, Liberty Media, the rights holders to Formula 1, has managed to drive a whole new fanbase to the sport thanks to the Netflix series Drive To Survive. Despite electric vehicles clearly being the future of the global automotive industry, Formula E has not managed to garner the attention it could possibly generate.

But with battery technology evolving and consumer electric cars themselves becoming much more capable, a faster and more technologically competitive racing series modeled on Formula 1 might help the future of Formula E. The series has to be careful though, as Formula 1 itself evolves. The current cars use state-of-the-art turbo-hybrid engines with complex energy recovery systems. Some day, Formula 1 itself can become electric racing.

As for me, I do intend to be in Hyderabad on the weekend of the race and hope to enjoy watching it.

@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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