The biggest names in motor sports are juicing up for Formula E

The world of motor sports has changed dramatically in just the past week, and it’s all thanks to Formula E, the race series for electric cars.

Mercedes-Benz announced that it would leave the popular German DTM series to join Formula E and, in an even bigger bombshell, Porsche said it would kill its successful 24 Hours of Le Mans LMP1 program to focus on the electric racing series. Porsche’s decision echoes that of corporate cousin Audi, which announced that it was pulling out of the legendary Le Mans endurance race at the end of last year.

Automakers participate in racing primarily to sell cars, and Formula E has a strong sales pitch.

While automaker interest in Formula E is at an all time high, it can’t completely replace the race series those automakers are leaving behind. Formula E definitely has its place in the racing world, and there’s no reason why electric powertrains shouldn’t migrate to other series, but Formula E itself is not in a position to completely replace the likes of Le Mans.

What exactly is the deal with Formula E, anyway? Currently in its third season, it features open-wheel electric cars that race on temporary street circuits all over the world. Formula E has an undeniable appeal to automakers, and it’s worth noting that the unusual format creates some genuine perks for race fans as well.

Automakers participate in racing primarily to sell cars and, at a time when electric cars are surging in popularity due to stricter emissions standards, Formula E has a strong sales pitch. Porsche will launch its Mission E electric car before the end of the decade. Audi and Mercedes have electric SUVs on the way. So does Jaguar, which has a storied motor sports history of its own. When the British icon returned to racing after a long hiatus, it chose Formula E over more established series, in part, to promote its new I-Pace.

It’s also much cheaper to run a season of Formula E than, say, an all-out assault on Le Mans or a season of Formula One. All teams use the same car and battery pack designs (motors and gearboxes aren’t restricted), eliminating the biggest potential R&D costs. Restrictions on things like tires and the amount of technical staff teams are allowed to bring to each race bring costs down further.

It may sound boring, but that’s an important thing for every race fan to consider. You can’t have a competition if manufacturers can’t afford to compete. Given the “Dieselgate”-induced belt tightening at parent Volkswagen, it’s unclear how long Porsche could have continued its Le Mans effort, which is rumored to cost hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Cost concerns were the main reason behind fellow VW property Audi’s decision not to return for 2017.

Formula E is a worthy addition to motor sports. A few weeks ago, a sold-out crowd of 20,000 people watched a Formula E race—called an “ePrix”—in New York City. No other series could have made that happen. Only Formula E’s electric cars are quiet enough to operate in city centers, and the series’ use of temporary street circuits brings the racing closer to a larger number of spectators.

The racing was good too, with aggressive drivers literally going wheel to wheel on a tight and technical track. Yes, the lack of noise was a bit hard to get used to. But it’s nice not to have to wear earplugs, and to be able to have a conversation with the person next to you while the cars zoom by.

Formula E has a lot of potential, but it would be a shame if it sucked all of the automakers away from other series. While the drivers put on a good show in New York, the speeds were appreciably slower than at other races, partly because Formula E cars weigh more than traditional open-wheel race cars, partly because the tight course wasn’t designed for higher speeds.

The way Formula E achieves the virtues of low cost and fan accessibility could also cap its appeal. It’s great that teams don’t have to spend a ton of money on car development to be competitive, but what’s the point of having so many manufacturers involved if they’re all racing essentially the same car?

Right now, those cars also have a lower level of performance than other types of race cars. Formula E may be on the cutting edge of performance when it comes to electric powertrains, but it isn’t the last word in speed. And that’s what racing should be.

Formula E simply will not provide the same technical challenge, or the same level of prestige, as Le Mans.

Formula E’s street circuits don’t require spectators to trek out to the middle of nowhere, where most traditional racetracks are located, and they produce good racing. But that doesn’t mean motor sports should abandon its traditional venues, which offer an altogether more intense combination of speed and history.

Just as automakers are embracing electric power for their road cars, it makes sense for them to embrace electric racing. Yet it’s important to distinguish between the technology, and the actual race series deploying it. Formula E has given electric racing a great start, but right now it is far from equivalent to Le Mans and Formula One. That doesn’t mean the series, or electric racing in general, can’t get there eventually, but that will take time.

Porsche and Audi built massive teams of drivers, engineers, and mechanics to design and build winning race cars, and ultimately triumph at Le Mans. Formula E simply will not provide the same technical challenge, or the same level of prestige. It’s important to promote Formula E as the likely future of motor sports, but automakers shouldn’t turn their backs on racing’s past so quickly.


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