When Porsche announced it was abruptly ending its LMP1 program to focus on Formula E it helped show how enthusiastic car makers are about the relatively new electric series. Porsche is joining Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Renault, Jaguar, DS Automobiles (PSA Peugeot Citroen) and Mahindra in 2019 giving Formula E a line-up of major manufacturers* that other categories can only dream of. Not only that, but the Fiat/Chrysler group has also expressed an interest in joining and the series is chasing down support from US and Japanese companies. McLaren Applied Technologies is also supplying equipment to all the teams so it is surprising how strongly the wider car industry has embraced Formula E.
It is a wonderful boost for the championship, but it also comes with a risk that needs to be managed.
Manufacturers in motorsport
History suggests that when car companies flood into motorsport they increase costs and ultimately reduce the level of competitiveness. The teams with larger budgets enter an arms race and that widens the gap between the big factories and the smaller independents. Once costs get to a less sustainable level and the competition isn’t so equal, the series loses its appeal and the manufacturers start dropping out. If the smaller independents haven’t been looked after during that time the sport is left in a real mess. This has repeated itself through Formula One, sportscars, touring cars, rallying, and is playing out right now in the World Endurance Championship.
Formula E bosses have so far adopted a sensible and measured approach to developing the series and will be well aware the risks of heavy manufacturer involvement. The sport cannot rely on the car companies to support the series forever because they will leave as soon as it no longer suits their brand. Given that only one of the eight companies can win at any given time, this will hit some harder than others. Formula E needs to remain viable for independent teams and this can be managed through cost controls, spec equipment, and other artificial measures to keep the competition close. The short-term future looks very exciting but the long-term picture is also quite fascinating.
The impact on Formula One
The surge of manufacturer interest in Formulas E means that is where car companies are now looking to showcase their new technology instead of Formula 1. This even includes three of the four companies currently involved in F1!
With this in mind, it is an opportune time for F1 bosses to examine the sport’s focus on road relevance. Formula 1 has always been the pinnacle of automotive technology and has historically built the regulations to facilitate this. For example, the current turbo-hybrid engines were introduced because that was identified as the future direction of road cars. However, now that Formula E is where car companies want to experiment and showcase their new technology, does Formula One need to keep a link to the wider automotive industry? In a recent interview, Ross Brawn (Formula One Managing Director of Motorsports) suggested pure sporting entertainment was now more of a focus for F1 than road relevance. The rush of manufacturers into Formula E could speed up this change in Formula One Management’s philosophy.
Another possibility is that one day, long into the future, Formula E will simply merge with Formula 1. The petrol engine will not be around forever and once all cars are running with electric motors it’s inevitable that Formula 1 and Formula E will become the same thing. The fact that Liberty Global owns F1 and also has a minority stake in Formula E could make that more of a possibility.
*If you think Mahindra isn’t a major manufacturer, keep in mind the company has been around since 1954 and generates four times as much revenue as Ferrari.