On the Prospects of Formula E…

If the uncertainty surrounding the 2014 Formula One regulations isn’t enough to make the sport realize that its current trajectory is unsustainable, then the hype surrounding Formula E should.

Electricity, in all its simplicity, could very well be the key to the future of motor racing, and Formula E is the pioneer of the movement. Hybrid power and electricity are the Soviet Union and United States, respectively, in the motor racing “space race”, and we all know who has had the most success. in the WEC Audi, Toyota and Porsche are paving the way for hybrid power, and they should be commended for it, but ultimately, their endeavors are not infinitely sustainable.

Alejandro Agag, the man behind Formula E, is on a mission to completely revolutionize the way racing is approached, from the propulsion to the race format. Whether this will translate to dedicated fans is what this blog will try and gauge.

The propulsion

Clearly this will be the defining characteristic of the series. With Formula One switching to V6 engines for the 2014 season, fans all around the world prepared themselves, and continue to do so, for a letdown in the auditory department. Will the high pitched whir of the electric motor in a Formula E car awake our inner child and make us want to watch, or even listen? Judging by fans’ views on V6 engines, this could be where the spectacle falls short.

Or maybe not. We must remember that Formula E is not a Formula One competitor, nor is it even a feeder series. It is a standalone entity trying to forge its own path in motorsport. Perhaps this fresh perspective could alleviate fans’ reluctance concerning the sound of the sport.

The racing

The most important part of any racing series is the excitement of the event. Knowing who is going to win a race before it even begins is not how a racing series should be viewed, and this is something Formula One has tried to fix in the past few years with varying degrees of success. Certainly, the spec nature of Formula E will work in the series’ favor. A la Indycar, Formula E teams will be given identical chassis and power units, and it is up to the teams to find the most speed with different set ups, and, obviously, the skill of the driver.

This is Formula E’s biggest asset. While uncertainty will surround the championship in the first year just because it is so new, excitement can be attained through practical implementation of spec parts.

Now, making the whole series completely spec would be counterproductive. Afterall, this series is supposed to be the breeding ground for innovation in electrical propulsion. Freezing the regulations to make the racing close would go against the philosophy of the series. So, the biggest asset to the sport could end up being its biggest obstacle. How do you balance close racing with technical innovation? That is something Formula One has grappled with for decades, and is something Formula E will eventually have to face. Let’s hope they’re more successful.

The location

Formula E is slated to race in 10 “global cities”, as the championship likes to call them. Should the series become popular amongst the millions of mellenials that inhabit them, then job well done. Should it become a flop, at least amongst that demographic, then, while all is not lost, a rethink will need to be done.

Young people are one of the keys to Formula E’s success. With teens and young adults, on the whole, becoming less and less interested in cars, especially the notion of racing them around in circles over and over again, Formula E needs to find a way to encourage its viewers to A) want to come to the races and B) invest in the products that come out of it.

What is to come?

There are some big names throwing money into this project: Andretti, DAMS, Audi, Mahindra, Super Aguri, just to name a few. They need an investment return, and fast, because Formula E, for all its future implications, can be scrapped just as fast as any other racing series that has come and gone in recent years. The future of motor racing depends on that not happening.

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Should Drivers Feel Obligated to Contribute Financially to their Teams?

Caterham team principal, Cyril Abetiboul, came out yesterday saying that Formula One drivers are wrong to be against actively bringing sponsorship to their teams, going as far to say that to not do so is “irresponsible”. I’ve struggled to accept what he has had to say ever since I read the story on AUTOSPORT, so I feel his statements need some breaking down.

To call a driver irresponsible by not wanting to actively contribute sponsorship to their team is an incredibly rude thing to say. For one, it undermines the work they do in the car which, frankly, only a small handful of people on the planet are capable of doing, and it undermines the preparation, personal sacrifice and physical and mental strain each driver puts themselves through to do their job. If they slacked in either of these aspects (and many other unnamed ones), then they would be completely outdone by their competitors, such is the similarity of the drivers’ worth ethics. So, to call their unwillingness to go out of their way to find money to bring to the team irresponsible, when they are hired to drive the car,  is outrageous.

You can see where he comes from, though. Times are tough, and Cyril know better than most anyone on the grid just how difficult it is to run a Formula One team the size of Caterham with their relatively puny budget. The financial strains will only be exacerbated by the new regulations and from losing out on 10th place in the 2013 constructors’ championship. Those vital millions are now gone. For Cyril to think that the drivers should feel obligated to help the team out as much as they can is a natural sentiment, especially when that is most likely one of the most important things on his own mind.

But this very description of these so-called “irresponsible” drivers is completely baseless. Surely he of all people knows why drivers are hired: to drive. Whatever money they bring is, frankly, a bonus.

“Almost all the drivers have a feeling that there must be some form of contribution that they make beyond their sporting duties.”

This was another statement that confused me. While I agree with the literal meaning of these words, our interpretations are different. He believes that this form of contribution is bringing in sponsorship. Directly.

I believe that drivers indirectly bring in sponsorship, regardless of what direct sponsorship comes from them. This goes back to the actual job of Formula One drivers. These athletes are contractually obligated to drive cars. That is their job. I would be surprised to learn that every driver’s contract states somewhere that they must meet a direct sponsorship quota. If that was the case, and a driver didn’t have any direct sponsorship to begin with, they would just pack their bags and look for other employment. No driver wants to subject themselves to the long and arduous sponsorship hunt. I say “subject themselves” for a reason, here.

It isn’t a surprise that most drivers object to the idea of paying a team directly for a drive. That, again, only serves to undermine that actual talent the driver possesses. It makes talent secondary. A fact especially apparent when you consider the declining quality of the Formula One field today.

So what do drivers contribute to a team beyond their sporting duties? Well, there is the sponsorship interest that comes as a result of the driving. That in itself is what kept the Brawn operation going in 2009. The car was naked early on in the season, but as results kept on coming, brands and companies wanted to be associated with the team. That was a major contributor to the team’s title success that year.

Then we must consider the numerous sponsorship events the drivers attend every year. Those are a heavy burden on the drivers who, most of the time, just want to go home and relax between Grands Prix. The sponsorship generated from events like those seems to have slipped Cyril’s mind. I would not be surprised if that was the type of contribution “most” drivers are thinking of.

It is also a fact that most drivers do not want to actively seek out direct sponsorship to help their quest for a Formula One seat. Take Felipe Massa, for instance. His drive with Williams in 2014 does not come without its financial perks for the team, obviously. They wouldn’t be able to survive without some sort of direct flow of money after losing PDVSA and Maldonado. But it is highly unlikely Felipe Massa went around asking for money from various companies in Brazil. I obviously don’t know for sure whether he did or not, but judging from his comments throughout last year as his seat at Ferrari came under increasing threat, Felipe wasn’t keen on looking for sponsors himself.

His sponsors came with him because he is who he is. He has a name in the sport, and a wonderful reputation as a hard worker and a multiple Grand Prix winner. That type of credibility can, and has, generated considerable financial interest in his own success. Companies want to be associated with a name like that. Do you think Fernando Alonso asked Santander to sponsor him, or do you think they took the hint that he was a brilliantly fantastic driver and thought, “Hey, maybe this guy could be successful! Let’s get in on that.”? This proves that the physical act of driving is its very own sponsorship generator. The need for direct monetary contribution cannot be underestimated, but it is not the be all end all of getting money in the sport.

This is why teams who perhaps are struggling financially need to take risks when hiring drivers. When Caterham first joined the sport in 2010, it had two paid drivers in Kovalainen and Trulli. It was understandable that they eventually couldn’t support them financially, and they had to be dropped, but the dreary list of successors has done the team no good to move it up the grid. Petrov, van der Garde and Pic are not potential champions, and their influx of cash clearly hasn’t been enough to overcome that fact.

Thus, Cyril’s comments have been rendered somewhat pointless. Driving talent will never, ever be topped. It is what pushes the sport forward, both qualitatively and financially. The likes of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso will never have to actively seek out sponsorship because their talent is more than enough to draw companies in. And sponsorship commitments? While not ideal, they are far from the most hated things among drivers. They can be fun sometimes. They are certainly more loved than the current influx of “pay drivers” we think are tainting our precious sport. Like I said in my last post, no driver currently in the sport doesn’t deserve to be their. It is all a matter of who deserves to be in the sport more, and their are certainly some drivers not in the sport right now, and even not in the frame to EVER be in the sport, who deserve a shot more than some who are in right now.

Cyril, we know where you’re coming from. We know times are tough right now. But before you go calling Formula One’s most important employees irresponsible, take a closer look at what they contribute on a regular basis. It might not be immediately tangible, but its results certainly are.