Faster horses: Twitter, Fanboost and Fast and Furious

Twitter lit up last night on the subject of Formula E’s proposed Fanboost feature. In essence, this will give fans the opportunity to vote via the social media site for a driver of their choice to receive an additional “Push to Pass”, a turbo boost similar to KERS in F1 or NOS in the Fast and Furious films.

There were a lot of uninformed comments flying around. Here’s our take.

  1. Let’s keep a sense of proportion: the Push to Pass boost itself is not something over and above the capacity of any team’s car. All teams will run the same car in year one, which will have a 200kW capacity, but will be restricted to 133kW for the majority of the race. The boost effectively lifts the restrictor for a brief stretch so that the car can operate at its full 200kW capability. Every driver will have a specified number of these available from the beginning of the race. (Some sources claim that each driver will have both a restricted and a derestricted car, and the choice of which to use at each point in the race will inform racing strategy in place of tyre decisions.) The Fanboost function will simply give one extra kick for overtaking, like one extra KERS boost in F1 – or the NOS in Fast and Furious films. And as viewers of either will know, it’s unlikely to drastically alter the outcome of a race unless used at exactly the right time, which comes down to driver skill and judgement.
  2. Formula E will run on city circuit tracks. So unlike in F1, where KERS makes a sitting duck of the car in front on a straight (depending, on course, on gearbox ratios and aero set-up), think Monaco: tight, twisty circuits with few places to overtake. In that context, any power boost is unlikely to make a great deal of difference.
  3. A Formula E race will only be around an hour long. The action will be fast and furious, and downforce is deliberately low to allow nose-to-tail racing. An extra boost will just add to the action-packed event.
  4. Motor racing is already attuned to Twitter. Many racing drivers and teams across the world use the tool to talk directly with fans. (Some drivers have even been censured for sharing too much – Hamilton and data sheets, anyone?). The power to reach millions of people with real-time updates, for free, is simply being pushed further by Formula E. It’s a great way to keep sponsors happy and communicate with fans while meeting the small budgets that Formula E teams will operate within. And it’s likely to tie in well with the augmented reality aspect that technology partner Qualcomm is hoping to bring to the spectacle.
  5. In fact, media intrusion into motorsports is well past what would have been considered sheer voyeurism a few short years ago. Explanations from team chiefs during a race, listening to drivers’ comments in the waiting room, interviewing drivers on their cool down laps, lengthy podium rituals with ex-racers…Motorsports is entertainment, and a nostalgic hankering after something simpler and purer doesn’t recognise the reality of today’s business-driven world. Formula E is simply taking the template one step further.
  6. The FIA is unlikely to have much to say on the matter. FEH is the promoter and will do what it sees fit to make the sport a success. The use of Twitter won’t impact safety, ergo no FIA veto.
  7. Development driver Lucas di Grassi has explained that he doesn’t think the feature will unduly affect race results and that entertainment and competition will be kept separate.
  8. FEH doesn’t need to consult too much with traditional motorsports fans because they aren’t the target audience. The series is focused on teens, pre-teens and techies, not petrol heads.
  9. FEH also doesn’t need to consult with British motorsports fans in particular because the series has a clear focus on the US and Asia (London is on the inaugural calendar but has been bumped to the last date). It might be a crude strategy to target national stereotypes – affinity with technology in the Far East and marketing gimmicks in the US – but it’s one likely to attract attention.
  10. Look at the big picture: head of FEH Alejandro Agag has said that entry to the events will be free, with costs only associated with the grandstands. Even those are likely to be in the region of just £60 per ticket. Then work the logic. A free event, in the middle of a city: will a “marketing gimmick” like Fanboost deter audiences from descending in their droves? Probably not, at least for the first year.
  11. No sport is without its drawbacks. (F1 has been accused of many gimmicks in recent years, including the DRS system, and been called “boring” for the predictability of one driver or team dominating several years). Even as it shapes up, it is clear that Formula E is far from perfect. Building the cars, transporting them and powering them will all come with hefty carbon penalties. The car doesn’t look futuristic enough to appeal to real techies. The insistence on a one-make series in year one will discourage constructors and miss out on fast-tracking the innovation that the sport is keen to spark. And as far as we’re aware, Twitter can’t be used in Beijing, the season opener. These are all real-world challenges that Formula E will need to get to grips with.
  12. Any news is good news. In its launch year, Formula E needs to get noticed. Fanboost may or may not survive in the longer term, but it certainly has got people talking and looks set to grab headlines. And for a new sport, that is good news.

Until the 20 gleaming machines roll onto the streets of Beijing in September 2014, no one will really know which parts of the sport will work and which won’t. Henry Ford, a chap who knew something about innovation and motor cars, knew that sometimes it’s better to introduce a wacky idea rather than wait for people to ask for it. Of the Model T, he said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Until FEH reveals the full sporting regulations, we don’t know what will and what won’t make it into the first series. All we can do is stay tuned. Or is that logged on?

9 Comments

  • Reply October 16, 2013

    elwehbi

    All excellent points you’ve made. To be perfectly honest, I’m not the biggest fan nor believer in full electric mobility YET. I still think there’s a long way to go before electric cars are considered to be a real option for most buyers. However, the mission behind Formula-E is clear and in order for electric technology in automobiles to develop, a racing platform as such can help propel the technology to another level. Plus, I can see opportunities for transfer of electric know-how from Formula-E to F1 as well; after all, F1 is now officially a hybrid racing series in my opinion.
    I think people need to give it a chance and realize that Formula-E is completely different. It needs to differentiate itself as a series from the rest to position itself as a leader and not a follower.
    Looking forward to the season kicking off in 2014!

    • Reply October 16, 2013

      Ross

      Superb comment – agree entirely with your sentiments. Tesla is showing that e-mobility can be today’s reality of course, with the network of superchargers. But giving the likes of McLaren, Williams and Renault a competitive environment in which to hone these technologies with a designed-in route to market should help constructors make money, advance everyday electric cars and give us something to watch in the dreary winter months.

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