Frankfurt 2013. At the renowned German motor show, a small crowd had gathered for a new launch. Flashing strobe lights, glittery walls, pounding music, dancers, models and dry ice were being used to generate interest for facelifted hatchbacks and diesel briefcases on wheels. This particular reveal, however, was more low key.
The cover slid back to reveal what is now a familiar sight to Formula E fans: the bewinged Spark-Renault chassis. Without a powertrain to display (it was still under development and had yet to be track tested), the single-seater shell looked fairly conventional, even if the concept it represented wasn’t. Yes, there were a few unusual inclusions, such as the 18 inch low profile tyres, simple aerodynamic surfaces and the four stubby canards, which hid side impact protection bars. But the car looked more like a modified version of today’s IndyCar chassis than a vision of tomorrow’s technology.
In a way, it was. The experience told us everything we needed to know about the new sport and its charismatic champion, Alejandro Agag. What we were presented with was a racing car which looked like a racing car. It wasn’t likely to alienate current motorsport fans by being too different or too outlandish. It wasn’t likely to go hideously wrong or cost big bucks to develop, based as it was on an existing platform. It didn’t look too far outside convention to deter racing teams and drivers. It was understandable, attractive and affordable. It was pragmatic, realistic – and, importantly for something which represented the birth of a dream, it was real.
The man charged with dreaming big dreams and then making them happen found the nascent sport flooded by criticism. Engineering advocates said the powertrain and chassis weren’t radical enough. Figures from throughout the racing world dismissed the cars as too slow and too quiet. The racing would be too boring, they said, the business model was too nebulous and ill-conceived. And that was when people noticed at all. Much of the mainstream automotive media largely ignored the developments, dismissing Formula E as just another crackpot idea destined to fail.
Agag held his nerve and many of those criticisms have simply melted away. The racing is frenetic and furious. The grid boasts world-class drivers, world-class teams and world-famous manufacturers. The series has managed to secure circuits right in the heart of city centres, closing down streets in places such as London, Long Beach, Beijing, Moscow and Monaco. Paris will join the roster this year, too. And several rounds of investment, each numbering into the tens of millions, have secured the sport’s immediate future.
Praise has followed for several things that Formula E has got right: its early attempts at cost control, the way the whole sport has embraced social media and prioritised free-to-air broadcasting, its focus on powertrain development over aerodynamics, its open invitation to technical innovation. Lift the bonnet and there’s much more: the way the series generates its electricity at site with virtually zero emissions, the way the calendar is designed to cut carbon in logistics, the way the temporary circuits make for a family-friendly day out and reduce the need for the acres of concrete and tarmac of dedicated facilities. Even livery designs have proved popular.
As the sport grows, so does demand for its chief; carving time out from his hectic schedule isn’t easy. Yet, Agag granted Current E an unhurried morning at his London office, where he posed for photos and answered all questions, regardless of how thorny (and yes, we asked about Tesla, staff reductions and the ever-changing technical roadmap). That forms this edition’s cover story – along with a photo of his favourite mug. He might be taking over the world but Agag clearly has time for a sense of humour.
This is an excerpt from the March 2016 edition of the Current E magazine.