Christmas in July.
That is the only way to sum up Monday’s announcement that Mercedes would be taking up its option to join the Formula E grid for season six.
It’s big. Big for Formula E. Big for Mercedes. Big for global motorsport.
Even at the height of its dominance in Formula 1, Mercedes has one eye firmly on the future. And the future is electric.
Mercedes first announced that it had signed a deal with Formula E to get an option on an entry for season five back in October, just as the paddock was making its way to Hong Kong. That in itself was a big statement, but the lack of a firm deal meant that nothing was certain.
The time that passed gave the impression that Mercedes might have gone cold on the idea. The deadline for manufacturer entries for season five passed with no sign of the three-pointed star. If it wanted to join up in time for the technical overhaul that will come in 2018/19, it would have to do so as a customer outfit.
Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said only last month that research was ongoing, with an October deadline to make a decision for season six, hinting that no decision would come until then. That’s one reason why Monday’s announcement was such a shock: the timing caught everyone off guard.
The other big surprise in Mercedes’ announcement was that it would be ending its DTM programme at the end of 2018 in order to focus its efforts on Formula E. DTM as a series has been struggling for a while, but Mercedes’ departure is a blow it is difficult to see it recovering from. The brand has been present ever since the series was revived in 2000, with the decision not being made lightly.
Much like Audi’s decision to end its LMP1 programme, Mercedes’ withdrawal from DTM is a sign of the times. Formula E is the only place for manufacturers to be if they want to prioritise road-relevance and develop new technologies.
But what does Mercedes’ arrival mean for Formula E?
The biggest thing it offers is greater visibility and credibility to the series. That’s not to say that Formula E hasn’t already enjoyed the latter – a grid with the likes of Audi, BMW, Renault and Jaguar isn’t to be sniffed at – but for F1’s champion team to decide that Formula E is the place to be? That’s significant.
On the visibility side of things, the news got Twitter talking about Formula E in a way that has not been seen for some time. There was praise and there was criticism – but the one thing people could not deny was the significance of the news for global motorsport. Moving forward, Mercedes’ two major works programmes will be Formula 1 and Formula E: the pinnacle of motorsport and the future of motorsport.
Mercedes’ arrival acts as a major coup for Formula E, acting to boost grid numbers in the process. Once the German marque joins in season six – or, as has been speculated, enters a customer HWA team for season five using Venturi powertrains – we will be up to 11 teams. Just one slot will remain, with series CEO Alejandro Agag recently sticking a €25 million price tag on it – and don’t expect that to be free for long.
Yet there are many more manufacturers still eyeing up a Formula E entry. Attention will probably turn to the privateer teams that could be purchased, Techeetah – owned by a Chinese investment company, remember – being the only one with zero entrenched links to any manufacturer right now. Dragon could also be an option should the concerns about Faraday Future be justified.
Mercedes. Audi. BMW. Jaguar. Renault. DS. Mahindra. NextEV. Faraday Future. Venturi.
Some of the biggest car makers in the world combined with some of the leading lights in the EV sector.
As exciting as it is, it could create a new challenge for Formula E: politics.
Formula E has enjoyed a relatively tranquil political landscape up to now, the dramas of the F1 and WEC paddocks seeming to be a world away. But as all of these giants collide and start to compete, there will undoubtedly be a sway of influence. Much as F1 has found for many, many years, self-interest will prevail; collective growth won’t be the priority anymore; an arms race in a bid to be the best could cause costs to escalate.
As amazing as Mercedes’ arrival is for Formula E, it also contributes to the future challenges that are bubbling away in the background.
But Formula E has been ready for everything thrown at it thus far. Agag and his team will have known the consequences of growth. Expect them to fully embrace whatever future brings.