Why Porsche’s Formula E mission could be its greatest yet

Photo: Shivraj Gohil/Spacesuit Media

What. A. Week.

Formula E has arguably just enjoyed five of the most significant days in its relatively short history.

On Monday came the bombshell (albeit a move we were expecting to be confirmed at some point) that Mercedes, the current king of the Formula 1 world, would be joining the series with a factory programme in 2019. Cue widespread excitement, interest and questions. Not all reaction has been positive but the news has certainly got the sport noticed, if the recent announcements from Audi and BMW weren’t enough.

And then we had today. In the wee hours of Friday morning, as most of the Formula E paddock was tucked up in bed ahead of a busy weekend, Porsche, the current king of the endurance racing world, confirmed that it too would be joining the party with a works team in 2019.

It’s time for the scepticism to stop. Formula E is now the place to be for global manufacturers.

Those already in the paddock have known that for years. But now, with the arrival of Mercedes and Porsche, it’s hard for the rest of the world not to know it too.

Porsche’s decision to end its LMP1 programme and quit the FIA World Endurance Championship in order to enter Formula E is, frankly, seismic. Mercedes shutting its DTM programme was a big statement – but this? This is bigger. Much, much bigger.

This is the brand that so proudly returned to Le Mans in 2014 on its latest “mission”, fielding the 919 Hybrid, a spaceship for the race track that has gone on to become one of the most successful cars in the history of sportscar racing.

This is the company that hasn’t been associated with single-seater racing since 1990, when it last enjoyed an entry in CART (now IndyCar).

This is the company that hasn’t raced in an FIA single-seater championship with a works team since 1962.

But that changed today. Porsche began what could become its greatest mission yet.

The company’s interest in electric links to Porsche’s “Mission E” concept, its imagining of an electric sportscar.

“With Concept Study Mission E we take our next step towards the future. With an all-electric sportscar that defines our vision of e-mobility,” reads Porsche’s website. “The time is ripe for this study. It shows that, in addition to our plug-in hybrids, all-electric drive systems can truly meet our standards of intelligent performance. For us, this declaration is distilled into one clear philosophy: Porsche E-Performance.”

The Mission E is a mouth-watering thing. Gorgeous, sumptuous in the way that a Porsche should be. That it is all-electric is quite some statement.

Not only is Porsche returning to single-seater racing, but it is doing so with a works operation that will go up against the might of some of the world’s biggest manufacturers. In the race to be king of electric street racing, Porsche will dice with Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Renault and Mercedes et al; there’s nowhere to hide.

Porsche’s recent efforts in LMP1 have summed up the approach that it takes to racing. A bumpy first year has been followed by incredible success on-track, taking three straight Le Mans victories and both WEC titles in 2015 and 2016. It has left no stone unturned in its bid to beat rivals Toyota and, until the end of last year, Audi, operating with an immaculate level of professionalism.

That said, the operation Porsche finds itself preparing to run will be vastly different from the one it has known. In LMP1, Porsche was able to build the car from the ground up, intricately looking at every single detail and part. In Formula E though, there is far less that the team can actually influence given the number of spec parts including the spec chassis and spec race battery. Drivetrain and software are the two main areas where gains can be made, offering a much slimmer window for technical innovation.

Naturally, this move means there will be a significant lay-off of staff. Although WEC crews are hardly enormous, it’s unlikely there will be a need for the same number of people on the ground. Those with expertise in areas such as chassis design won’t be able to get on board so long as Formula E has a spec model, for example. Porsche has a lot of smart people – but will it need all of them for a Formula E effort? Could the brains trust instead look to poach from the paddock’s brightest ahead of season six?

Also consider the drivers. Six LMP1 drivers are going to be without a top-line drive for 2018: Andre Lotterer (who, the poor guy, had the exact same situation with Audi last year), Neel Jani, Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley, Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber. Porsche will still have its extensive GT programme, but will any of them see Formula E as an option for the future? Lotterer could be a good option given his Super Formula experience, if Formula E is even of interest to the German. He’s visited a Formula E race in the past, of course…(cue the rumour mill).

Come the winter of 2019, Formula E will be a battleground for the most significant car manufacturers in motorsport. It will pit WEC winners against F1 winners, showing how the series is a point of convergence in global racing. Whether fans like it or not, manufacturers think they have no choice but to be involved in the series.

Since Porsche made its LMP debut, the goalposts have changed. The rate at which electric mobility and technology is moving makes Formula E a series that simply cannot be overlooked. That isn’t just us being biased: that is why DTM and WEC are now reeling from the loss of major names and why many in F1, perhaps without admitting it, are looking over their shoulders.

Will Porsche’s entry be as fleeting as its WEC participation? Unlikely. Hybrid tech has always been something of a halfway house when it comes to the automotive world. The big players and the regulators are making electric the next step.

While Ferrari is continuing to mull over what image it wants to project with its motorsport programme moving forward (the prancing horse has been said to have been considering Formula E for a little while now), Porsche has already nailed its flag to the electric mast.

It may boast a history in sportscars that is the envy of the racing world (a record 19 overall Le Mans wins is the tip of the iceberg) but its move into Formula E shows that sentiment and history are not reasons to fall behind an ultra-competitive marketplace. It is crucial to move forward and commit to the future.

Formula E is a fresh mission for Porsche and will be an exciting chapter for sport and sportscar maker alike.

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