Season 5 of the Formula E World Championship, the premier electric racing league, wrapped up over the weekend with DS Techeetah (UG.PA) driver Jean-Éric Vergne clinching his second consecutive driver’s championship at the finale of the series, the New York City ePrix.
Despite Vergne’s back-to-back world championships, this year’s Formula E season was especially exciting, with teams using the new Gen 2 car (Formula E teams all use the same chassis) for the first time, resulting in 8 different winners over the span of 13 races. And while excitement is good for motorsports, that’s not the only reason why big manufacturers and brands spend small fortunes to compete in, and sponsor, motorsports.
“I think Formula E is an incubator for all new technologies, that’s the reason why so many manufacturers joined the championship,” Vergne said at a Tag Heuer event in New York City last week. “This is what Formula 1 one was 20 years ago— it’s not anymore — and this is where the world is going, towards a greener planet, greener technologies — that’s what they’re doing.”
And investing in a greener planet, and creating that electric vehicle-powered future, is big business. The large car manufacturers are spending billions to develop and produce electric-powered vehicles; vehicles that they believe will be the future of transportation. What better way to showcase new technology than to hold glitzy races across the globe in urban environments like Hong Kong, Paris, and Berlin, touting the speed and ‘green’ tech of electric racing.
In terms of manufacturers, the big auto companies involved in Formula E in the just wrapped season include Audi (VOW.DE), BMW (BMW.DE), DS Automobiles, Jaguar (TTM), Mahindra (MAHMF), Nio (NIO), and Nissan (NSANY), as well as brands like Tag Heuer (MC.PA), Hugo Boss (BOSS.DE), and Michelin (ML.PA), among others, who are official partners of Formula E.
“The great thing about Formula E at the moment, is both the automotive (electric) industry and Formula E both sort of started at a similar time, so it’s developing at the same rate,” Mitch Evans, Panasonic Jaguar Racing team driver, said at event thrown by his personal sponsor, Bremont Watches.
Jaguar is actually taking things a bit further with Formula E, sponsoring a full support series called the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY. Taking place ahead of 10 rounds of the Formula E Championship in nine cities, drivers pilot race-spec versions of Jaguar's first all-electric vehicle, the I-PACE.
While they say the car is “race spec,” it actually uses the same motor, inverter, and battery pack as the production car you can buy today. The importance of this can’t be understated, as Jaguar is showing its electric road car can compete at a high level in motorsports, where reliability, agility, and speed are tantamount.
The new formula
“It’s what Formula 1 used to be, having that technology transfer from race to road - that’s why all these big manufacturers are coming in,” Evans says, when comparing Formula E to the premier motorsports series, Formula 1. And more automakers are taking notice. “You have Porsche coming in next year, Mercedes as well.”
Yes, two of the biggest names in motorsports are coming to Formula E next year, Porsche and Mercedes. And for Porsche, the timing is just right, with a new electric car coming to market in 2020 - the Taycan.
“Electric engines are the mobility of tomorrow: instant power, instant torque,” said Neel Jani, Porsche Formula E Team driver. And the Porsche Taycan has that in spades, as I experienced in the passenger seat of a Taycan that Jani piloted around the Formula E racetrack in New York City. Jani drove like he was going for a new track record, flinging the Taycan around from corner to corner, and stomping on the accelerator in the straights, where the Taycan had oodles of torque available at any speed.
With a car like the Taycan, funneling that tech into a Formula E race car, and starting that technology transfer if you will, is in Porsche’s DNA.
“Going into Formula E is not rocket science when you come out with a battery electric vehicle, because this is how Porsche started,” Klaus Zellmer, Porsche North America CEO said at the New York City ePrix. “Motorsports helped Porsche to be where we are today from a brand point of view, so this is why, for us of course, taking motorsports as a platform where we test our ideas, our technology, and our competitiveness is somewhere that we’re going to be.”
The glamour of racing for drivers — and brands
As for the New York race, it’s one the drivers have had their eyes on since the race was added to the calendar two years ago.
“Together with Monaco, it’s the most special, the race of the year,’ Max Günther of Geox Dragon racing said on Saturday ahead of qualifying. “It’s an amazing city, the track is cool, super nice atmosphere and we all look forward to it.
He’s not the only one - Formula E’s teams and brands look to NYC and the ePrix as a way to promote their products and be associated with the future of mobility and tech. Nissan and Virgin even held conferences and summits promoting innovation and green initiatives, and Geox Dragon racing held a philanthropic event across the Hudson River in Jersey City.
Other partnerships take a page out of racing’s glamorous past, with newly-crowned champion Vergne’s sponsorship with watchmaker Tag Heuer coming to mind. “[Tag Heuer’s] heritage in racing, the iconic aspect of the brand in motorsport with [Aryton] Senna - as a racing driver, you try to imitate your heroes,” Vergne said. “I could not [win] in Formula 1, maybe I can have my own destiny and write my own history in Formula E.”