Racing on the streets of Paris

IMG_1737Motor racing has always existed to push forward automotive technology. There are, of course, stagnant pools in that flow, where the goal has been to make money and put on a show, but in general terms, the sport has had a raison d’être other than just greed and having fun. The list of inventions that have flowed from the sport to the industry over the years (and continue to do so) is impressive. Perhaps I am unusual, but I see this as a key element for the sport to maintain relevance and interest. Thus, when I heard that there was a Formula E race I could get to easily, I jumped at the chance. I am not about to invest and fly down to Uruguay for a one-day event, but a race in Paris on a weekend when there was no Grand Prix, was worth a couple of Metro tickets. I haven’t had a home race since the French GP disappeared and so this was a pleasant change.

It was all pretty relaxed and, in fact, the very first person I saw when I wandered down towards the Media Centre was none other than Alejandro Agag himself. The CEO of Formula E is a clever guy, charming and plausible and he talks a good game. I have always felt that Formula E was not a very sustainable business model, but Alejandro insists that there are more people wanting to buy shares in the Formula E business than there are shares available. The series is still making a loss, but it seems that this year – the second season – it is bringing in a great deal more sponsorship revenue than was previously the case. I am glad to hear that. After saying hallo, I wandered into the Media Centre, in what the French call a hôtel particulier (which means a very grand town house). This dated back to 1708, and was the Paris home of various dukes, counts, cardinals, marshals and ambassadors until the 1920s when the government bought it and turned it into a conference centre for scientific conventions. IMG_1734In comparison, the racing facilities were a little Heath Robinson. There wasn’t really a paddock, beyond the large tent where the teams ate meals, and the pits were cramped tents, with some unusual features, not least lamp posts that went through the canvas roof (right). This was odd because there was plenty of space behind them, but I presume Paris did not want its grass to be trampled… You always have a few efficious little jobsworths, but on the whole the organisation was fairly laid-back.

The one thing that struck me – and it seems almost every French person involved – was the miraculous nature of the event. France has a reputation for red tape and it seemed amazing that it was actually happening, particularly given that it was around the historic Les Invalides military complex, in the very epicentre of the city. Given that this vast building is the home of some fairly sensitive military organisations, in addition to being a tourist attraction, it was all rather astonishing. To put this into perspective, there were races on the streets of Paris until 1898 when the authorities made such a fuss that all further events took place outside the jurisdiction of the city. In the first weeks after World War II racing returned to Paris, it was good for morale, and the Coupe de la Libération on a track in the Bois de Boulogne, at the Porte Dauphine, attracted a huge crowd. That track was used on and off until the Grand Prix de Paris of 1951, after which the race moved to the Montlhéry autodrome. Since then the authorities have stopped any and all attempts to take racing to the people. And there have been many attempts. There have been a few demonstration runs, but that is it.

Successful events usually end up with having a lot of people claiming that it was their idea, but it was interesting to hear Jean-Francois Martins, the deputy mayor in charge of Sport and Tourism, who said that the FIA requested a venue “on the edge of the city” when the first discussions were held about a race. Martins said that when he and the mayor Ann Hidalgo thought about it and decided that the race should be in the downtown area.

“We decided to set it up in Paris, for symbolic purposes,” he explained, “placing electric mobility at the heart of the city.”

This makes sense because Hidalgo has dramatic plans to cut traffic flow in Paris and is keen to promote electric transportation. The city is a disaster when it comes to traffic, but Hidalgo plans for much more investment in public transport. Those who do want to go on driving in Paris will have to deal with much more expensive parking and more restrictions on the routes available. In July this year cars that were built before 1997 will no longer be allowed into the city (these cars are reckoned to account for around 15 percent of the traffic). She has cut the speed limit on the celebrated périphérique to 70 km/h and soon the non-stop riverside expressways, built in the 1960s, which allowed cars to get from one side of the city to the other quickly, will be pedestrianised and Parisians will once again have access to the river.

An electric race, she says, is “a means to dramatically develop electric mobility, which is essential for our cities”.

Thus the locals wanted this to happen. But it could only happen if it was for electric cars.

According to Agag, “the assembly of the track, which is a very difficult matter, has been absolutely incredible. We are very impressed with the work of everyone involved”.

IMG_1745There was not a huge amount of room allowed for spectators, with a crowd of no more than 20,000, and most paid very little. This meant that there were a lot of people who have no idea about how to spectate at motor races. With only a few grandstands, on a first-come-first-served basis, there were inevitably a few selfish numbskulls (above) who could not find seats and so decided to stand at the top of the stairs, thus blocking the view for everyone else. No-one removed them and they rather spoiled the show. Obviously, if there are to be more grandstands in the future, they will need to be better policed and perhaps it would be wise for numbered seating. There were some big screens around the track, but where we were they were not big enough. However Turn 1 was a good place to be and we saw much of the action. The cars are slow (when compared to F1) but it does not matter that much because they are still spectacular on a street track, particularly as they are not nailed to the ground with downforce and can be slid around by the drivers. The noise was odd, but once you got used to it, it really wasn’t a problem. It was a shame that the race ended under yellow because it was building up to be quite a fight, but it was good entertainment nonetheless. It was nice to be able to get a train home without too much drama and, of course, this helped the environmental credibility because what any big event wants is fans using public transport. People like to say that cycling is a green sport, but ironically the Tour de France is probably the most polluting sporting event in the world as a big percentage of its 14 million spectators, drive to see the race go by.

The decision to hold a race in Paris was taken before the terrorism attacks last autumn, but the event took on new significance as a result. The number of visitors to Paris is down significantly this year and that has an economic impact. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who turned up for the race, hit on this as an important theme. He said that such events are “the best response to the attacks”.

“This is a celebration of sport, technology and the environment as well as a festival, so it’s everything to make people happy and proud,” he added.

They say that much of the necessary infrastructure for the event was delivered to the site by boat, using the River Seine, although I have to say that I saw a lot of trucks around on the Friday. Ecologists tried to make a fuss, but they made little or no impact. Renault and PSA Peugeot Citroen were both involved and had large numbers of guests.

The weather was pretty miserable, but at least it did not rain but despite this I think the event was a huge success. It can be better, of course, but it was a good start. I think that other big cities may look at what Paris has done and say “Why not?” because it really was a spectacle. It was interesting to not as well that in order for the race to take place about 300 metres of the circuit had to have a temporary tarmac surface put down over the top of historic cobblestones. These were covered with a plastic film, then sand and then tarmac (see below). In the days to come it will be removed and the cobblestones will re-emerge.Cobbles