The manufacturers new clothes: Mercedes, Porsche head to Formula E

It wasn’t a slow evolution or assimilation over time to create a more diverse group, it was an edict that they’re coming and it’ll be good for everyone. No, I’m not talking about immigration, I’m talking about hybrid technology in motorsport.

The FIA’s massive swing to environmental championing—even eclipsing the normal safety narrative—ushered in electric engines in Formula 1, the World Endurance Championship or WEC (with ACO approval) and eventually a heavy endorsement for their new series, Formula E.

The strongest arguments were made under the flags of sustainability and road relevance. Manufacturers, leading each series with their millions of dollars in investments, threatened F1 if the series didn’t move to electric and the WEC was actually ahead of the game in alternative engine technology with diesel first and then hybrids.

Formula E, despite its over-the-top wave of social media timeline saturation, has grown and depending on which journalist you read, you may think it is eclipsing F1 in viewer numbers and taking the world by storm—albeit this from journalists the series has flown to attend races—and then there are the realistic journalists who know better but treat the series with kid gloves for fear of speaking out of turn.

On the surface, you might say, and you’d be right, that 61 million total viewers for the Formula E season is great and it is. Then you might tether that elation when you learn that F1 has 1.5 billion viewers during a season. Some races during the F1 season can get close to 100 million viewers.

Mercedes and Porsche

Regardless of the lack of viewers and the narrative stating otherwise by paid and non-paid media, Mercedes announced that it is leaving DTM to focus on Formula E. Equally, it is being reported that after four brief years in WEC, Porsche is now leaving to focus on Formula E.

I would like to the thank the motorsport governing bodies for ruining some of the best racing series’ in the world with their hybrid, out-of-control expensive regulations mandating electric in their series.

Formula 1’s hybrid technology bankrupted three teams and ensured that a team such as Red Bull—who invest 100’s of millions of dollars in the sport—can’t get a competitive engine because the two companies that make the best engines won’t supply them and no other engine maker can afford to enter the series due to the outrageous cost of R&D. This left the series with a massively dominant Mercedes for three years and only the slightest hope of Ferrari getting any upper ground on them in the fourth year of these regulations. The rest of the teams make up the also-ran field.

Form the WEC, both Porsche and Toyota LMP1’s could barely manage to finish the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans due to the overly complex nature of their hybrids despite the $200+ million the teams spent on the programs. The best class racing during the famous race? That would be the LMP2 category that bought readily available, inexpensive V8 engines and had a blast racing each other hard and darn near winning the overall race.

Reality

The reality is that formula E has been committed to keeping costs low and unlike F1, that’s been the catalyst for keeping team’s solvent and a full grid. They also have a very robust marketing department and are young enough to engage fans on multiple levels. If there ever was a place for hybrid technology or electric research and development, this is a great series for it, no doubt. I argued this to oblivion years ago when F1 decided it too would be eco-friendly and road relevant. I said then that Formula E was a terrific series for this and that manufacturers should be involved if that’s what they wanted to do.

I honestly didn’t reckon that the manufacturers would pull up roots on terrific series such as WEC and DTM in order to do it. One could argue that they don’t have the budgets for both and fair enough but in the end, they may just reap what they sow. If the WEC LMP1 dries up as well as DTM and possibly F1, then the world is left with all the manufacturers plying their road car development skills in Formula E and looking virtuous doing so. Meanwhile, fans are left with an electric car racing series with speeds averaging 70mph on tracks that are suspect in cars that can’t complete a full race and Fanboost.

If that’s where all the money and attention is, will fans clamor to the fences to watch silent racing at 90mph in cars that are all relatively equal? Will the series evolve and develop over time with faster and more diverse designs? Sure, will that make the difference? Not so sure about that.

Perception

The perception is that F1 has always been a series steeped in technology. That’s true. What I might argue now is moving forward, if manufacturers are going all in on an electric racing car series, then F1 may find roots in what it originally was and that’s not technology and road car relevance.

F1 has always been about drivers in cars that the average fan has no chance or opportunity of driving at those speeds on those tracks and with that level of competition. If everyone goes to Formula E, I say best of luck but if I were Liberty Media, I would stop the FIA from meddling in my sport with outrageously expensive technology and go back to what it was.

A majority of fans will never have the opportunity of driving a V10, V8 or even V12 at those speeds on those track with that level of competition. Just like the incredibly robust LMP2 category in this year’s Le Mans, most fans will never have that opportunity and it was terrific racing.

Want to be innovative? F1 and the WEC could create regulations reducing fuel flow to create more efficient engines and re-construct its schedule to maximize travel to and from far-flung locations.

The other perception is that electric cars are where it’s at and the recent bans on Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) in certain countries by 2040 and a reliance on all-electric is a noble charter but the last I checked, today the world is running on ICE. When a semi-truck can go hundreds of miles, stop to refuel in 20 minutes and go hundreds more on an electric engine, then we may be talking. When I can drive 400 miles, stop to refuel in 5 minutes and go 400 more, now we’re talking. If I have to go 200 miles and stop for 9.5 hours to recharge, I might as well ride a horse. Advancement in technology has normally been to make life better and do more and go farther than we have before, not go backwards while hurting our arm slapping our virtuous backs.

It might be like a new iPhone that doesn’t require a power cable because it is charged by light. Sure, talk time is now less than half of what it used to be and it takes several hours in direct light to fully charge but hey, we’re not using electricity. Why are we so eager to ban existing technology in favor of technology that actually moves us backwards in performance and achievement? The term “disruptive technology” is cute in Petaluma but I’m not buying the notion that it works for the world’s transportation that lives depend on.

Lab rats

I’m also very perplexed by the notion of the FIA and ACO, as well as other series, to treat motorsport as a lab rat for electric car development. Do car makers not have engineers who work on electric car development? Why are racing fans being punished with dodgy racing so manufacturers can fidget away at their rapid prototyping for the next all-electric Mercedes or Porsche when both companies have a phalanx of engineers working on those systems back at HQ?

No one likes live animal testing and yet that’s what we seem to be doing with motorsport. Can we just get back to exciting racing in more affordable cars? I don’t care that Mercedes is now putting their F1 engine in one of their hyper cars. I can’t afford that damn thing anyway. Is this road relevancy? Making super cars with F1 tech? When they put the F1 engine in a C Class, maybe I’ll be impressed with a $40k car that has 800bhp.

I don’t care that Mercedes won three titles with their hybrid engine, I just cared that Lewis Hamilton won two of those three and Nico won the other. I, like most fans, have no idea what the hell is under their hood anyway. I don’t care that Ferrari have seemed to make a better hybrid that has them more competitive with Mercedes this year, I simply care that Sebastian is battling Lewis for the title. It could be a V8 for all I care.

Formula E

I wish Formula E success and good luck to those manufacturers who are diving into the deep end. I hope that works out swimmingly. Meanwhile, will someone grab the damn reins in WEC, F1 and DTM and get back to racing and remind Jean Todt that he has a series for electric cars called Formula E?