Opinion: The nauseating backdrop to Formula E’s exciting new rebirth

by William Brierty
Saudi Arabia announces 10-year deal with Formula E

Formula E has the air of a series on the brink of an electrifying new era. Whilst the championship opener back in 2014 hit the headlines thanks to the aerial acrobatics of Nick Heidfeld and Nicolas Prost, FE was initially little more than a quirky motorsport sideshow; a new platform for the FIA’s sustainability drive that came without many of the conventional appeals of motor-racing, instead replaced by marmite fan-boost gimmickry.

The series has grown in stature exponentially since 2014, attracting the interest of seven of the world’s top car manufacturers (almost twice the amount competing in Formula 1). FE also became impossible to ignore for even the most blinkered, petrolhead dinosaurs; with arguably the finest collection of drivers outside of F1 competing on free-to-air TV. Quite out of nowhere FE became an unmissable racing spectacle and a major player in the future of world motorsport.

And yet, even considering the championship’s meteoric rise in recent years, for season five FE looks to be ascending to an all new level. The arrival of the Gen2 car – the SRT05e – has been met with almost universal approval. The massive rear diffuser, lack of rear wing and LMP1-style wheel shrouds has moved FE away from the typical single seater aesthetic towards something truly unique. Even the addition of the halo – which intriguingly will feature LEDs that will light up when the car deploys full power – could not spoil the bold new look.

The new car will also take all-electric racing to new heights of performance – with the new car delivering an extra 50kW of torque improving the top speed by as much as 50kph. The standardised new McLaren battery is also now capable of running the entire 45-minute race: avoiding the ungainly spectacle of mid-race car changes.

In the cockpit, FE welcomes a trio of former F1 drivers in Felipe Massa, Pascal Wehrlein and Stoffel Vandoorne. After a difficult few years in F1, Vandoorne will start his career fight back alongside reigning DTM champion Gary Paffet. Both will compete with HWA Racelab; Mercedes’ scouting party ahead of its fully-fledged debut next year. Formula Renault 3.5 champion Oliver Rowland owes the start of his professional racing career to Alexander Albon, who was poached from the clutches of the new Nissan e.dams squad by Toro Rosso. Overall, FE now boasts a melting-pot of professional racing maestros, hotshot single-seater stars and potential F1 returnees, firmly establishing the series as second only to F1 for aspiring young drivers.

Gary Paffet testing for HWA Racelab during Formula E preseason testing

Credit: FIA Formula E

Away from the track, the series has gone to unprecedented lengths to ensure the action is as accessible to the fans as possible. British fans now have the choice of watching live freely available coverage across the BBC, Eurosport and a live YouTube stream. Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti are both set to reprise their excellent work as the series’ commentators. The YouTube feed is set to be presented by a rotating team of YouTube ‘influencers’ – an unsubtle clue as to the target audience of FE’s revamp.

While existing motorsport fans would doubtless have been more comfortable in the company of another driver-turned-journalist, FE has never been a series afraid to estrange more purist factions in pursuit of fresh new viewers. The championship’s compulsion to engage with its audience saw the introduction of fanboost – a power-for-popularity vote-in widely derided by traditional fans. The further introduction of the ominously named “Mario Kart mode” might just prove too much for most petrolheads…

However, FE is not F1. FE has always been determined to be diametrically opposed to the comparably clinical, inaccessible and elite world of F1. FE has always been a series determined to engage its fans to the fullest extent possible, and whilst Bernie Ecclestone once infamously proclaimed that F1 “doesn’t need” young fans, it is pleasing that FE has staked so much on engaging a young audience. The planned introduction of an officially-sanctioned new game which will synchronise with the events of the live racing is just the latest example of the series’ bold and innovative outreach program.

Indeed, for all that FE is effective at extracting pained expressions from F1 converts, YouTuber antics and “Mario Kart” gimmicks are not the reasons why this weekend’s season opener is doomed to leave a bitter aftertaste. Instead, the reason is rather more complex and rather more sinister. The Riyadh ePrix became the leading edge of Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud’s ‘Vision 2030’ when a ten-year deal to host the race in Saudi Arabia was announced in May. The news would prove controversial; not least because the FIA’s sustainability flagship was set to be hosted by the world’s second-biggest oil producer.

FE is set to plunge headlong into a country in the midst of an identity crisis; a country wanting to present an outward-looking, investable platform to prospective Western businesses, but still very much influenced by a culture of deeply-conservative clerical Islam. Despite lifting the ban on women drivers, women are still unable to make major decisions in Saudi Arabia without male approval. In a country were public executions are still legal, Saudi Arabia sanctioned 48 beheadings in the first four months of 2018 alone and infamously beheaded a man accused of ‘witchcraft and sorcery’ as recently as 2012.

Saudi Arabia announces 10-year deal with Formula E

Credit: FIA Formula E

As a departure from FE’s forward-looking, conscientious ethos, it is difficult to think of a host country quite as misplaced as Saudi Arabia. But of course, motorsport is quite accustomed to holding its nose. Each year the winning trophy at the Russian Grand Prix is presented by a persistent agitator of international crisis; a man who received a personal conference with FIA president Jean Todt just last week. Each year the winning trophy at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is presented by a man with a systematic history of jailing journalists and gross corruption.

This policy of selective blindness is also not exclusive to F1, as FE looks set to make two visits to China for season five. Of course, it is widely believed that sport and global investment give countries an incentive to liberalise. However, putting the virtues of that argument aside, it is irrefutable that the Riyadh ePrix promises to be another thing entirely. Instead of simply having to overlook an uncomfortably authoritarian backdrop or ignore human rights abuses, FE’s season opener will the first step in the whitewashing of a heinously brutal act.

In October, prominent Saudi critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered whilst visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Subsequent investigations have suggested that the agents involved in the assassination were not only state-sponsored but were directly ordered by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. In mid-November, the CIA reported that an intercepted phone call linked bin Salman with the killing. Following the assassination, the annual Saudi investment conference, typically known as “Davos in the desert”, saw an exodus of major global brands not wanting to be associated with the regime. Perhaps, under a more conscientious US administration, Khashoggi’s murder could have been the catalyst of a more concerted global diplomatic rebuke.

At the very least, Khashoggi’s death should have been the end of “Vision 2030”. It should have been the moment where global investors realised that the Saudi political thaw was only skin deep, that the young crown prince still had the vicious instincts of a dictator. And yet, FE is now about to play the headline act in Saudi Arabia’s reintegration into the global business community after October’s brutal ‘hiccup’. When asked in October about the effects of Khashoggi’s murder on the season opener, FE CEO Alejandro Agag told The Associated Press, “Referring to the incident, we obviously have no comment to make.

Naturally, political blinkers are sometimes necessary in order to bring sport to new audiences and new markets. In the case of FE’s socially responsible platform of sustainable mobility, that is arguably even more justified. However, the ‘head-in-sand’ strategy has its limits. Even F1 couldn’t countenance a trip to Bahrain in the midst of opposition crackdowns during the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011. The special dispensation given to the teams to run a female driver in the post-race test at least acknowledged less palatable Saudi themes, however, given the events of October, that is no longer enough.

Saudi Arabia announces 10-year deal with Formula E

Credit: FIA Formula E

FE has so much to be proud of going into the 2018-19 season. Faster, sexier cars, a brace of top-drawer new drivers and a newly improved viewing experience for the fans. However, when the inevitable grid walk interview comes with a senior member of the Saudi administration – perhaps even bin Salman himself – FE will have officially used its own credibility to kickstart the rehabilitation of Saudi Arabia’s wounded business portfolio. At a time where rational revamps are in short supply in motorsport, FE looks set to waste a perfectly good revolution on a particularly troublesome bout of liberal nausea.

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