Sustainability, artificial intelligence and a lost race: How Formula E must turn questions into progression in 2024

Starting a new season in Mexico City is different. It’s different, that is, to a lot of the rest of the Formula E calendar: a purpose-built motor sport arena, a sold-out crowd of motor sport fanatics, a much higher altitude and the sheer size of the operation compared to a lot of the street races around Europe in particular.

It’s impressive, a spectacle in every sense, along with that exciting feeling of newness and opportunity that the opening weekend of any sporting championship carries.

Sat at the famous racing circuit, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, listening to CEO Jeff Dodds discuss new commercial deals being arranged in the off-season and with co-founder Alberto Longo speaking about the next decade being a chase to move from being the fourth-biggest motorsport championship towards the top two, a positive picture is certainly painted regarding the future of the all-electric racing championship.

And it should be: despite some frankly bizarre alterations of policy from some national governments and a slowing purchase rate of commercial EVs globally, vehicle electrification is unquestionably the future. Too much has already been put into infrastructure and development, by countries and manufacturers alike, for it to be anything else.

Yet among those positives and obvious opportunities also lie questions, even problems at times which must be overcome across the course of this year to truly show Formula E is on track, so to speak, for eventual…well, if not dominance, then certainly dominion of its own realm. A lost race in 2024, with Hyderabad, India now off the calendar at the last moment is hardly an ideal start – aside from anything else, it robs them of the winter-long tagline of 2024 being FE’s biggest ever season. It’s not any longer, being back down to 16 races.

Dodds, meanwhile, referred to a 17% rise in FE viewership year-on-year, clearly a positive. But having served in senior roles at enormous commercial enterprises such as Virgin, Callaway and Honda, he’ll also know that slowing growth – especially in relatively young ventures – is rarely taken as a good thing, and FE’s growth a year earlier was 20%. Still bigger, then, still trending the right way, but compounded annual growth notably dropped last year. That must be reversed.

However, there are also new avenues to explore for Formula E which have clearly made an impression elsewhere.

“We haven’t exposed our product through global platforms to an audience beyond motorsport. We’re excited to do that through new media channels,” Dodds said, referencing Nascar’s Netflix series as an example. “We have aggressive growth plans but at the same token, we must continue to meet our science-based targets to reduce core emissions.”

Reducing emissions remains a key tenet of FE. Sustainability director Julia Palle referred to the old adage of “racing with a reason” ahead of the season opener; FE was a sport championship born with a purpose, to aid the increase of electrification of vehicles.

Sustainability is therefore baked into everything they do, and topping the Sustainable Championship Index once more this year shows the progress made. But again, the matter of sustainability within sport always comes with questions of its own. The most common from critics, or from those with apathy toward the series, being of transport. Sending cars around the globe versus not sending them around the globe is an increase in emissions and in energy use, the easy-but-dubious contrarian line says.

Formula E in Sao Paulo, 2023 – no emissions from the cars but critics question the overall transport cost

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In response, one answer previously set forth by those within FE is that cities benefit from a race’s presence: not just financially with tens of thousands of spectators, but also because lasting partnerships are created and education provided which show how to reduce city-wide emissions on a much longer-term basis than merely one weekend. Supply lines and product end-of-lifespan uses can be altered to further enhance the all-round circular economy of reducing emissions.

More specifically to the direct question of shipping, Palle revealed all cars brought to Mexico on sea freight are powered by biofuels, with the entire weekend – music festival, TV production, car charging and so on – entirely fuelled by renewable energy.

Alongside Palle and Dodds, Longo similarly pushed the message of continuous progression, delving into the long-awaited potential for quick-charge pit stops, the possibility of a combined weekend with MotoE – electric motor bike racing – and a wide-ranging feasibility study involving 16 potential locations, which ultimately saw the race in Italy moved from Rome to Misano.

Obstacles remain, always will do in any global operation in truth. Formula E’s ecosystem has to continue to show the resilience and innovation to overcome them.

The teams themselves – inherently part of commercial groups – largely buy into this approach of constant development: some in large steps, some in continuous incremental ones; sometimes regarding on-track performance, other times focused on sustainability, brand awareness or financial success.

Nyck de Vries is back in Formula E with Mahindra

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Even in the lead-up to this race, this season, that’s evident throughout the grid. Of course the intention is always for improvement but sometimes the effect can ultimately prove detrimental. Porsche, for example, have spent the off-season heavily focused on improvements in qualifying, a weak point of theirs last term. Mahindra have revamped their entire driving lineup. Then on a different plane, there’s Nissan partnering with Coral to promote carbon neutrality and offset their own emissions, Envision collaborating with Superdry on a sustainable clothing range and Maserati focused on increasing their own global audience through a “beast” commercial car launch alongside their FE vehicle.

And, there’s Mahindra’s ill-fated attempt to create an artificial intelligence persona to promote the team for Season 10. That has been canned after a social media backlash, but if the execution was clumsy or containing not enough thought and quickly rowed back on, team boss Fred Bertrand retains a clear vision for improvement for the team finishing tenth of 11 last season.

Nyck de Vries and Edo Mortara are in as an all-new driver lineup, both with real success in their past but having had different, but disappointing, years in 2023.

And Bertrand told the Independent repeatedly of an organisation-wide intent to have a mindset not just of waiting out this year until a mid-term car upgrade in 2025, but of making the most of every weekend to produce small improvements, to “remain motivated, create different targets and keep preparing for the future.”

This is where Formula E’s focus as a whole is, this is where their place in sporting importance or even relevance will be forged: the future.

There are problems to overcome and always will be, but the championship’s biggest selling point might just remain that most of the world – whether they have yet faced up to it or not – also face similar challenges. FE led the way in confronting those issues through sport a decade ago, and there’s little reason to suspect that another ten years from now they won’t be even more important as a leader in the field.


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