How Formula E helped change motorsport

The all-electric single-seater series has been a remarkable pioneer since it began in 2014. Its sustainability message has extended across the motorsport industry, leading several series to follow suit in electrifying, while also breaking out beyond the racing world into the vehicles we'll be able to buy for the road...

How Formula E helped change motorsport

Motorsport has undergone considerable change within the past decade. Cars powered purely by petrol-guzzling internal combustion engines are becoming more of a rarity as hybrids and electric power become more commonplace. The world is becoming more aware of the damage that civilised society is doing to the environment, and racing championships are more eager to become part of the solution, rather than the problem.

When Formula E kicked off its first championship season in 2014, it coincided with a growing mainstream appreciation of electric mobility. In the meantime, Formula 1 was coming to the end of its first season with hybrid powertrains, but Formula E offered automakers the scope to be involved in the world’s first all-electric racing championship.

Now, as teams are not only involved in the development of their racing hardware but also squeeze more efficiency and performance out of it via the software it runs on, the series has not only become more relevant to manufacturers, but it has also spawned several electric racing championships.

Furthermore, through the involvement of sponsors and partners, Formula E isn’t simply changing attitudes within motorsport. The reach of its message of sustainability and alternative propulsion systems is transcending the motorsport and automotive sectors and finding use in other industries too.

At the start of Formula E’s life, it’s probably fair to say that many of the drivers populating motorsport weren’t as open-minded as they are now; the growth of the championship has begun to change attitudes to electric mobility, both inside and outside the series. Now, many of the drivers are huge advocates for not only increased EV use, but also have interests in sustainability and innovation.

Nico Rosberg, the 2016 F1 world champion, is one such driver. Although he’s never raced in Formula E, he showcased the Gen2 car at the 2018 Berlin E-Prix and has a number of key investments in sustainable mobility, technology and business. He’s also started his own racing team, RXR, which competes in electric rally-raid series Extreme E – another of Formula E founder Alejandro Agag’s e-mobility racing projects.

“I have always been interested in the technological developments and progress within mobility and the automotive sector,” says Rosberg. “After all, this is my home turf and motorsport plays a massive part in advancing technologies for road cars.

Rosberg has invested in Formula E and says its had a transformative impact

Rosberg has invested in Formula E and says its had a transformative impact

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

“After my active career as a driver ended, I began investing in sustainable mobility start-ups and founded the Greentech Festival, which is a global platform for sustainable products, technologies and ideas. I think we have made a lot of progress in mobility and there is definitely more to come over the next years.”

Rosberg explains that the image of Formula E, and the manner in which it has been able to aid the transformation of an electric car’s image from an unfashionable and range-shy mode of transportation to something considerably more desirable, has converted the more ‘traditional’ motorsports fans.

Of course, there will be a portion of the motorsport fanbase that will never be truly sold on the lack of noise or smell associated with Formula E’s racing product, but Rosberg says some of the more old-school fans and drivers are developing a keen interest – including his father, 1982 F1 champion Keke Rosberg – while the newer fans fit into a more modern and forward-looking demographic.

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“It led the way into a new future,” Rosberg says. “In the beginning, many people felt electric racing was odd, especially those that had been following F1 and considered themselves more ‘traditional’ petrolheads, such as my dad. But even he quickly came to the conclusion that electric racing is super-cool – and now he’s the biggest fan of Formula E!

"Formula E helped make sustainability ‘cool’ by bringing the racing action directly to the city centres and reaching a young, urban and modern target group" Nico Rosberg

“Formula E helped make sustainability ‘cool’ by bringing the racing action directly to the city centres and reaching a young, urban and modern target group. It also introduced new ways of interaction, with virtual reality or with Fanboost. I think FE fans are more likely to buy an electric car. These people are also more environmentally conscious and hopefully make more sustainable lifestyle choices outside of mobility.”

Sustainability is becoming a greater area of focus across motorsport, and it’s largely been down to the electric disciplines to portray that message. To expand and encourage greater attention to sustainability, the FIA – motorsport’s governing body – has introduced its Environmental Accreditation Programme to encourage stakeholders, championships and teams to improve their working practices and manage their impact on the environment.

This is an achievement that multiple Formula E squads have attained, and teams such as Envision Racing, for example, have gone further, becoming officially recognised as a carbon-neutral and net-zero entity. The British operation has also partnered with COP26 to promote cleaner mobility, a field becoming particularly prominent as multiple worldwide governments make pledges to decarbonise transport options and attempt to slowly phase out vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

FE squad Envision has been recognised as a carbon neutral and net zero entity

FE squad Envision has been recognised as a carbon neutral and net zero entity

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

The future of mobility

Many of the world’s governments, biggest cities and global businesses recently signed the COP26 declaration stating “as governments, we will work towards all sales of new cars and vans being zero emission by 2040 or earlier, or by no later than 2035 in leading markets”.

This is slightly complicated by the emergence of e-fuels in the market, as the world tries to end its reliance upon burning fossil fuels for energy. Rosberg says that the two can co-exist, especially in emerging markets where the infrastructure may not be in place for a wholly electric approach.

“Many regions in the world still rely on internal combustion engines and they will continue to do so due to the lack of EV infrastructure there,” Rosberg explains. “We therefore need a double approach with our technologies. There is a need to go electric in regions where it is possible, such as western Europe, and develop e-fuel solutions for the existing ICE cars elsewhere.

“I think [sustainability] is becoming an expected standard. We already see that customers and partners are expecting a sustainable approach from businesses, and there are certain shared values across the market that are no longer up for discussion. This is a good thing.

“The market will no longer excuse environmental damage as it did in the past. What we have to aim for is creating shared standards across different markets so that there is no way for companies to find loopholes elsewhere.”

For the next decade and beyond, the proportion of hybrid and battery-electric vehicles will continue to rise. Nearly every automotive manufacturer has at least one electric vehicle in its range, and many have ambitious targets to expand their product ranges even further. Nissan, for example, has stated its ambition to ensure that half of its full range of cars will be EVs by 2030, making a pledge of full carbon-neutrality by 2050, and aiming to use its racing team to underpin its efforts in electric mobility.

PLUS: Why Nissan's e.dams buyout signifies its Formula E victory intent

“Formula E also gives us an opportunity to create more awareness of our electrification,” says Nissan COO Ashwani Gupta. “Some of the technologies which we have in Ariya [Nissan’s battery-electric crossover SUV] reflect from what we learned in Formula E. So it’s definitely moving forwards, and Formula E is going to contribute more and more towards marketing awareness of electrification.”

Nissan has bought out the team originally co-owned by the French DAMS outfit in a clear demonstration of its commitment

Nissan has bought out the team originally co-owned by the French DAMS outfit in a clear demonstration of its commitment

Photo by: Andreas Beil

As Formula E helps to further electric technology, F1 has plans to introduce sustainable and synthetic fuels for use in its hybrid powertrains from 2026 as part of plans to become a carbon-neutral category. For a championship frequently derided as an excuse to pollute the environment by burning fuel, F1 has dramatically elected to change course. After all, it cannot ignore the prevailing trends of the market and, to tempt more manufacturers to join, it needed the allure of a ruleset that promises to hold lots of opportunity for automotive concerns to develop their products to trickle down into their consumer products.

Beyond that, there’s also the continued interest in hydrogen-electric power, which is slowly gaining a foothold in endurance racing. The H24 prototype car has completed demonstration runs at Le Mans, and there are plans to introduce a hydrogen fuel-cell class at the 2025 edition of the race, with the chassis due to be a collaboration between Red Bull Technologies and ORECA.

The biggest draw for a hydrogen-powered car is that it produces no emissions other than water. A hydrogen fuel cell takes hydrogen molecules and breaks them down into hydrogen ions and electrons. The electrons then generate the current required to develop an electrical charge, which can be stored by the car’s onboard batteries. The hydrogen ions then recombine with the electrons and with oxygen to create water as its sole byproduct.

"I believe in the next 10 years, there will be another incredible evolution that we’ll be able to put on our vehicles and vessels" Rodi Basso

This is already being used in a motorsport setting. AFC Energy produces external hydrogen fuel-cell chargers to power the Odyssey 21 cars used in Extreme E. AFC creates the hydrogen gas from solar-powered electrolysers, stores it in low-pressure cylinders, and then ensures it is ready to use for the teams to charge their cars. It’s not quite as direct as simply pumping hydrogen into the tank of a car, but it does live up to the promise of supplying the XE cars with zero-emission energy. But that’s on a small-scale application.

PLUS: How Extreme E's charging solution could transform motorsport

Breaking hydrogen out of compounds and storing it as a gas is an expensive and energy-intensive pursuit – and on larger-scale applications, the energy expended in breaking hydrogen out of water via electrolysis simply kicks the emissions can further down the road. It remains a desirable fuel, but progress on making hydrogen fuel cells a viable solution worldwide has been considerably more glacial compared to the battery-electric car.

How will motorsport continue to pursue sustainability?

To carry Formula E’s hopes over the next few years, the championship has worked with the FIA to ensure that its fleet of new cars can withstand the test of time by pursuing ambitious sustainability targets for the Gen3 machines.

Many of the advances wrapped up within the new car are technologies that have been in the offing for a while, but have not had the exposure of being involved in an international racing category – at least, until now. The bodywork features natural fibres such as linen in the composite lay-up process, and also features recycled carbonfibre to reduce the quantity of new materials used.

Formula E's approach of racing in cities has brought EV technology directly to consumers

Formula E's approach of racing in cities has brought EV technology directly to consumers

Photo by: Andreas Beil

Using natural weaves such as linen, flax and hemp ensures that less energy is consumed in the processing of carbonfibres, and their use is becoming more widespread through manufacturers such as Bcomp, whose natural composite structures have applications in the automotive, motorsport and marine sectors. Formula E’s new tyres from Hankook also feature 26% natural fibres and rubbers in their construction, improving the quantity of sustainably sourced materials within the car.

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Beyond that, the electric revolution in motorsport is beginning to find a path offshore too; Agag and ex-Ferrari and Red Bull engineer Rodi Basso linked up to create the E1 powerboat series, with Basso’s experience of the engineering and motorsport industries coming into play to festoon the RaceBird powerboats with various smart materials and technology. Like Formula E, the E1 Series also has a battery with recyclable components, and Basso explains that the technology involved in producing the batteries will continue to change the landscape in all forms of mobility.

“We have a 100% recyclable battery – compare that to 10 years ago, where you couldn’t recycle anything about the battery,” says Basso. “This tells a lot how much old investments focused and funnelled towards the education process are delivering a huge step forward in the technology. And I believe in the next 10 years, there will be another incredible evolution that we’ll be able to put on our vehicles and vessels.”

With Formula E already looking at a Gen4 package, there are many more directions for the world of e-mobility to take, although it remains to be seen whether that involves alternate drive systems or battery development, since talks are at an early stage. Regardless, as the motorsport collective drives towards a more sustainable future, Formula E will want to remain as one of the key forces behind it.

Formula E's new Gen3 car will be its most sustainable yet

Formula E's new Gen3 car will be its most sustainable yet

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

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