Why Cape Town should be the mould for future Formula E venues

OPINION: It may have taken Formula E longer than planned to arrive in Cape Town, but it was worth the wait as stunning city scenery married with thrilling track action. There was also substance to the style at South Africa’s first world championship single-seater race in nearly 30 years, from which both venues and series can learn

Sacha Fenestraz, Nissan Formula E Team, Nissan e-4ORCE 04, leads Nick Cassidy, Envision Racing, Jaguar I-TYPE 6, Maximilian Gunther, Maserati MSG Racing, Maserati Tipo Folgore, Jean-Eric Vergne, DS Penske, DS E-Tense FE23, and the rest of the field on the opening lap

Once the morning haze had burned off, Cape Town’s scenery was suffused by a resplendent azure sky. A solitary puffball of cloud remained perched atop Table Mountain, a cotton-candy feast, while the sun gifted the waves at Mouille Point Beach with a glittering veil as they crashed onto the sand under the heavy coastal breeze.

Everyone in the paddock loved being in South Africa. Green Point and the adjacent Victoria & Albert Waterfront offered a near-perfect blend of natural landmarks and developed infrastructure, featuring restored and repurposed buildings hinting at the nation’s colonial past. Home driver Kelvin van der Linde reckoned that Cape Town’s hosting of a Formula E race was a “big deal” for South Africa, particularly as its last world championship single-seater race was nearly 30 years ago at Kyalami, when Alain Prost scooped the 1993 season-opening South African Grand Prix.

With the perennial rumours that Kyalami, the undulating and popular circuit on the outskirts of Johannesburg, is primed for a return to F1, Formula E managed to put its money where its mouth was and secure a race in the nation’s second-biggest city. That's no mean feat given that a street race in Cape Town has been mooted and rumoured since at least the time of Prost's win.

Initially primed for the 2021-22 season, the lingering effects of COVID hit Formula E’s initial plans for the Cape Town E-Prix and prompted a year’s delay. Then Cape Town did not appear on the initial release of the 2023 calendar; burned by the mismanagement of the planned 2022 race in Vancouver, Formula E CEO Jamie Reigle told Autosport that the championship was waiting for the final details to be tied up before the race would be confirmed. Given that Cape Town operated on a similar promoter-led model to Vancouver, it was an understandably cautious approach.

At the time, civil works were ongoing anyway, particularly as the narrow Fritz Sonnenberg Road needed to be widened to accommodate a field of Formula E cars. Once the circuit was confirmed for 2023 - at the same time as Seoul was chalked off owing to renovation works around the Jamsil Sports Complex - there was much anticipation for the fast and flowing layout around Green Point among the drivers.

Envision’s Nick Cassidy reckoned that it was exactly the sort of circuit that Formula E should be aiming to produce and, on the evidence of the race that unfolded, it’s hard to disagree. The layout was still tight, challenging, and characteristically very Formula E in nature, but it offered a different style of racing thanks to the amount of time spent running at high speeds. 

The Cape Town city street layout hides away in a stunning backdrop

The Cape Town city street layout hides away in a stunning backdrop

Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport Images

In so many forms of motorsport, particularly at circuits that aren’t fuel or energy critical, a driver can theoretically start building a lead early and march off into the distance. In Cape Town, as has been the case at other energy-sensitive Formula E circuits in the past, leading early was a considerable disadvantage as the slipstream was so valuable.

That’s not a dissimilar style of racing to a superspeedway race in NASCAR, where running in the pack until the very end is more worthwhile than heading it. Cassidy tried to make a break at the race’s halfway point, but a full-course yellow with about 10 laps to go reeled him back in and he was unable to use the attack mode he’d just collected.

The track rewarded bravery too, as per winner Antonio Felix da Costa’s two moves at the Turn 8 kink. Dispatching Cassidy around the outside to grab the inside line into Turn 9 was audacious enough, but deploying the same gambit on Jean-Eric Vergne on the penultimate lap garnered the plaudits he deserved. For everything that Cape Town offered, that the race will be defined by ‘that move’ is testament to its transcendency.

PLUS: The fumble that inadvertently aided da Costa in Formula E's Cape Town classic

It's become popular to criticise Formula E for its circuits, and many question why the series chooses not to race on permanent tracks. Brands Hatch is often cited as a candidate among the professional opinion-havers that occupy social media. But the last thing motorsport needs is homogeneity, and that’s something that Formula E has taken great pains to avoid – sometimes even to its own detriment. 

While there is a sense among the paddock that the Cape Town E-Prix overall was a wild success, questions remain if the race will carry on into next season. One would hope that it can, given that the drivers clearly loved being there and it offered an experience so unlike anything else on the calendar

Then there’s the great marketing spiel that racing purely on city tracks is a way of promoting the technology of electric vehicles around their target markets; in London, for example, the city’s mayor Sadiq Khan is accelerating plans to expand the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) around the capital to help improve air quality and cut pollution. Other mayors of the world’s biggest cities likely have the same concerns to juggle, and thus it makes sense to promote the EV in those areas.

In Formula E’s case, you’d likely have to concede that crowds would be nowhere near as big if it went to out-of-town circuits. Racing in a city does create a lot of limitations and red tape, and the defined course can only fit within the limits of the existing infrastructure. But Cape Town has proven that it’s possible to put together an excellent course within those confines, and it should hopefully serve as an example to other would-be hosts in how to define their track layouts.

Offer those in the paddock the choice to stay in one of the world’s most iconic cities, with the opportunity to explore it in their downtime, or race on a circuit in the middle of nowhere, and you could probably be guaranteed that they’d prefer the former. That a racing championship can go to cities like Cape Town, London, or Rome, and enjoy the existing infrastructure and local attractions, offers tangible benefits. It’s no secret that categories like F1 are trying to expand their growth to the inner-city circuits to take advantage of that.

The track layout was a hit with drivers and fans while it also brought out the best in Cape Town

The track layout was a hit with drivers and fans while it also brought out the best in Cape Town

Photo by: Alastair Staley / Motorsport Images

As for the organisation of the race itself, everything appeared to be in order. There were certainly the usual knock-on effects, particularly as traffic around Green Point was difficult with road closures. The controversial sponsorship of the race by beleaguered state energy company Eskom did not sit particularly well with locals either, given its ongoing load-shedding practices had worsened in recent days. South Africa still relies heavily on coal, but its power stations and generators are old and frequently fall into disrepair.

Thus, municipalities and Eskom had to devise times at which the power is shut off; South Africa has recently moved into Stage 6 of load-shedding, increasing the number of outages throughout the day to relieve pressure on the overall supply.

This did not affect Formula E itself as it brings its own biofuel generators to each race, although the championship’s title sponsor ABB had not long ago paid a $315m settlement having been found to have bribed Eskom over governmental contracts...

While there is a sense in the paddock that the Cape Town E-Prix overall was a wild success, questions remain over whether the race will carry on into next season. One would hope that it can, given that the drivers clearly loved being there and it offered an experience so unlike anything else on the calendar. Having covered Formula E for well over a year now, this was one of my personal favourites and up there with the experiences of going to report on races in New York, Seoul, and Berlin. If Formula E ever dabbled with the idea of going to circuits like Paul Ricard, which is notoriously lifeless and difficult to get to, it would lose one of its key selling points in a saturated market.

It was a great event for this writer on which to end his time covering Formula E. Almost all of the series' races and locations have been a joy to visit and report on, and getting to explore some of the biggest cities in the world either side of the race weekends has added something extra to the excitement of watching cars go fast. As a closet Americanophile, New York was easily my favourite of the bunch. But for all the reasons stated above, I think Cape Town’s just knocked Seoul 2022 out of second place.

Can Formula E make Cape Town a long-term race destination?

Can Formula E make Cape Town a long-term race destination?

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

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