‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ is the decades-old adage trotted out by marketing types whenever they are called upon by number-crunchers in suits to justify the relationship between motorsport and car sales. ‘Racing improves the breed’ is the engineering equivalent, and when tabled in unison the two slogans provide powerful boardroom ammunition in support of a motorsport programme.
For the rest it is fundamentally a numbers game, one of return on investment – and it follows that the lower the costs of entry and competing and the more relevant the regulations, the better the ROI – while a global spread of events provides further appeal.
As the world has become increasingly environmentally and ecologically aware so motorsport’s regulations have been adapted, with every major series incorporating or planning to soon adopt some ‘green’ element or other, whether that be full electric, hybrid, e-fuels, bio-fuels or another form of alternative energy such as hydrogen – with the latter able to power internal combustion engines or charge fuel cells.
Discussing the subject at the FIA’s recent annual member club conference in Monte Carlo, secretary-general for sport Peter Bayer runs out of fingers as he lists the number of potential options: fossil- or synthetic-fuelled spark, compression or rotary ICEs; ditto with hybrid elements and/or powered by hydrogen or compressed natural gas; and purely electric motors, in turn energised by one of three variants, namely battery, hydrogen fuel cell, or range-extended batteries charged by any of the ICE types listed above.
That potentially makes for ten basic power unit alternatives, each with at least one sub-option. It is, as Bayer freely admitted, “a power unit jungle out there”, with none of the options providing a universal solution, whether for sporting, transportation or commuter applications.
All of the above should surely make Formula E is a prime target for motor manufacturers, for not only are the costs of entry substantially lower than those of F1, but its raison d’être is to provide a ‘green’ global alternative to the FIA’s premier series. The fact FE ticked the various boxes was underscored by the influx of manufacturers the series has attracted during its short life.
Having started in 2014, FE morphed into a full world championship, theoretically equal in status to F1, WEC and WRC for its most recent season. Since then, it has attracted ‘works’ entries from, in alphabetical order Audi, BMW, DS (Citroen), Jaguar, Mahindra, Mercedes, Nissan, Porsche, Renault plus a number of emerging brands.
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That is a seriously impressive rollcall for a series so young even if Nissan replaced fellow alliance brand Renault and Mahindra is hardly a fully global brand. More impressive is the number of premium brands, all of whom have F1 pedigrees, or have been linked to the series. Indeed, Mercedes ran its Formula E programme in parallel with its F1 campaign, and not only won the former with Nyck de Vries, but currently leads the latter.
So much for the good news; now for the bad: Audi and BMW previously gave notice of their exits in late 2020, while Mercedes failed to commit ahead of winning the inaugural world championship, and last week confirmed it will leave at the end of next season.
Audi canned its operation after failing to find takers although the former BMW team will continue as Andretti, which effectively ran the operation on behalf of the Munich-based manufacturer. But, with all due respects to the USA’s first racing family, their surname does not have quite the same ring to it as the company which once sold its cars under the ‘Sheer Driving Pleasure’ strapline.
As for the Mercedes EQ team, various alternatives are currently being explored although it is not inconceivable that it follows the same fate as Audi. The knock-on effects are significant, too: The massed departure of three premium German sporty brands had made potential entrants nervous about committing. McLaren, which has expanded to other categories including FE’s off-road spin-off Extreme E, is a prime example.
“On Formula E, we are looking to see how it continues to develop,” McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown told RaceFans even before Mercedes confirmed its exit. “Obviously, with Audi and BMW leaving it’s a bit of a concern. We’re not quite sure what Mercedes is going to do and when we make a decision, ‘is it commercially viable?’ We’re still looking at that…”
Motor manufacturers come and go in line with their constantly shifting marketing objectives, so the exit of one of the trio was inevitable. However, why have no fewer than three premium brands, all fully committed to their respective electric vehicle sub-brands – e-Tron (Audi), i (BMW) and EQ (Mercedes) – departed a world championship that on the surface ticks all boxes: environmentally, financially, globally and technologically?
For starters, accountants get jittery when their brand competes in a packed manufacturer field for it follows that one of their number will finish behind the rest despite the tens of millions being thrown at the programme. Worse, odds are strong that some or other privateer team will beat a ‘works’ entry – as happened this season past, when Envision Virgin Racing finished ahead of BMW and Venturi out-ranked Porsche…
Then there is the question of finances: F1 distributes a portion of its income to competing teams as prize monies based on overall performance, in turn off-setting team operating costs. While direct comparisons between the two championships are meaningless, the average amount distributed to F1 teams from this year amounts to roughly half their $145m (capped) spend. That goes a long way towards keeping the bean-counters onside.
During an exclusive interview with FE founder and then-CEO (now chairman) Alejandro Agag in January 2019 he acknowledged the need for a strong independent team base to step into the breach should one or more manufacturers leave, which in turn raised the next question: At which point does Formula E start sharing revenues with teams?
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“I know the system, and so on and so forth,” replied Agag, who owned the 2011 GP2 championship-winning team Addax and was a potential F1 entrant at one stage. “I can see it from both sides of the fence. Here, what you have to do is apply common sense. We’ve invested a big amount of effort, but cash funds this venture.
“What makes sense is that first we recover our investment, then we make some profit from our investment, and then we start the conversation with the teams on how we’re going to do [any] distribution.”
However, RaceFans understands that little, if any, progress has been made in this regard since.
Finally, there is the question of technology and the road relevance of FE’s hardware. Here BMW’s statement at the time of giving notice is particularly telling for the company implied that it could learn no more from its FE campaign, so restrictive are the regulations – predominantly to reduce costs by standardising chassis and battery packs.
“As a partner from the word ‘go’, BMW has been instrumental in the success story of Formula E,” the company said in its December 2020 statement, which followed hot on the heels of Audi’s withdrawal announcement.
“However, when it comes to the development of e-drivetrains, BMW Group has essentially exhausted the opportunities for this form of technology transfer in the competitive environment of Formula E.”
The alternative is for FE to open up battery development, but that is sure to result in burgeoning budgets. Yet FE plans to cap costs. “In partnership with the FIA, we will introduce financial regulations to enhance the financial sustainability for Formula E’s teams and manufacturers, ensuring our sport continues to serve as the driving force in the shift to electric mobility,” said FE CEO Jamie Reigle in the wake of Mercedes’ exit.
The problem is that battery technology is developing at a ferocious pace and potentially overtaking FE. Dr Burkhard Goeschel, president of the FIA Manufacturers Commission, former technical head of BMW and long-standing alternate energy proponent predicts that solid state batteries will be the next big thing across the industry.
The primary difference between the two is that Li-ion uses liquid electrolytic solutions to regulate current flow, while solid-state cells, which pack up to thrice the energy density, rely on solid electrolytes. These are also less combustible and rely on less toxic materials. Although they present manufacturing and scaling challenges, ongoing research could resolve these sooner rather than later.
Porsche CEO Oliver Blume has called the battery cell “tomorrow’s combustion chamber”. The implication is clear: Far from being just an add-in commodity, battery cells are as much a performance differentiator as the combustion engine ever was.
At VW Group’s recent Power Day, the company said it was developing three main cathode chemistries. These are Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) for use in its entry level (non-performance) ranges, high manganese for volume models and high nickel for premium and high-performance solutions, such as its Audi, Porsche and Lamborghini brands.
According to Automotive News, Tesla has similar plans to the above, with the strategies announced during Renault’s eWays ElectroPop event in June; at the Stellantis’ EV Day in July; and with Daimler’s EV July strategy announcement all being largely in line. Who needs FE with its prescriptive battery packs when such impressive technologies are being developed away from the circuit?
While paddock innuendo at the time linked Audi’s exit to notional internal VW policies that prevent sister brands from competing against each other – suggesting Porsche was mandated to remain in FE – the opposite applies: the two brands are aggressive market competitors; thus squaring up on-track serves to improve their combined brand images over the external competition. Plus, they may eventually go head-to-head in F1…
However, where BMW has basically dropped out of top-level motorsport – it simultaneously withdrew from WEC – Audi has replaced FE with two ambitious programmes: LMDh, which enables the Four Rings to compete both at Le Mans and in the USA’s IMSA series with fundamentally the same car, and a ‘range-extender’ Dakar programme.
The latter is particularly intriguing: the Audi RS Q e-Tron combines a 600bhp ex-DTM internal combustion engine with an FE-derived motor-generator, which in turn charges 52kWh batteries that power two 335bhp FE electric motors. Thus, the car can complete stages without regular charging although the plan is for overnight charging via auxiliary generators. Range extenders could race at Le Mans: A project combining a Mazda rotary running at constant speed to charge batteries has been rumoured.
In announcing his company’s withdrawal from FE, Marcus Schaefer, the Mercedes board member for research and development, said “Formula E has been a good driver for proving our expertise and establishing our Mercedes EQ brand, but in future we will keep pushing technological progress – especially on the electric drive side – focusing on Formula 1.
“It is the arena where we constantly test our technology in the most intense competition the automotive world has to offer – and the three-pointed star hardly shines brighter anywhere else. F1 offers rich potential for technology transfer.”
The implications are obvious and introduce a neat twist: While FE loses manufacturers due to its restrictive technologies, Alfa Romeo, Alpine/Renault and Mercedes have reaffirmed their commitments to F1 despite corporate plans to go the all-electric route for future product ranges. These manufacturers clearly believe F1’s hybrid tech could play a pivotal role in accelerating battery development, thus serving hybrids and EVs.
Crucially, they chose to do so despite F1’s freeze on power unit development until (at least) the end of 2024, more likely a year later. This suggests F1’s regulations are less restrictive even when ‘frozen’ and permit greater development of technologies – and once its incoming new engine formula are in place, which make provision for up to 300kW in recovered energy, this applies all the more.
Just when it seemed FE had the brighter future of the two the tables have turned rather quickly, with the advantage now seemingly resting with F1, which is currently gearing up for that new ‘hyper hybrid’ era which could conceivably include Audi or Porsche – perhaps even both.
Such inter-formula rivalry, though, benefits all of motorsport and ultimately provides the road car relevance that sells on Mondays. FE will need to evolve to remain pertinent – a status that faded as costs and technologies overtook this once-pioneering series and reduced its ROI – and will be all the stronger as a result. Racing truly does improve the breed.
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