Formula E is holding two races in Rome this weekend. It’s one of the series’ best tracks and three years ago was one of its most-watched events.
There are ways to rebuild the brand and reward the teams that have stayed loyal to it. But it requires immediate action, spending and some brave choices.
There’s nothing wrong with the racing, which is better than ever. The field is probably the most competitive it’s ever been and the new ‘duels’ qualifying format has worked out fantastically, to produce really thrilling sessions.
Teams are operating at a higher level than in any prior year in the series and drivers are being forced to be really clever to succeed. Which is why it’s frustrating that its audiences remain disappointing – if the wheels had simply come off, it would be easier to understand.
As someone who works in Formula E, I am very keen to see it succeed. Not merely for myself and because otherwise I’m not sure what I’ll do for the rest of the year, but because it’s a series I love and genuinely believe in.
There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about FE’s own mythology but it’s a series providing things people actually want: good, fun racing and a bit of technological hope for the future. So how could arguably the FIA’s most environmentally-marketable series be losing ground so badly?
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Formula E’s problem is one F1 used to have: visibility. It’s hard to watch. Broadcast contracts do not guarantee the races are actually shown on television or even a consistent platform – the much-lauded Channel 4 deal frequently relegates it to YouTube, as it will for almost the whole of the Rome round with only Sunday’s race making it to the main channel live.
It has a less visible platform than W Series, with which it shares a broadcaster in the UK, making for useful comparisons. On the C4 Sport YouTube the 2022 Mexico Eprix stream has been watched by less than 44,000 UK viewers; W Series’ last race at COTA 58,000. When you consider that one is single-make junior series and the other is a world championship in which six manufacturers compete, it’s clear that something has gone wrong on Formula E’s part.
Formula E held 17 races last year and produced a title fight that went down to the final lap of the final race. It drew in 316 million viewers, which was a good recovery from the dire preceding season. Only 236 million watched Antonio Felix da Costa claim his title over the course of the Covid-struck 2020 campaign.
But both figures are disastrous backslides compared to the 2018-19 season, when FE hit 411 million. Why was the steady growth that Formula E had seen since its start reversed?
Yawning gaps in the calendar and a lack of promotion between events do not help. Since 2020 there have been two periods between seasons lasting more than six months. This weekend’s event comes six weeks since the last.
There might be no solution to the huge gaps in Formula E’s calendar. The realities of logistics – and particularly of arranging a calendar at street circuits in the post-Covid landscape – might simply be too hard to get around.
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To say that FE has been disproportionately affected by Covid compared to other series, is absolutely true and the championship has taken some hard blows as a result. Without question, most of the damage that FE is still experiencing was caused by more than half of the 2019-20 season being conducted behind closed doors during the six-race Berlin finale, before disappearing for nine months. Last year’s calendar was almost entirely double-header events with long gaps between them.
Those were choices made by the series, though, and it has to look to the future by rebuilding its audience. If Formula E could, at times, be accused of having over-marketed itself it seems that since 2020 it has been doing the opposite and steadily eroding its own profile.
A stark example is the timezone-defying fact that multiple sessions of the Rome Eprix take place at the same time Formula 1 cars are on-track in Australia, despite Melbourne being eight hours ahead of Rome and previous races having been held much later in the day.
Formula E has plenty of good things to say about itself right now, from the on-track action to an exciting calendar including new races in Jakarta and Seoul and the launch of its ‘Gen3’ car on April 28th. But it feels like it is hiding away from anyone being able to watch it.
The series needs to make itself visible again, with better-timed races, clear and informative promotion and by filling the calendar gaps with content that it has an almost unique amount of access to. FE has access to its extremely big brands: Porsche, which F1 hopes is on the verge of committing to its series, won their first single seater race since 1989 last time out in Mexico and I still feel like no one knows. It has many highly marketable drivers, all of whom want to make the series work.
Although FE’s last two attempts at a behind-the-scenes documentary ended up released almost without fanfare after long delays, it should be able to put together plenty of content during and after race weekends – historically, it always did.
As the races have been confined to Channel 4’s Sport-specific YouTube channel, it feels like FE has almost given up making content for its own. While there is some helpful, explanatory stuff going up, if an FE diehard like me is not getting it algorithmically put in front of them, there’s not very much hope of anyone else knowing about it.
Since FE removed all its past races from its channel (which had been a really helpful resource for such a young series’ audience) it feels like it’s disappeared. Anyone who’s worked in digital content can tell you the only answer to that is to pay YouTube’s visibility ransom with some ad spending.
FE first built an audience when it was a far harder sell than it is today. The need to change cars mid-race is best forgotten and the early issues of getting to grips with electric racing made it more difficult for fans to take it seriously. But the series’ skill always seemed to be in being able to work with what it had.
To rebuild an audience, it needs to get back to that by serving up what people want (informative, clear content and, yes, jokes) and making sure that they see it. The past years have seen the spending go on influencer campaigns and strange horse-stealing CGI promo videos when really all Formula E needs to do is make sure people know about it via investing in and promoting its own channels – and making the races easy to watch.
The pandemic has, undeniably, hit FE very hard. But it needs to pick itself back up and start working with what it has, return to the core values of the series – environmentalism, innovation, exciting racing – rather than branding like the ‘#PositivelyCharged’ campaign that even I had to look up to write about.
It feels brutal to say this, but after nine years of covering Formula E I’d always felt confident that, despite the haters, there really was a fanbase and audience for the series and I can’t say I’m that confident about that, now.
The races in Rome will, no doubt, be excellent: It’s a big, technical track and the Gen2 cars produced extremely close racing. If tired F1 fans manage to find the coverage after the Australian Grand Prix I have no doubt they’ll find it was worth staying up for. Hopefully some of them do.
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