Formula E is now almost watchable

I saw the first Formula E race of the 2018/19 season last weekend. I’ve watched parts of races in previous seasons, but it’s always felt unwatchable due to the limitations of the cars. The new Gen2 cars are a significant advance on the original ones as the battery life is sufficient to last the whole race (45 minutes, plus a lap). No more mid-race car changes. The cars are also significantly faster, with a claimed top speed of 174mph.

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Close racing is more likely than in Formula 1 as the cars are largely standard. However, as far as I can work out, the powertrains and software aren’t, leaving room for innovation. One innovation I’d love to see is a change to the noise that the cars make. They sound dreadful – like a drill with the wrong bit working its way through plastic. I assume that the annoying lift music used during replays is the broadcaster’s attempt to mask the sound.

Even with the new cars it’s a complicated and frustrating formula to watch. One gimmick – the so-called fan boost – gives a few seconds of additional power to five drivers. The fortunate five are selected by the viewers and to my mind this has no place in competitive motor sport. However, fan boost didn’t seem to give much advantage to the lucky drivers. F1 exile and fan boost beneficiary Stoffel Vandoorne demonstrated that he didn’t need a McLaren to run around at the back of the pack. Felipa Massa also suffered two retrospective penalties for using it incorrectly.

Other penalties (drive throughs – but not always) for technical infringements concerning energy use during the race were liberally applied and poorly explained to the viewer. There’s no question that these penalties affected the result of the race in Ad Diriyah, won eventually by Antonio Da Costa.

The other main gimmick – the attack zone – is better thought out and is a genuine test of a driver’s racecraft. By going off-line at one part of the track, the maximum power of the car is increased for four minutes. Drivers must go through the attack zone twice in a race, so timing is everything. One driver managed to lose a place while trying (but failing) to go through the zone; another activated it at the start of a safety car period.

Eurosport’s race presentation (using the FIAs world feed) was mostly dire, with the honourable exception of Dario Franchitti’s contributions. His co-commentator was generally poor. At one point he even seemed confused as to whether cars could pass each other under a yellow flag. Cameras often failed to follow the action and cut away just when something interesting was happening. The less said about Vernon Kay the better, but your mileage may vary I suppose.

The next race is on January 12th in Marrakesh. On balance I shall give Formula E another chance.