The ABB FIA Formula E Championship begins its fifth season December 15 in Ad Diriyah, Saudi Arabia. GreenSportsBlog digs into the key sustainability advances the open wheel, all-electric vehicle (EV) series made during the off-season, as well as the challenges of doing business in Saudi Arabia in the current political climate.
Did you know that, for each of its first four seasons, Formula E drivers had to swap cars during the race? That’s because the range per charge on the cars was not sufficient to finish a 50-minute race.
That changes with the start of season five this weekend — as a new era of electric racing begins with Formula E’s breakthrough Gen2 cars.
“Technological improvements on EV battery range will allow each driver to drive only one car per race,” said Julia Pallé, Formula E’s senior sustainability consultant. “Less ‘range anxiety’ is a big thing for Formula E drivers and EV drivers out on the open road.”
Julia Pallé, Senior Sustainability Consultant for Formula E (Photo credit: Formula E)
From reductions in team expenses and carbon emissions to smoother flowing races, the benefits of one car-per-race are clear for Formula E.
“Our drivers tested the new cars in October in Valencia, Spain,” shared Pallé. “They were super excited. Only one car was needed, and the new cars — with Spark chassis — a battery with double the storage capacity and also were faster. And they also draw comparisons to the Batmobile!”
The new Formula E Gen2 car. Its longer range battery will allow racers to drive only one car per race (Photo credit: Formula E/LAT)
Also new to Formula E’s fifth season will be the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY, which will be a kind of a sidebar series on Formula E tracks. In addition to the open wheel EV races, each Formula E weekend will now feature a race with production car EVs that anyone can drive on the open road. Think adding a stock car race to an IndyCar race on the same weekend and you’ve got the gist. “We’re confident fans will like the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY series,” shared Pallé. “The racers will be driving EVs that the fans can imagine driving themselves.”
Jaguar iPACE cars will compete for Formula E’s eTROPHY (Photo credit: Top Car Rating)
Fomula E’s fifth season begins in the unlikely locale Ad Diriyah, near the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Going to Saudi Arabia holds both opportunities and risks for Formula E.
OPPORTUNITIES: ON THE ENVIRONMENT AND WOMEN’S RIGHTS
Pallé sees the planting of the Formula E flag in Ad Diriyah as an important step towards building an EV infrastructure in an area that is looking to diversify and modernize its economy: “Formula E wants to help open and build the EV market in the Middle East and Africa. The effects of climate change are already being felt at disastrous levels in those regions and so accelerating the transition to EVs is crucial. That’s one big reason we’re opening the season in Riyadh and it’s also why we will be racing in Marrakech, Morocco for the third year in a row this season.”
On another front — gender equality — many elements of Saudi society have been closed off to women. Things that women in most of the rest of the world take for granted — like driving, for example — have been off limits until only recently.
The Saudi government, now under the rule of the young and controversial Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), showed recently that it wants to move from the 19th to the 20th century by extending the right to drive to women. Formula E is looking to accelerate and normalize this new way of living on the Arabian Peninsula. “Many of our teams will have a female driver on our last day of driving in Ad Diriyah,” Pallé shared. “We have a ten-year contract with Riyadh and expect the role of women to increase in our races there going forward.”
Formula E comes to Saudi Arabia in advance of its races in Ad Diriyah this weekend. From left, Alejandro Agag – Founder & CEO of Formula E, Susie Wolff – Team Principal of VENTURI Formula E Team, Felipe Massa – VENTURI Formula E Team driver, His Excellency Eng. Saleh bin Naser Al-Jasser, Director General of Saudi Arabian Airlines and Andre Lotterer – DS TECHEETAH driver (Photo credit: Formula E/LAT)
RISKS: KHASHOGGI AND YEMEN
Despite women being allowed behind the wheel and other advances, doing business with and in Saudi Arabia in 2018-19 is a challenge for any brand, Formula E included.
The brutal murder of Washington Post columnist, U.S. resident and MBS critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey in early October certainly has made things more difficult.
And that is on top of the Saudi regime’s three-plus year bombing campaign — supported by the USA, France, Great Britain and eight other Sunni muslim states — in support of the government of neighboring Yemen in its civil war against Houthi rebels, backed at least in part by Iran. Yemen is now the world’s most calamitous humanitarian crisis. According to the United Nations, from March 2015 to December 2017, over 13,000 people have been killed with estimates of an additional 50,000 dead as a result of civil war-related famine.
On the one hand, Formula E, by its presence in Saudi Arabia, can be accused of supporting the Kingdom’s actions. On the other, if they decided not to go to Ad Diriyah, that could slow down the gender equality reform portion of the complex Saudi story. Formula E, at least for now, believes that engaging with the Saudi government and, even more so, the Saudi people, is the way to go.
“We are focused on what we can influence — the opening up of Saudi Arabia from sustainability, EV, and mass participation points of view,” responded Pallé.
A Saudi woman is all smiles after a driving lesson in Jeddah in March (Photo credit: Amer Hilabi / AFP)
The plan is for Formula E to race in Ad Diriyah for at least ten years. They will work with race organizers on the ground to help the event earn ISO certification, the standard for sustainable events.
After leaving Saudi Arabia, Formula E’s season will feature 11 more race weekends, concluding in Brooklyn, New York on July 13-14.
GSB’s Take: Kudos to Formula E for an innovative off-season. Starting the new campaign with drivers only needing to use one vehicle per race due to increased battery efficiency is a big deal. So is the launch of Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY series, featuring EV sedans that fans could imagine driving themselves.
Launching its fifth season in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia holds reputational risks for Formula E, given the violence being fomented by the Saudi government and Crown Prince MBS on both micro and macro levels. If I had a vote, I would let the powers that be in Saudi Arabia know that Formula E will not be back in 2020 if the bombing in Yemen continues.