Down Memory Lane: How 2017 New York Eprix Got Me Hooked On Formula E

Two years ago, slightly over a month to the date, I chanced upon my first Formula E race: the 2017 New York eprix. Needless to add, I have been hooked since then. If there’s a sport that captures the imagination of this blog, it has to be Formula E. Often they say: “You are what you do with your free time.” Extending this logic to the desire of a sustainable future, the sports industry in the 21st century will have to be something along the lines of auto sport’s latest offering – Formula E.

Saturday night East African time, it was when I watched my first ever Formula E city race. The 2017 New York City ePrix was the first ever motorsports race to take place within the five boroughs of New York City in modern history. That night, Sir Richard Branson owned, DS Virgin Racing, team stole the show. Yes, Sir Richard Branson, clean techie epitome, he who back in 2006 pledged $3 billion over ten years for investment in sustainability initiatives. If ever there was a more fitting conclusion to an evening of high octane racing, I’m yet to hear of one.

A Chance Encounter

I remember that Saturday night vividly. It as one of those rare nights that one achieves success in lying, bribing and switching off the mobile just for some chill. Those once in a quarter nights when it suddenly occurs that it might actually be a good idea, to at least turn the TV on and flip through channels like in the old days. After all, the satellite TV subscription is paid in the rent; so why not enjoy the ‘frills’ of that uptown address for once?

And so I did. An old – I insist, old not classic – movie here. A sorry crime TV series there and plenty of Nollywood channels. I was almost resigning to fate when I chance upon this motorsport event. It’s a live broadcast and I quickly conclude that anything live is always the deal. As I took in what was before me, trying to make a quick conclusion if it was worthy entertainment, they came into perfect view.

There they were: beauties with that distinctive look that we’ve come to associate with high-performance motoring. So I turn up the volume and let the atmosphere in; and that’s when the magic happened. Have you ever watched Formula 1 and secretly wished the commentators voice was muted?

Well, that’s exactly what you get with Formula E, only that the sounds from the machines whisper, dare I say, to a point that’s almost AMSR? Imagine that against the backdrop of the majestic New York City cityscape.  All peppered with tasteful shots of The Statue of Liberty. At first, am content just to marvel at the glory of New York City as I couch travel to the big apple. The city that of dreams, where Alicia Augello Cook tells us “the streets make you feel brand new.”

New York City Fire department's boat fizzes out a majestic fountain as an ode to the 2017 New York ePrix
“One hand in the air for the big city.
Street lights, big dreams, all looking pretty
No place in the world that can compare “
– Jay Z & Alicia Keys on Empire State of Mind –
Image | FIA

NEW YORK 2017 WAS EARLY DAYS FOR FORMULA E, BUT NOT BAD. Not Bad At all

While Formula E was conceived in 2012, the first ePrix was in September of 2014 in Beijing. So it still is early days for electric street racing. That Formula E is still green horn was evident that day in New York City as a debuting, Alex Lynn of DS Virgin Racing, stormed to pole position on day one. Only for the British national, to the benefit of the eventual podium finishers – Bird, Vergne and Sarrazin – retire early from race day one from car problems.

Moreover, the fact that it took too long with the safety car out (relative to the duration of a race) to clear the tracks , didn’t speak too well to ePrix attempts at achieving Formula 1 esque adrenaline. As a result, one gets the feeling that Formula E is not high intensity enough for high stakes Motorsport nor is it rough-at-the-edges enough to be cult street racing.

However, with more poking around, I now realize that it is the almost habitual breaking of new ground in the world of Formula E gives the sport the stickiness needed to win the hearts and minds of the new generation of racing fans.

By becoming the poster child of responsible research and development, Formula E makes a different bet on the future. A brave bet no less. Formula E, backing the trend of pop culture, envisions a world where human’s need for speed (top speeds average 100kph thereabouts) is secondary to the desire for sustainability.

COULD FORMULA E HERALD A NEW PARADIGM IN THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY IN THE 21ST CENTURY?

As other sports continue to struggles to define their relationship with technology, Formula E is science alive and breathing. For Formula E, technology isn’t just a vain pursuit. On the contrary, the competition of high stakes sport acts as the surrogate mother to the future of human transportation in the 21st century.

In this realm, Formula E is forward-looking. Reflexive even. With Formula E, science (driver-less cars, sustainable energy) and society (sport)  progress in tandem. Ostensibly in the same direction, towards the same goal. Quite unlike Formula 1, for instance, which struggles with its past, whilst it’s future promises no deescalation in the tensions between science, technology and society. This costly struggle, within Formula 1 is manifest through out sport as a self-cannibalizing tug war between excitement and regulation.

With one innovative product — the ePrix — the FIA, motoring giants like Jaguar and trailblazers like Sir Richard Branson attempt to realize sustainable living as trumpeted by Jeffery Sachs in Common Wealth: Economics For A Crowded PlanetAll the same still drawing inspiration from the possibilities of artificial intelligence and realities of the fourth industrial revolution such as driverless cars and the power of cyber physical systems through linking medical monitoring with driving.

Does Formula E Offer Impetus For Sustainable Automated Transportation?

From my couch taking it all in, at the races Formula E must feel like a huge open air Star Trek ship. Everything from the electric race cars to the safety cars, is built to the latest  green technology billing. Think of out-of-this-world builds like this gorgeous wireless charged, electric, 0-100km/h in less than 4.44 seconds Qualcomm BMW i8 safety car.

Qualcomm BMW i8 Formula E chase car at a motorshow
Nothing left to chance, even the Formula E chase car had to be powered by sustainable energy and utilize the latest in automated car technologies. Image | Thesupermat (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0] Wikimedia Commons

As we hinted earlier, in Formula E, alongside the battle for a podium finish, the race towards sustainability is real. Like an action packed science trade fair, this author marvels at the spirit of innovation that drives this 21st century take on motorsports.

Teams are focused on the technology that the automotive industry feels will be the most viable solution to worldwide emissions and fuel efficiency crackdowns, so we better get used to the peace and quiet—and it might as well be through racing. Fortunately, they’ve figured out how to let that technology arms race happen while keeping the racing pretty enjoyable

As a result of this ‘neck-out’ approach by Formula E to deliver the future, car breakdowns are reviewed not only on how they impact the ePrix dynamics of the day, but how it bodes with our realization of smarter, environment friendly transportation. After all, Formula E racing teams are there to introduce us to electric cars – thus the street level racing.

The Formula E logo
If Formula E achieves its stated aims, what a feat that would be. Dare I say, even befitting of a Nobel Peace Prize.

WITH A FOCUS ON SUSTAINABILITY, FORMULA E CAPTURES OUR IMAGINATION OF THE FUTURE

If Kenyan Nobel Laureate, the late Wangari Maathai, awoke today, what would she say of Formula E? A popular quotes website credits the Green Belt Founder with this quote that I find, speaks to what it appears Formula E is up to:

For me, one of the major reasons to move beyond just the planting of trees was that I have tendency to look at the causes of a problem. We often preoccupy ourselves with the symptoms, whereas if we went to the root cause of the problems, we would be able to overcome the problems once and for all.~ Wangari Maathai

In deed and word, as evident in the official FIA Formula E website’s page on “Sustainability“, Formula E is a breath of fresh air. This page, which also includes links to scientific studies on sustainability, details the Formula E novel approach to Motorsports. Here is an excerpt of text from the page, that in my eyes is a statement of admirable intention at the very least

We are fighting climate change by offering electric vehicles as a solution to air pollution in city centers and breaking down the barriers to the electric vehicle market: Technology, Perception and Infrastructure.

We are not just a race! We are a technological and sustainable development test bed for some of the leading companies in and out of motor racing to address mobility and environmental issues

CAN WE COUNT ON FORMULA E FOR 21ST RENEWABLE ENERGY DRIVEN CARS?


By way of my account as a spectator, it’s easy to see why Formula E struggles to shake off its “gimmick” tag. On one hand, the electric racing cars looked pretty light weight (more so in lieu of how Alex Lynn’s car of DS Virgin Racing fell apart at what can be considered minimal speeds by car  racing standards).

metallic silver electric street race car
An electric race car similar to the ones in Formula E on display at a motor trade show. Image | By Smokeonthewater (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, even if we were to excuse these renewable energy powered electric cars for what they really are – prototypes – serious performance and safety questions still persist.

Granted, there is still a way to go for Formula E. Consider for instance that unlike the now settled Formula One – where the last real upset of the status quo was the rise of Red Bull Racing- Formula E has yet to nee its icons à la Ferrari, Micheal Scheumacher or Lewis Hamilton.

Formula E is yet to even, set bench marks on such mundane fan-centric metrics such as the top races of all time or top circuits in history. Leave alone adequately mine the big data generated each race day for safety and performance studies.

What do the technologically advanced electric cars tell us about the safety of, say, self driving cars?

First of all, all indications are that the car technology being tested on Formula E ePrix race days belong to the class of the-most-promising from lab models.

Having appreciated this fact, what’s worrying here to the casual observer is the apparent difficulty in steering, in pristine conditions, these technological marvels even for elite drivers. A position evident in the troubles faced by Alex Flynn in the New York ePrix. Or as Stef Schrader reveals – by way of a conversation with a Formula E insider Panasonic Jaguar Racing team director James Barclay:

Formula E is also immensely challenging for its drivers, as there can be around 40 switches, gear changes and other adjustments made to the cars in just one short lap

engine of formula 1 race car
Renault Formula One engine. The Formula E engine may have a lower power output, but it is no less complicated. As a measure of social importance, the Formula E engine comes top. Image | By Morio – 投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=661719

What’s worrying with that statement by Barclay is that it confirms that with Formula E, a future of AI driven autonomous cars is implicit. Therefore, as Formula E strives to achieve its stated goal of nudging us to embrace smart cars, we can only revisit a question central to contemporary issues in AI ethics: How do we address the ethical issues of driverless cars?

what we learn about the ethics of driver-less cars

This is an important question because the real world is unlike the rule-based, controlled experiment-esque racing environment of Formula E. Therefore, at street level, even if we adopted some sort of safety cars system to mitigate possible disasters of self driven cars, ethical dilemmas are abound.

For the inaugural Formula E New York ePrix , the coming out of the safety car on day one translated to a nerve wrecking final two laps for DS Virgin Racing’s Sam Bird as he lost time to his competitors.

At street level, a safety car (automated or some sort of traffic Robocop) might be a placing the man/machine controlling the car in a position where they have to make several if not multiple, sometimes mutually exclusive decisions between life and death.

MORE THAN ANY OTHER SPORT, ELECTRIC STREET RACING IS CLOSER TO THOSE WHO MATTER MOST – THE FANS

A more sustainable version of auto racing seems a plausible reason enough to spur investment in any venture. But as you and I know, capital flows to places where it can get the best returns. Customers/ fans = profits. A fact not lost to Formula E that appears keen to capitalize on blind spots by other Motorsports for the heart of racing fans. Take the case of  Formula One where crowd surfing by Lewis Hamilton makes news. In Formula E, the intimacy between the sport and the fans is undeniable.

Formula E driver in red jumpsuit facing a crowd eager for his cap which he wants to toss into the crowd
Formula E race driver celebrates with fans at a past race in Germany. Image | FIA

In spite of the lofty technology on display, Formula E for its brevity, threadbare rules as compared to Formula One, and innovative use of digital technology, draws in fewer fans than it deserves. To this injustice, add what I found to be more liberal backstage access (by free to air TV standards)  and 360-degree race view available on social media.

When all these are considered, it is apparent that Formula E experiment not only tests the various conventions of social media use by brands, but is also an interesting social experiment. The Formula E FanBoost is one such instance whose workings should make for interesting reading.

What is FanBoost ?

Need a little bit of social media fame? Try out the FanBoost. Not only to you have a say on the outcome of the race, but you get a tweet with a top of the range brand mentioning you. Now how cool is that? The official site describes fanboost as:

Fans can give their favourite driver an extra speed boost by voting for them both prior to and during the opening six minutes of the race. Voting opens 12 days prior to the race with the three winning drivers receiving an additional 100kJ of energy in their second car only to be used in a power window of 180kW and 200kW. When deploying FanBoost it can only be used once, a series of short bursts will not be possible.

Follow the progress of your favourite driver via the live FanBoost leaderboard which monitors real-time voting. As well as being able to vote during the race, fans will also find it much easier to have their say as changes to the voting system will make it possible to vote using a hashtag on Twitter and Instagram.

While the FanBoost is an innovative amalgam of Fantasy football and video game racing, I’d still give all for the Formula E race day experience

Music and the works, but still, the smaller crowds also play into the feel of intimacy. This allows for such stints as the pass through the crowd to get the podium by the race winners. Something that’s more prevalent in “mass sports” like soccer and professional wrestling.

Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton  gestures to fans
Lewis Hamilton, is the current Formula One crowd favorite, crowd surfing and all. How Formula E craves for a star of this suture Rdikeman at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

My take is that this should be enjoyed as long as it lasts. While the branding in Formula E pretty much follows the Formula One formulae–advertisements on race track walls/barriers, drivers kits, every possible real estate on the cars etc— but Formula E is yet to hit the commercialisation levels of Formula One.

Power to the fans

The reason why I am worried over sponsorship and the fan experience  in Formula E, lies in the much debated: “Sponsors never consider the fans” mantra. This statement represents the disillusionment of sports fans as brands continue to try to harness the pulling power of sports.

As this report Formula 1 welcomes Cars 3 to Silverstone pit lane, allowing of course for other concerns such as security and the sanctity of a man’s work space, those really desirable treats are almost always exclusively reserved for paying brands:

In addition to the 10 taking part in the 2017 Formula 1 Rolex British Grand Prix, an 11th team has mysteriously appeared in the Silverstone pit lane. In one of the garages are two of the stars of the new film Cars 3, Lightning McQueen and Jackson Storm.

The Disney-Pixar produced film makes its debut in the UK cinemas this weekend and the star, and voice of the legendary Lightning McQueen, Owen Wilson will attend Sunday’s race along with the film’s director Brian Fee and producer Kevin Reher.

Wilson will also feel the thrill of the Silverstone circuit on board the F1 Experience two-seater car around the world-famous race track.

The party will also visit the Mercedes pit, where they will meet Lewis Hamilton, who makes his return to the Cars universe to voice Hamilton, a fully loaded, built-in voice command assistant in the new film, as well as calling in at Ferrari to see Sebastian Vettel who has voiced the same character in the German and Italian versions of the film, as Fernando Alonso did in the Spanish one.

2017 New York City ePrix Day Two, The Emergence Of DS VIRGIN’S Sam Bird

From pole position, Sam Bird becomes the King of New York winning round 9 and 11 of the FIA Formula E 2016/2017 championship.

Activism, Sustainability & Sports