When the lights went out in Hong Kong on Sunday for the start of the third all-electric Formula E season, there were three new manufacturers on the grid.
Jaguar has created its own team, 12 years after pulling out of Formula One. Meanwhile, BMW has announced a two-year partnership with the existing Andretti team, and is considering fielding an outfit of its own from the 2018-19 season. Faraday Future, a Silicon Valley start-up that hopes to rival Tesla with its electric vehicles, has begun a similar technical link-up with Dragon Racing.
Renault, Citroën, Indian manufacturers Mahindra, and electric vehicle specialists Venturi and NextEV are already involved in the sport. Audi is deepening its relationship with the ABT team, and planning its own factory-backed entry next year. Formula E can now boast the participation of many more manufacturers than its more established, higher-profile cousin, Formula One, which currently features just Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Honda.
It’s clear that manufacturers are increasingly viewing Formula E as a good platform to develop and promote their electric vehicle technology. Jaguar’s engineering director Nick Rodgers said ‘Electric vehicles will absolutely play a role in Jaguar Land Rover's future product portfolio and Formula E will give us a unique opportunity to further our development of electrification technologies.’ Both BMW and Audi have expressed similar sentiments.
And there are more to come. F1 world champions Mercedes have just secured a slot to enter Formula E in 2018. Toto Wolff, the manufacturer’s head of motorsport and F1 team principal, said ‘Electrification will play a major role in the future of the automotive industry – racing has always been a technology R&D platform for the motor industry, and this will make Formula E very relevant in the future.’
That doesn’t mean manufacturers are abandoning Formula One, which still offers technological and commercial advantages.
Mercedes boss Dieter Zetsche firmly believes that the manufacturer’s recent success in F1 has boosted its road car sales. Following his team’s first two years of dominance in the sport, he said: ‘I'm totally convinced that it is not by accident that in the last three years our brand has developed a fantastic momentum and coolness factor and this resulted ultimately in lots of sales. At the same time we took off in motor sport and I think that is not by accident, there is a strong correlation in both directions.’
And, as I wrote earlier this year, the super-efficient hybrid engines that manufacturers are developing for F1 are helping to drive down fuel consumption in road cars too.
The fact that F1 champions Mercedes are planning to enter Formula E, while Formula E champions Renault recently re-established their works F1 team, shows that, for manufacturers, it’s not necessarily about choosing one series or the other.
Similarly, when it comes to road cars, they are not necessarily choosing between hybrids and pure electric cars – many are developing both. And the improvements they make on the racetrack – whether in Formula 1 or Formula E – will quickly be felt on the roads.
- Guest Blogger Jonathan Jones, a political researcher and F1 fan who writes about US politics for the New Statesman.