I don’t normally do Formula E Race Reviews. I did so as a one-off for Berlin in 2022 when there was the infamous environmental protest on the grid and wanted to talk about how harshly some of the protestors were viewed on the Internet.
But with me now being shall we say… “funemployed”, and still wanting to produce content, now seems as good a time as any to start talking about the electric racing series given most conventional Motorsport’s in its Winter Solstice for at least another month.
Saturday night marked the first race in Formula E’s 10th season, and the second with its third generation of car. With it we got a new production company in charge, a new home for the series in the UK, but sadly, a race that left much to be desired. Let’s talk about it.
Formula E is a series that has embraced change more than just about any other in its 10 years of existence. For those who don’t know, I’m a British citizen and after nine years of Formula E being on free-to-air television in the UK, the series announced late in 2023 that it would be moving to its new home… TNT Sports. A super-premium channel, part of the Warner Brothers extended family and slapped with a £30 ($38) a month price tag to watch the action live. (And yes for those who are long-time followers of my work, the home of MotoGP in the UK now too).
This is a hammer blow for the series. I get it. TV Revenue is one of your potential biggest earners as a sports league. It’s your backbone. But one of the biggest bright spots the series has had over the years was its accessibility. The Series itself always had a live-streaming platform where fans could watch the racing from just about anywhere in the world.
From BBC Sport to ITVX, to Channel 4 and Formula E’s YouTube Channel itself (depending on the region or the ethics of using a VPN). That’s now dead, with non-TNT Discovery+ customers only getting the full race a day after the broadcast, with YouTube replays the following week. I’m sorry but in a world where live sport is one of the last bastions of television, it’s not acceptable by comparison.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from what’s going to be the 10th Anniversary of MotoGP heading down the same fate moving behind the TNT/BT Paywall, its that you are never going to grow your audience by slapping ridiculous price tags on entry. Last year’s British Grand Prix only had around 100k watching on TV in a sport that was hovering around a million when it was still on BBC2. Hell, the actual attendance on race day at Silverstone was 60k. It wouldn’t be a huge stretch to say that maybe a third of all regular MotoGP watchers in the UK were actually at the track. Yeeesh.
Formula E doesn’t have 75 years and generations of biking culture and fandom to prop itself up with by comparison. I was told by those in the industry that securing a free-to-air deal in the UK was a priority and the series has failed in that regard.
And remember, the UK is in the middle of massive inflation and a cost of living crisis. Only the most hardcore are spending the equivalent of three Netflix accounts for one racing series for six months out of the year. The number of fans I follow on X that normally watch, who couldn’t yesterday was startling. (PS: The intrusive adverts… man.)
The other major news regarding the product itself was Whisper Films taking over the production of the UK broadcast instead of North One. Again, for those who don’t know, Whisper Films is David Coulthard and “High-Performance” man Jake Humphrey’s production company who you’ll most likely recognise as producers of F1’s programming on C4.
What did I make of their first broadcast… it was tough. Much was made of a reshuffled presenting panel with Football Focus pundit Jermaine Jenas now anchoring the broadcast, with David himself a pundit and commentator. Now I don’t want to be too harsh here. Live television is exceptionally difficult and any mistakes and blemishes are massively amplified. Jenas was struggling to wrap his head around the product and had to lean on Karun Chandhok pretty hard to explain the nuances of the sport. And DC was often using tired Motorsport cliches as contributions. I don’t feel like he added much to what was happening out there.
Jenas will no doubt get better with time and confidence, but Vernon Kay’s bombastic energy and enthusiasm for the series was missed. I can’t help but feel like the fantastic Nicki Shields or Radzi Chinyanganya’s versatility with sports broadcasts (Olympics, WWE NXT, Snooker, etc.) would have been a better fit as lead anchor.
And even if you want to give this one a pass for nervousness (Which is fair), I feel like the production strategy was off. It’s the first race of the season, and as a UK-based production company, you know it’s the first race on a brand-new home channel. You have an hour of pre-race to play with. Introduce the sport to your new audience more.
Every race is someone’s first and you only ever get one chance to make a first impression. If you have the budget, have a designated studio-based season preview. Dedicate more time to the technology of the sport that makes you unique. Talk about the team and driver changes (Not just Jaguar’s superteam). Gas up how talented your grid is as arguably the second most prolific in single-seater racing. I don’t need to see Jenas crap himself in a Porsche Taycan as Karun thrashes it around Mexico, it’s an old broadcasting relatability trick but it’s not particularly relevant.
Like I said, I don’t want to be too harsh on the product and I know things will improve over time. I want the best for Formula E, genuinely. That’s why I need to be disciplined and honest about its general direction. And with the series now on TNT, it cannot afford to potentially lose chances to gain new fans, and on top of that, you now need to justify people paying £30 a month for it.
Right, the racing itself… Oh fuc-
Well, that was certainly one of the Formula E races of all time. Pascal Wehrlein qualified on pole (A shock if you were a Porsche fan at the back of 2023… Cam, looking at you), and would take a comfortable lights-to-flag victory over Envision’s Sebastien Buemi and Nick Cassidy getting on the podium in his Jaguar debut. But it was another Formula E where very little happened.
The two biggest flashpoints on the track were Antonio Felix Da Costa’s clumsy divebomb at Turn 2 that took out Nico Muller’s ABT Cupra, and the Safety Car coming out for Robin Frijns colliding with Sasha Fenestraz coming out of Attack Mode and forcing a Safety Car. Not exactly ringing endorsements for the racecraft of the series. Beyond that, we barely had a single overtake on track.
Mexico City isn’t the friendliest track in the series for passing, with a long front straight and not much in terms of heavy braking, but the race was processional as a result. A little bit of car swapping when Attack Modes were taken but not much else. Mitch Evans did a brilliant job replicating New Jersey traffic at the back end.
There was little to take from the powertrain situation too. There weren’t massive differences between the Porsche and Jaguar powertrains, and teams aired on the side of caution naturally in the first race of the season, likely not quite knowing how much they could save due to the added laps mechanic of race management.
Throw all that in a blender, hit “frappe”, and you get a very dull race. It happens sometimes. Diriyah should be more fun.
And I’m still not fully convinced on Porsche yet! Pascal did have this early tear last year, and every other Porsche had horrible weekends. This is the first time I’ve mentioned Jake Dennis in this review and we’re 1,350 words in! Botched his qualifying (As did Antonio Felix Da Costa), and then had poor racing conditions to try and mount a comeback. No wonder Da Costa spiked Muller into the wall.
I’m still trying to think up why the series felt like it was a good idea to have Usain Bolt and David Attenborough in their season opener montage. Not exactly subtle with the speed and environmental message there huh? Nice new intro sequence though, very nice to get the drivers and last season’s London finale in there.
So power rankings on powertrains? Porsche and Jaguar are still at the top, with maybe Stellantis and Nissan next ahead of the rest of the field? If 2023 was anything to go by, this can swing on a dime due to conditions so I’ll revisit this later, but it doesn’t look like too much has changed.
Forgot to mention this in the earlier broadcasting comments, but James Rossiter got a raw f***ing deal at Maserati, and I’m glad he was the highlight of the new broadcasting team. Knowledgeable, insightful and enthusiastic. Stick him in the box in the old Bob Varsha role, he was awesome. (Tom Brooks has always been really good, glad he’s been kept on)
So, the fast-charge gear practice got scrapped halfway through the weekend and wasn’t used on Saturday. Are we sure this is going to be ready for Misano in April?!
Final Thoughts: Did you like me making the review score all pretty at the top of the page? Get used to that! But yeah, this was a dud. Barely any action on track, and none of the things that made Formula E interesting really came through on this. A shame. See you in Diriyah. (Probably)