Why Riyadh is the tipping point of Formula E’s future

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Read time: 10 mins

(Header image, courtesy of Formula E)

Formula E is a progressive series, for motorsport. In a sporting world where questioning the importance of oil is anathema and climate change denial de rigeur there is something unquestionably punk about directly confronting that. Championing electric vehicles when the establishment says they’re not cool is scrappy, nerdy, committed. Being a challenger is good – and it’s created a very different space from most traditional motorsport.

I got interviewed this weekend, in a rare moment of poacher turned game and asked why I felt Formula E was different. I said it had created very much a new space that the traditional motorsport press had been extremely slow to enter, let alone rush into or dominate. That had given breathing room to a totally new set of people and reduced many of the significant barriers to entry to the paddock, from class to connections to background, making a vastly more diverse and vibrant media. Formula E’s an upstart and most of us are here because we love it. I meant what I said – and still do.

Defending Formula E is a big part of that, as a consequence and I’ll go to my grave explaining that it is real motorsport and that Salah scoring wouldn’t be more exciting or more technically impressive if he screamed like a foghorn the entire time he was playing. Well, no, ok that would be quite audibly impressive but not per se good football.

Last week Formula E dropped the announcement that we’ll be heading, for 10 years, to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to race. A country women cannot currently drive in (albeit the ban is lifted next month) and where Google will supply you with countless lists of human rights concerns, especially concerning women, immigrant workers, journalists and LGBT people.

Which is the sort of thing it’s difficult to defend – or even understand, given the Kingdom’s control of the oil industry. What does Formula E have to do there?

The first race of Season 5, the first public outing of the Generation 2 cars, will be there. It is a needle-sharp apex on a balance scale for the series to show what it is.


Before we get totally into this, a quick note; I have chosen to give some Formula E coverage to M101, a relatively small site who can’t currently pay me. It came after a lot of thinking about what a motorsport press I would like to be part of in the future could look like. M101 is an excellent example of that – diverse, filled with young people who share expertise enthusiastically and on a deep and well-researched level. Taking a thoughtful and politically-aware angle on motorsport is something our coverage needs in order to remain healthy as an industry rather than as press release regurgitation exercise.

I am not per se a big name – but I am a professional motorsport journalist and in a series where the lack of significant numbers of paying outlets means accepting some pieces will never find a financially agreeable home there’s a merit to me putting them here rather than just throwing them on Medium or even never writing them. I hope, if you came here for a piece by me, you enjoy it and look at the other content that M101 curates, hosts and encourages, by talented young people without formal journalism backgrounds. I strongly approve of a self-starting site for content creators who didn’t wait to be given an endorsement from a large publication or curb their style and enthusiasm for the sake of staid tradition. They’re good kids, Brent.


Last Friday, 2pm: I’m in a hipster cafe in Berlin trying not to feel too absurdly performative, tapping away on my freelance features on my sticker-strewn MacBook. For a little while now I’ve been pursuing a story that makes my heart sink and that I’ve repeatedly tried to convince myself and others can’t possibly be true.

When it first started being rumoured, a Riyadh Eprix seemed obviously absurd. There are places much more obviously suitable for Formula E in the Middle East, I argued – Beirut had been put forward and as a city with extraordinary levels of pollution (for many reasons) that seemed a perfect venue for a clean energy street race. Doha, in Qatar seemed to fit – and to be fair, neither of these are actually ruled out – as Qatar Airlines already sponsor the extremely successful Paris event.

The only sign seen of Saudi Arabia in the series was a badge on the Dragon cars that appeared in, I think, Marrakesh – for a research institute. But sponsors come and go and mean not so much – the Rome Eprix was sponsored by a Brazilian company and presented by a German car manufacturer, for instance.

So were we going to Riyadh? Don’t be ridiculous! Saudi Arabia is the seat of oil so much they were able to effectively devalue oil from other regions by flooding the market cheaply, they’re not going to have Formula E – we’re always banging on about climate change.

Well, more fool me because we’re going there. When I first heard the announcement I, running on very little sleep, read it a few more times. There had to be some mistake here – the series I’d thrown everything at being a part of, leaving my other work and spending all my savings to break into, could not possibly be doing this to me. The series I love and respect for it’s ballsiness at having a purpose, whether it’s technological innovation or cheetah preservation, could not be meekly walking into a city at the behest of a regime largely opposed to everything FE stands for. I had to catch myself, in the (luckily, mostly empty) cafe sitting with my wrists on the table, head tipped back and eyes closed like I imagined if I swore emphatically enough the words on my laptop screen would change.

I struggled to sleep on Thursday night, trying to work out what I was going to do; if defending Formula E is half the journalistic job of trying to convince outlets to take coverage for it (“pitching”) then how could I carry on doing it when it’s doing this?

Therein lies the crux of the matter and that sharp balancing point. Next season Formula E will do a lot of things it’s not done before – moving into the second generation phase of the championship, cars will run the entire race distance, additional teams will enter, more manufacturers than ever will have a stake in the series and the major launch it has been leading up to, to some extent, will finally happen.

Generation 1 of Formula E was about proving a survival concept, about scrapping through by the seat of its pants and being formed into what it is through sheer force of will. Generation 2 is somewhat different; FE goes into this phase with credibility, with drivers lining up for race seats, with manufacturers scrapping for team entries.

Meanwhile countries, from Norway to China, are bringing in future bans on combustion car purchases. Formula E isn’t going to magically lose its detractors or gain the worldwide audience of Formula One in an instant but it doesn’t need to convince anyone anymore, really – it’s everyone else who needs to catch up.

That’s an odd feeling, to a backdrop of the Riyadh announcement – is that it, then? Job done, now we can be like all the rest after all? Well, no – fortunately. I might not be utterly thrilled about it but it seems Formula E hasn’t decided to close the book of things to wade in on or controversies to put to the motorsport industry just yet.

In the press conference with Alejandro Agag and Nico Rosberg on Friday in Berlin I asked a question no one else could ask. It was this:

“Alejandro, Formula E has unquestionably positioned itself as a progressive series, has occasioned change and for sure affected some parts of the automotive industry and changed the image of electric cars – we know that it can do good. As a woman who derives my entire, full-time income from covering Formula E I am a little bit… …stressed by the fact that we are committed, for 10 years, to go to a country where it would be, at best, extremely difficult for me to work. Could you comment about that?”

Full disclosure, I nearly dropped the microphone because I was so stressed about asking it. Listening to it back my voice sounds surprisingly steady but it didn’t feel that way at the time. I wish I’d thought to say ‘queer woman.’

However, it was a question I knew I needed to ask, not least because otherwise I better get a new job and also because – to my knowledge, although lots of women work full-time in Formula E, I am the only one who does so and gets to throw questions in at the mass press conferences. So there was a job to be done, here.

Something else is that I knew not only that I should ask it but that I could. At the time, there was no clarity about what would be done for women – who can’t work in ‘dangerous’ industries in Saudi Arabia (of which motorsport is one) and until recently were banned from attending sporting events at all.

Some series, you can’t touch that. Or you get no comment and a vague threat about access. It’s not fashionable to raise ethical questions in motorsport, very much considered as a little gauche, a bit of ruining the party and certainly not ‘seeing the world as it really is.’

Well, Formula E isn’t very fashionable, so I’m pleased to say Alejandro gave me a full answer.

“Yes ,yes absolutely and I appreciate the question. I think the decision to race in Riyadh is very important because we want to be part of the positive change that is happening in Saudi Arabia. We see this as a game-changer, that Formula E is going to participate in that change and with the leaders of a country, there is no other way of changing a nation. But I totally understand the question. Still today women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia, but there is going to be a historic moment next month, women will be able to for the first time ever drive.

We have of course received complete assurances, actually it has been the request of the Saudi authorities that women participate, drive in the Formula E event, and if they are not in a racing team we will organise some way for women to drive around the track, do a demonstration which is really the intention of the new years of Saudi Arabia to showcase that change.

Women will be allowed at the event as spectators, obviously women that come from abroad, like yourself will be allowed to come, work and report on the race. We see that as a great element of change in a country that didn’t have all those right in the past. We are happy to be part of that change and we see Formula E as a force for good and in this case is a very specific place under very specific circumstances, but we think Formula E can make a contribution also for good in that country by doing this. But I totally understand the question.”

Ok, it’s not a comprehensive breakdown of how they’ll manage the catering when women and men must eat separately or any of the thousands of other issues, especially the significant proportion of FE workers who fall into the LGBT community but it’s a lede well buried by the initial release. Women drivers and women workers in automotive capacities have to be part of the event as per the contract – a little PR twist before but also unique in the racing world, as international events go.

Does this make it easy? No. Selling people on the idea of a race in Riyadh is a very different goal to persuading the motoring industry to take the race against climate change as their biggest challenge. And as certain as it’s hard to rock the boat in the stuffy old world of motorsport, it is extremely dangerous to be a punkish upstart in Saudi Arabia – as activists arrested this week, who worked on making the case for women being allowed to drive, have shown.

Can Formula E transform the rights of women in Saudi Arabia? The simplest and most straightforward answer is: absolutely not on any conceivable level. That is not the job of a sport governing body, even when it sometimes is in its interests.

The FIA was, in talks, fairly instrumental – in collaboration with Saudi and Middle Eastern women drivers, as far as I know – in lifting the ban on women driving in the Kingdom. Because if it hadn’t been, no sporting events that are FIA accredited could be held there.

It’s a ridiculous thing to have asserted some of the pressure to make that change, rather than the rights and voices of Saudi women and activists. Of course. However, it does actually give some credit to the idea Formula E isn’t idling in Riyadh for 10 years – this may literally affect change. Or PR, of course and there’s no doubt that money is involved so cynicism is no doubt a healthy thing to maintain.

And what does that really mean? For that second-phase, real step onto the world stage of a series that the voices in denial of are looking increasingly buffoon-like about?

Well, Formula E certainly doesn’t need us to defend it. And I still won’t, about this decade-long decision which I consider myself fairly balanced about; I won’t boycott the race, I’d only be caving to the idea women couldn’t and giving an (admittedly, probably not particularly wanted) advantage to my male peers by sidelining myself. Which means I do need to think carefully about what I say, not least because it is not my place to even aspire towrite the definitive piece on this without talking to people from Saudi Arabia.

We won’t know if the race in Riyadh will be a success until it happens. And we won’t know what – if any – the political implications are about it. I’d like to see more Saudis speak about it but that’s a rather complex issue as making statements could be politically risky.

In any case, the Season 5 opener now presents a moment caught in perfect, fascinating balance. What Formula E becomes after it is an acceleration – at typically breakneck, electric-motor-torque-speed – of what it will be by the end; to start the season in Paris would have been safer, less controversial and like it or not, not at all Formula E.

I am sure the series will survive it – I fervently hope my love for Formula E (and my job) do, too. Whatever happens, it will not be boring.

About the Author:

Hazel Southwell

Hazel is a professional motorsport journalist, specialising in Formula E and electric and hybrid racing technologies. She is 31 and lives in London or more accurately in airports.

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