Why the Formula E calendar seems to be self-destructing, and some possible solutions

Let me start this post with a list of abandoned and changed Formula E venues:

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Jean Eric Vergne leads the field at the start of Miami’s only ever ePrix

Miami, Biscayne Bay– Held one ePrix during the first season in 2015 on the streets of Biscayne Bay, before never appearing on the calendar again. There are two possible reasons for this: Firstly Andretti Sports Marketing, who promoted the race, entered a messy lawsuit between themselves and the Andretti Autosport team which rendered them unable to promote any future events. Secondly, environmentalists called out the event on it’s disruption as well as it’s use of pavement on Parcel B, land which was promised in a 1996 referendum to be turned into a green park. Alejando Agag has made brief reference to the fact that Miami required several different permits and was “very difficult” to run.

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Local residents protest against the Battersea Park race outside the town hall in Wandsworth

London, Battersea Park– Held two ePrixs on the ring road at Battersea Park, but there was always a local campaign against the event due to it’s disruption and the absence of any proper consultation process, during which they protested in front of the Wandsworth town hall ahead of a review and services committee voting on the future of the event. Eventually they threatened legal action against the local council and Formula E came to an out of court settlement with them; one final race in 2016 in exchange for a restoration of the park to it’s pre-Formula E state. (Before tarmac runoff areas were added and tree roots were filled in with concrete) I have talked about this controversy before in more detail for those interested.

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Marco Borradori discusses the failing Lugano ePrix bid with other politicians

Lugano– A lift on the ban against motorsport in Switzerland raised hopes of a race here, but the city needed to raise approximately 12.7 Million Swiss Francs in 2015 to secure a slot on the calendar the following year; unfortunately for the organisers this money failed to materialise and a local campaign put pressure on the government to prevent the race happening in their city. As a result the bid moved to Zurich instead and has since gone pretty quiet.

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The Formulaec prototype car on display during a demo run in Rome, 2012.

Rome– Rome was a big announcement on the calendar for the inaugural Formula E season, but a change in government scuppered the plans. In June 2016, Virginia Raggi came to office as mayor and announced her intention to bring Formula E to the Italian capital, specifically in the EUR district; this was locally a deeply unpopular move back in 2014, and if anything over the following two years it had become even more unpopular, with residents stating in an open letter that they were “completely ignored” and going on to organise flashmobs and a demonstration in the Capitol Square. It was also felt that the EUR is one of the most troubled areas of Rome with deep social issues such as rampant prostitution. “The fact that Raggi wants to demonstrate the glamor of Formula E here makes us speechless.”, the residents’ petition states.

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I share your frustration Daniel, but calling people stupid only strengthens their resolve to vote against you. All the same, I do appreciate your honesty and outspokenness.

Berlin, Karl Marx Allee– Originally Templehoff Airport was the venue used for Berlin in 2015, but during the refugee crisis the site was used to accommodate them, so in 2016 a new venue was agreed upon in Karl Marx Allee in the city centre. Although the race at the new venue seemed to be a decent success, after a local election which benefitted the Alliance 90 Green party, the Berlin senate was successfully lobbied by both the party and the mayor to remove the race from the city centre and are now attempting to return it to Templehoff Airport, which is currently in the process of removing the Refugees who previously lived there. Many of the Greens have cited the disruption and noise pollution caused by construction, as well as unreasonable road closures as reasons for their vote, as they felt that they affected all residents.

The thing that makes the change of the Berlin venue particularly annoying is that Formula E started selling tickets for the Karl Marx Allee event as early as December, and now no-one is really sure if their tickets are worth anything or if they should cancel their travel arrangements. It seems clear to me that many people were unhappy with the Karl Marx Allee race and felt it had been forced upon them, so they voted for a party that they knew they could rely upon to get rid of the race. The sad irony of course is that the Greens are an environment party, exactly the kind of people you’d think would be supporting Formula E in a city centre. But that’s democracy; you’re free to choose as you see fit.

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Local residents celebrate a successful campaign to stop Formula E from using Elizabeth Park

Brussels, Elizabeth Park– After initial plans to use the Haysel area near the European Parliament fell through due to clashing with the ‘Couleur Café’ music festival, promoters decided to use the nearby Elizabeth Park instead, and everyone assumed that things would work out due to an agreement “in principle” made with Brussels’ minister for Mobility Pascal Smet. Smet then joined forced with, among others, the Secretary of State for Road Safety Bianca Debaets and convinced the government that the road adaptations for the event would cost too much money and cause too much disruption to traffic on a holiday weekend, (He summarised on Twitter that it would have been “Too complicated”) and the vote unanimously went against providing the needed subsidy or giving regional authorisation to hold the race at the park. Although Smet and others in the local government insist that they are still committed to their agreement, with two venues now chewed up and spat back out it now seems unlikely that an ePrix in Brussels will take place this season. In addition, 750 residents signed a petition against the use of the park for the race.

Seeing a pattern here?

That’s six instances where Formula E really ticked people off; half of which are venues that I’m doubtful will ever even hold one race, such is the force and effectiveness of this opposition. Granted you can’t win all these battles, and we should remember that Formula E have done a great job to secure new races in Hong Kong, Marrakesh, and (hopefully) New York and Montreal on this season’s calendar. But still, I can’t be the only one who thinks that having six whole races scrubbed off the calendar, and all for essentially the same reasons, is incredibly concerning.

Keep in mind I didn’t include races like Rio De Janeiro or Moscow, which from what I can tell were cancelled more for organisational reasons, or events like Paris, which have not been cancelled but take place in spite of vocal political opposition. Make no mistake; this is a calendar that is haemorrhaging potential races.

Let’s be honest, this isn’t something that can be dismissed as “NIMBY’s” anymore; we’re seeing an uncannily similar scenario repeating itself across Formula E’s European venues. As fans of the sport we can’t simply reject these people’s arguments any longer and hope that they’ll go away; because if you don’t engage with the debate, then you effectively lose it.

So, where is Formula E going wrong here, and how can Agag and Formula E Holdings change their tact to prevent these embarrassing and disastrous scenarios from repeating themselves? Let’s face it, if things don’t change then we’re gonna be left with a pretty small calendar.

I’m not gonna pretend I have all the answers here; these are just a few ideas based upon my opinion, mixed in with a few ideas suggested by some friends. If it sounds stupid or ill-informed though then feel free to call me out on it.

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The CleanSpace phone app

The Environmental angle isn’t pushed strongly enough

Generally, I feel that most people don’t know enough about Formula E before being told that the series has an eye on their area and they have to decide whether they want the race (And all the comes with it) to go ahead or not. Formula E does a decent amount for the environment (I.E. promotion of Electric Vehicles, the Project Ice video/documentary, etc.) but I almost feel like that’s not going to mean anything to the men and women on the street who are worried about huge amounts of disruption and HGV’s creating pollution rather than solving it. It’s no good saying that it’s justified because, like the Olympics, Formula E is a world class event that will bring publicity and exposure to their areas; bottom line is (And I know this is true for the UK at least) not enough people watch it for it for that argument to hold water, and we just have to accept that. Formula E is not simply attractive to people by the mere virtue of it’s existence; it constantly has to prove itself in a way other motorsports don’t have to due to their locations predominantly being on purpose built tracks in contrast to FE.

This may sound pessimistic, but how about instead of doing a deal somewhere and expecting locals to all be onboard with it, how about assuming that everyone is predisposed to hate you, and work to win them over beforehand rather than worrying about it later?

In 2015 Formula E announced a partnership with CleanSpace, an app developed by Drayson Technologies which is all about tracking air quality; there is even an electronic tag you can order which allows you to “see the air you breathe”, which we know is getting significantly worse in large cities. Infact, if we look at London alone 9,500 Londoners are killed by air pollution each year, and the pollution alert levels in London are now even worse than those of Beijing. (Ironically enough, both are ex-Formula E venues) I hate to rely on anecdotes but I have friends who use the CleanSpace app and tag frequently whilst cycling and they rave about how useful and eye-opening it is. So, why doesn’t Formula E make more use of this App and technology?

For example, at Battersea Park instead of just announcing the race and doing some cycling around the place in the buildup, why didn’t Agag send free tags to each household and local school in the area around the park, and open up a conversation about air quality? That would have been a brilliant way to win over hearts and minds and associate an FIA championship with clean air in a way that is demonstrable and means something to the public. Maybe it wouldn’t have completely allayed the concerns about the race, but he could have asked residents to monitor the air during the set-up; and even if it wasn’t great, he could have committed to improve it year on year, compared it to the high street using data and facts to win the argument rather than just dismissing them with “They’re in the minority so we don’t have to listen to them” and then eventually having to back down in private.

In terms of securing races in the heart of cities, the commitment to the environment is one of  FE’s strongest asset, and it is so much more than just: “The cars are quiet so they won’t disturb you.” So whether it’s CleanSpace or one of the several other environmentally-focused companies FE partner with/are involved in, a greater emphasis could be put on it.

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Stephane Sarrazin driving in Battersea Park during qualifying for the 2016 London ePrix

Stop trying to hold races in public parks

I thought we had all learnt our lesson with Battersea, but this time Formula E tried the same thing with Elizabeth park in Brussels, and predictably it created a campaign movement against the race which politicians seized upon and used to help justify the decision not to grant the subsidy or permission to use it. If anything the example of Battersea hindered rather than helped the ePrix in Brussels, because politicians were wondering why they had to pay up for the race whereas their counterparts in London had not. (Wandsworth Council were infact paid to host the race in Battersea)

The negatives far outweigh the positives of racing in a park; the racing suffers because the tracks are restricted heavily by being in a park, (There are no alternate streets to use on a ring-road) leaving you with a very narrow layout not conducive to overtaking, and minor alterations to add run-off tarmac/chicanes will greatly displease residents and park users, especially if they’re not told what’s going on. The fans suffer because the trees and foliage obscure views of the track. You’re also unlikely to get any of the iconic backdrop landmarks of the city into shot which likely leaves the track feeling generic from TV shots. The only positive is that organisationally you don’t have to close down as many roads to setup and host the race. But even with Elizabeth park there was a tunnel and a major road link they were reluctant to shut down for the event.

Maybe one day we will find a park that works as a race venue for everyone; but for now I feel we need to be more pragmatic and focus elsewhere.

Don’t align the sport with toxic politicians

This is quite a subjective one, and of all my suggestions here probably the most controversial, but I feel it has to be said; Formula E is too eager to get into bed with political parties and individuals who don’t have their best interests at heart, and who couldn’t give a stuff about motorsport or even the environment. I know, needs must, palms must be greased, deals with the devil must be signed in order for the show to go on, but this is the kind of thing that people pick up on; and it smears by association.

I’ve criticised their dealings with Boris Johnson and the UK Conservative Party in the past, but more specifically I am referring to Agag’s comments about the President of the United States, and how he believes he can change his mind about climate change being a hoax if he attends the New York ePrix.

“I think if we bring President Trump to a Formula E race he will completely change his mind about sustainability,” Agag told Autosport.

“I will absolutely extend an invite to the US race.

“Formula E can change Trump’s mind, things like Formula E are the things that can.

“The president of the United States is an important position, but I’m optimistic I don’t think everything will be as catastrophic as some are predicting.

“His first statements have been quite full of common sense so we hope for the sustainability area that’s also the case.”

It’s a nice idea, I suppose, that even a staunch climate denier (Or to be honest, a reality denier) like Trump can, in true Blues Brothers fashion, “see the light.” But that’s all it is; an idea. I don’t think Agag is naive enough to believe that he can actually change someone as set in his ways as Trump; it’s far more likely in my view that he just said this to make a few quick topical headlines during a gap in the calendar, and in the small hope of attracting further publicity if Trump responded.

Incidentally, I wonder if Agag has been watching the huge protest marches on the news recently (specifically the Women’s marches) with the strong message: “Resist Trump”. If Trump by some astonishing turn of events takes notice of and attends the race in New York, (Remember, Red Hook is not one of the wealthy NY neighbourhoods owned by Trump) then forget what we saw in London, Rome and Brussels, because they’re going to look like girl scout parades compared to the shitstorm this will attract. Sure, Formula E needs publicity but I’m certain it does not need to make itself a political target. Imagine for example the PR disaster if anti-Trump protestors offered to FanBoost en masse any driver brave enough to speak out against Trump?

Also, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Formula E should not be made the plaything of power-hungry politicians desperate to add to a fake ‘green’ portfolio. The less we see or hear from them the better; if they have to be on the podium, fair enough, but don’t be surprised when the public boos them.

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The Mexico ePrix last season proved that FE can work on a more conventional circuit.

Does the focus on city centre street circuits need a rethink?

Now, it’s not that I don’t like the idea of going to street circuits in the middle of city centres. I think it’s a fantastic idea that keeps Formula E unique from all other motorsport championships, however time and time again opponents state their belief that motor racing should be kept out of the streets and public property and back on a race track; we can only do so much to try and change that view, and if Formula E has races at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, the same purpose built venue used by F1 for the Mexican Grand Prix, then it undermines the argument that Formula E is a street circuit exclusive series. Obviously so far it’s the exception to the rule, but it is still an exception. Also we have venues like Templehoff, which is a disused airport runway; not that I think it’s a bad venue or a bad track, but it’s more like a slower and more technical German version of Silverstone than a street circuit in all honesty.

From what I can tell the main stumbling blocks to using traditional racing circuits are that they will look slower compared to how they would look on street tracks, there might not be quite the same crowd as a city centre race would pull in, it might be harder to sell to sponsors, and also you may run into gradients and hills that the FE cars might struggle with. (I.E. Eau Rouge at Spa, Paddock Hill bend at Brands Hatch, or even Saint Dévote/Beau Rivage as we’ve seen with the abridged Monaco layout)

Of course racing on temporary street circuits will always be a compromise, but I think we have to ask whether it’s a compromise that’s worth taking if the race is only going to be cancelled/moved after one event. Ambition must be reconciled with reality.

Finally, communicate more closely with the general public

Now I know this is gonna sound a bit rich coming from me; I don’t really enjoy dealing with the public. But how else do you accurately gauge what people think? Sure Formula E has been known to do small one-off consultation meetings, but if we’re to win hearts and minds we may need something bigger.

I’m not talking about social media or news presence; Formula E on the whole does a brilliant job with that. But the trouble is, all that’s mostly impersonal. How many of the six examples I listed at the start could have been helped if the campaigners had a representative from Formula E there to answer their questions and concerns? I remember sitting in a Save Battersea Park meeting once where there was one guy who was concerned about the FE batteries catching fire from a health and safety standpoint; now I personally didn’t have the technical knowledge at the time to address these concerns, but that’s where FE could have stepped in and used a statistic of how many miles the battery has done without blowing up in testing, how it’s cooled by the radiators, etc. Indeed, the controversy at Battersea only ended when a deal was made between the locals and Formula E, and I think it shows that the most important thing is to make sure that there is a back-and-forth dialogue so that people don’t feel like they’re being ignored or screwed over.

Maybe Formula E needs someone in an ambassadorial role to act as an intermediary between the sport and the people; cutting out the political middlemen and giving the discontent a direct channel through which to voice their concerns. Or alternatively, it might be worth acquiring the services of advisors who are in tune with or at least up to date with the political situation in each city that FE opts to visit; that way we can prevent what happened in Berlin where tickets went on sale before the senate voted against the use of Karl Marx Allee; a little knowledge for example about the result of the Berlin elections in September 2016 and the pre-existing opposition to the race could have been taken into account before making the decision in December to sell tickets. Obviously we can’t predict the future but we can anticipate and prepare for it.

 

Anyway, those are my thoughts; sorry if they were a bit negative but I wanted to focus more on the solutions rather than just moaning about the problems. Fingers crossed we don’t lose anymore races or venues from the calendar this season. I am definitely looking forwards to Buenos Aires on February 18th; the wait is almost over.

Why the Formula E calendar seems to be self-destructing, and some possible solutions