Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

The power to change your mind // A reversal of thoughts on the future of electric racing

Published by Bridget Schuil

Rome E-Prix launch demonstration
Credit: LAT/Formula E

About seven years ago, I wrote a post for Sidepodcast as part of a guest blogging exchange, and I chose to eviscerate electric racing. I was wrong. So very wrong. I’m sorry for spewing that vile, regressive rubbish on this site, and, if you read it, I’m sorry for wasting your time.

Firstly, I was wrong about electric cars. I was studying ecology at the time, so really should have known better than to slate green tech. I thought jet fuelled cars were going to be the way of the future, not realizing that, if I had paid attention in inorganic chemistry, I would have known that 1) jet fuel is far too volatile for civilian use, and 2) water is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. I also thought that charge networks were a silly idea when most of the world’s power came from fossil fuels. What, after all, is the point of abandoning petrol – a relatively clean-burning fossil fuel – in favour of coal – the dirtiest fuel known to humankind? Thankfully, the world has moved on, and charge networks from renewable sources are now a thing in some places.

Secondly, I was wrong about electric racing. I didn’t think there were enough ecohippies in the racing audience to support a series like Formula E. All I saw on Twitter was crowds of petrol-blooded people calling for more cylinders, noise, power, etc., and thought I was the only person in the world who felt guilty watching Formula 1 while holding environmental values. Alejandro Agag and Lucas Di Grassi saw what I didn’t. They saw the need for a public narrative to make electric cars cool, and the gap that could open conversations about this in places traditionally averse to hearing about climate science data.

It turns out, though, there’s space in my heart for both kinds of engines. I’ve grown to love the futuristic whine of electric racing cars.

Thirdly, I was wrong about engine noise. I dedicated an entire paragraph to talking about how the sound of a petrol engine could never be replaced by electric, and I’ve since shifted 180° in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I watch World Endurance Championship largely for the sound of the cars roaring around the circuit. It does something to my insides to hear a car being driven in anger. It turns out, though, there’s space in my heart for both kinds of engines. I’ve grown to love the futuristic whine of electric racing cars. Unlike petrol racing series, I can also take my niece (who’s too young for headphones to fit properly, and who really doesn’t like earplugs) to races without damaging her cochleas.

Even though he doesn’t know it, I have Bruno Senna to thank for these epiphanies. This month, we celebrated our nine year fanniversary. (Well, I celebrated. I’m pretty sure he has no idea I even exist, but such is the nature of fandom.) When he lost his Williams drive at the end of 2012, I was determined to follow him wherever he went. I spent the next two years scrolling through the GT section of the World Endurance Championship timesheets, because he was new in the paddock and commentary spent most of their time talking about the sharp end of LMP1. I have since found Radio Le Mans, who regularly talk about the whole field, so that’s an improvement on F1 commentary, who only talk about the midfield and backmarkers when they overtake, crash, or have engine failure.

Senna then got a drive alongside Karun Chandhok in the inaugural Formula E season, forcing me to swallow my words about electric racing being uncool. By this stage, I had a Bruno-themed Tumblr account, started in a fit of indignation when my previous source of Bruno news went silent after he left F1. I had made a habit of live-blogging his WEC races, since he got no official coverage. My audience (the three people who regularly inboxed me) wanted the Bruno coverage to extend to Formula E, and, if I’m honest, the ecohippie in me was glad I could finally support him relatively guilt-free. I was so happy to have a sustainable series that I carried on watching it after he left for LMP2.

Bruno Senna in Formula E
Credit: Andrew Ferraro/LAT

In keeping with being the future-focussed series, Formula E embraced social media and digital distribution in a way that Formula 1 still has yet to match, and that was the clincher for a lot of people. What could be better than free racing on YouTube? Since MySpace, the world has grown progressively more used to having insider access. Almost an entire generation (or two, if you count the newly adult Gen Zs) has abandoned watching traditional news media, because they can get relevant news and commentary online that’s customized to their taste, and delivered real time and on demand. Formula 1 lagged behind the curve for years.

Fourthly, I was wrong about electric racing having any impact on mainstream climate change denialism. I didn’t even address this point in my original article, because I thought climate change denialism was like abstinence-only sex ed in its ability to simply bypass the validity of established facts. Again, science told me I was wrong, and I didn’t listen because fighting with people who were only interested in engine noise as a metric of racing awesomeness sounded too exhausting. Humans are neurologically capable of learning right up until the moment of death, so why should our beliefs be immovable in the face of reality? To disprove my doubt, mainstream car manufacturers are moving into electric, and many are now abandoning plans for future petrol vehicles.

Formula E has formed a global sustainability advisory board featuring, among others, former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) Christina Figueres, who masterminded the Paris climate agreement. With the exception of Formula E founders, Alejandro Agag and Lucas Di Grassi, the other members of the board are notably lacking in eco credentials[1]. However, it is a step in the right direction, and having Figueres on board shows they are serious about addressing the facts.

Season Four of Formula E launches in Hong Kong this weekend, and I’m excited. According to their first-year predictions, they’re due to cut a profit this season, and be able to fund further innovations and maybe a support series. Formula 1 used to brand itself as the R&D lab of road car technology. Now that most manufacturers are switching to electric, rendering their niche obsolete, I’m not sure F1 has a purpose in tech development. This sudden loss of what Simon Sinek would call "their why" may even spell their eventual downfall, unless they embrace electric engines.

One thing I am sure of, though, is that electric racing is here to stay, and I want to be on the right side of history by supporting it.

  • [1] The board only has one woman on it. To be fair to Formula E, that’s one more than the average in most motorsport advisory and leadership bodies. However, this is a conversation we shouldn’t need to have five decades after mainstream recognition of the feminist movement, as they have had plenty of time and opportunities to fill their leadership pipeline with talented women.