Formula E, the world’s premier all-electric single seater racing series, hosts its series finale in Berlin this weekend. At the Tempelhof Airport, the championship will crown its first official world champion, which is a remarkable milestone for a series that was created less than a decade ago.
In the seven years since its debut season in 2014, the series has had a rollercoaster ride with remarkable highs and near-catastrophic lows en route to breaking into the mainstream as a future-oriented form of motorsport.
One of the people that has been closely involved with the championship almost from its inception is writer and journalist Sam Smith, who has now written a comprehensive insight into the series, its history, technology, engineering and much more in his new book Formula E – Racing for the Future.
As Smith explains himself, he’s been involved with the championship from the very beginning.
“My history with Formula E actually predates Formula E,” he explained. “Because I worked for Lola Racing Cars for many years, for 10 years. And in 2011, I did some work on the Drayson Racing all electric LMP car, and I just did Media and Communication stuff for those guys via Lola.”
“But actually, at the same time, Lola were actually involved in the tender process to promote Formula E. That ultimately went to Alejandro Agag, and his organization which he built up from that. So I already knew about Formula E and what was planned to be before it started.”
Ultimately, the right to Formula E went to Spanish businessman Alejando Agag and as Smith continued, the demise of Lola followed soon thereafter and the series briefly appeared from his radar for a few years.
“What happened then was that suddenly, the demise of Lola kicked in, in the early part of 2012. From then on I started my own business and worked in various championships, and didn’t take massive amount of notice of Formula E until the test, the pre-season test of the first year, of 2014/15. Quite liked what I saw, but it needed a lot of work obviously, and then I missed the first two races because I was freelancing doing sports car events.”
“But at the end of the year I had a bit of a busman’s holiday, to Punta del Este in Uruguay. End of season, treat myself to see what was going on and how this new phenomena was taking on the motorsport world.”
From there, Smith became hooked on the series and became something of an authority on Formula E, missing just more than a handful of championship events since its 2014 inception.
In 2020, with over half a decade of experience in the series under his belt, he was then approached to write the book. Smith says he was very keen to tell the championship’s story and shine a spotlight on the impact that it has had on the motorsport industry.
“I mean, the very unromantic story of this is that I was asked by a publisher to write it,” Smith quips. “Obviously I’ve been in the championship for its entirety, really, knew it inside out on many different levels and understood what it was about.”
“So, yeah, I was asked and agreed to do it and it was a nice project. It actually started about a month before lockdown, before the pandemic struck. So it kind of happened in a reasonable time because I think doing the races and doing a project like this is, it would have been a bit of a strain, but it was really good.”
“It was really interesting to do it because I was lucky enough to spend some good time with Alejandro Agag and with Jean Todt. With people like Allan McNish,, James Barclay from Jaguar, Roger Griffiths from Andretti, Silvain Filippi from Envision [Virgin Racing] Mark Preston from DS Techeetah, all these kinds of people have been integral to the success of Formula E.”
“And the drivers, I spoke to pretty much all the key drivers in the championship, and there’s some fantastic fascinating stories from within it. We’re talking about careers that were salvaged by Formula E from a driver’s point of view.
“Sam Bird is a great example of that. He told me, and this is profiled in the book, he was within weeks of becoming a fitness instructor. He was going to stop doing motorsport, because he just had enough.
“He had lost out on an F1 chance, mostly, not by his own means, and he had very few options or opportunities in 2013 or 2014 and he was going to be lost to racing, really. He wouldn’t have had the level of success that he has had now if he would have chosen that path.”
Close to disaster
The level of access Smith had in writing the book – it was produced in full cooperation with Formula E – means that he is able to chronicle the entire history of the championship in depth. It gives a very good picture of the lengths that the people involved had to go to get the series off the ground. It also, as Smith himself lays out, allows him to explain how the series very nearly went under during its debut season.
“What a lot of people don’t know is how it almost died,” he says. “I mean it was within weeks, if not hours, days or hours, of dying in 2014. The money had gone. The initial 25 million investment had gone within three races. Agag was fired the day after the Punta del Este which I attended firstly.
“And this was all not really known until much later and this is chronicled in the book, and it’s extraordinary how close to the wind everything was then. Because putting on a new series, it wasn’t officially a World Championship series but it was in all but name, and I think putting that on is a massive undertaking at the best of times.”
“But if you’re doing it in the heart of cities, and you are shutting off districts and you are working with politicians and local jurisdictions, it’s just a huge amount of planning work and cost to do it. And of course, don’t forget that back in 2014,there was a hard core of partners and a hard core of investors, but there was no multi billion conglomerates that are involved in it today.
“So financially, it was really on the edge, but once Liberty came in and put those solid foundations in early 2015, then it had that stable platform to really kick on.”
The Formula E that will crown a world champion in Berlin this weekend is practically unrecognizable from the series that Smith first laid eyes on in Uruguay in December of 2014, at such a rate that even he admits he didn’t expect it would rise to this level.
“Honestly, when I went to my first race in Uruguay, no, absolutely not,” he answers when asked if the series would make it this far. “I thought, I thought it was a bit of a curiosity I thought that it might see the season out and then…”
“But what we didn’t know, really, was that how determined President Todt was to make this happen. He often calls it his baby. And I think that was underestimated, I think, even if Formula E under Agag had hit the buffers, because of the financial issue, I think it would still have lived on or would have risen as something else with different promoters, etcetera.”
“I think that there would always be a single seater championship, but the fact is that Agag was the right person to evolve it into what it became with the manufacturers. And the FIA have stood by it completely stoically, really. They’ve never lost faith in what it means in the future, the future relevance of it.”
Smith found himself in something of a difficult position when it came to writing the book, because he wanted to make it accessible to both the knowing audience but also to those that are unfamiliar with Formula E and want to learn more about the sport.
“I was very wary of the fact that, you know I’m a specialist and I go into forensic detail on all levels of what I do for a living, but I also realized that people might want to buy this just to find out about what Formula E is and be curious.”
“So you’ll see some of the book is sort of built towards that kind of angle. So there’s a lot of what I like to think is simplified understanding of what Formula E is. What it means, where it sits in motorsport, but I also wanted to make sure that it just wasn’t like a manual feel to it.”
“So what we needed to do is give it a strong narrative. And the strong narrative is the first sort of half of the book, is the history in terms of why Formula E had to happen. The influence of the FIA, of Agag, how it nearly died. The first three seasons, so there is a strong sporting element there of what happened in the actual racing.
“But at same time, I wanted to make sure that we dug deep into how the engineer, how the driver, and how the key people in the championship go about their business as well, because I think what that evidences is Formula E is very different, it is a unique startup, but actually it’s got its roots in traditional racing.
“You know there’s practice qualifying, there is a race, but at the same time there is interwoven within it certain innovations.”
A not insignificant chunk of the 256-page book is taken up by the anatomy of Formula E and its cars and technical aspects, including a full breakdown of the components featured on the current Gen 2 car.
This features everything from batteries and brakes to software, aerodynamics and safety equipment. According to Smith, putting this together was the hardest part of the project.
“’I’m not an expert in technical matters so I leaned quite heavily on my interviewees,” he explains. “Phil Charles from Jaguar was especially helpful on a lot of technical stuff. Mahindra were terrific and I spoke to quite a lot of the Mahindra people, who were based quite near me in the UK.”
“It’s quite hard to put all that together, try and sort of [process] the regulations because they’re so detailed and getting an understanding and trying to put it into as simplified a term as possible because motor sport is an incredibly complex sport.”
“Trying to encapsulate everything is not easy, but I think it was quite a good job to do it, trying to get people to understand it.”
“But at the same time I still wanted to get engineers and drivers to articulate it rather than just churn out a load of facts and articles and regulations. It needs that human communication, I think, for people to understand how tough Formula E is and how different it is in many ways.”
“I found that more difficult. The narrative, the history of the championship, and the politics and the sporting side kind of flows quite easily but the technical stuff you’ve got to really think about how you portray it on the page.”
FORMULA E RACING FOR THE FUTURE By Sam Smith is published by Evro and out now in hardback, priced £35 www.evropublishing.com
Leave a Reply