Valencia 2021 – Terminal Damage for Formula E?

On April 24 2021, the DHL Valencia E-Prix was held at the Circuit de la Comunitat Valenciana Ricardo Tormo. It was the fifth round of the 2020-21 FIA Formula E World Championship and in many aspects, it was a historical event: it was the first championship race held on a permanent racing facility that came very close to using one of the actual layouts used for ICU motorsport series (with all apologies to the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez), as well as the first Formula E race in Spain despite the country’s rich motorsport history.

valenicaWith rain pouring on the track, it was very clear that the elite would be separated from the peasantry during the three-quarters of an hour. Drivers like Maximilian Günther and Tom Blomqvist were clearly not capable of dealing with the conditions, losing control of their vehicles throughout the race. Other names like Formula One rejects André Lotterer and Stoffel Vandoorne were clearly overworked as well, involved in amateurish accidents that would see them thrown out at most karting venues. On the other hand, elite Formula E drivers like Antonio Felix da Costa and Pascal Wehrlein (before brake issues ended his race) showcased their high level of driving in the challenging environment of a wet ePrix. Drivers who normally struggle to compete in their inferior machinery were also permitted to showcase their skill, such as the two Mahindra drivers Alexander Lynn and Alexander Sims.

Yet despite all that excitement, the only thing that will be remembered from this fun race is its absolutely catastrophic ending. The Formula E rulebook says that drivers ought to use less total energy whenever a safety car or full course yellow period demands that racing is temporarily suspended. With multiple safety cars occurring, some caused by the aforementioned incidents, this energy reduction added up to a very significant number.

Too significant, in fact.

Antonio Felix da Costa first seemed to slow down sufficiently to turn the final restart into a NASCAR-esque green-white-checkers scenario. However, he crossed the line to restart racing with seventeen seconds left on the clock. This would result in the field being forced to do two laps instead of one. This requirement, paired with the energy reduction, proved too much. Most drivers either overused energy or had to slow down to a crawl to ensure they would be able to meet the flag within the limit for energy use, creating a complete farce.

DHL-Valencia-2021-Formula-E-Round-5To put things into perspective: because of this silly scenario, Nico Müller gained thirteen places within two laps to finish second despite being pretty much as far away from race winner Nyck de Vries as he could have been when the race was restarted. The last classified finisher, Jean-Éric Vergne, had a distance to de Vries of +4:19.582. That would be a reasonable distance for a hypothetical Formula E race at the Circuit de la Sarthe, not one around Valencia. To put that time into perspective, it is four times the distance of last-placed finisher Alexander Sims at the second race on the very same venue. Sims finished 23rd, Vergne 9th.

One question lingered on the mind of any Formula E fan after watching that catastrophe unfold: “Was that the funniest thing I have ever seen in motorsport?”

To the author, the answer to that question is: most likely.

Once everyone had time to stop laughing their backsides off and the collective sides of the universe stopped splitting, there was a second question coming to mind: “How much will this hurt Formula E’s image?”

To the author, the answer to that question will be: a bit, but not much.

To this, there are most likely two reactions. One will consider the claim patented nonsense. After all, Formula E looked amateurish, the race lost all sportive legitimacy, drivers were upset and made their feelings known and the motorsport media had a field day reporting about this nightmare. The other will believe the author is looking at the situation from a “no such thing as bad PR” perspective and thus believes that the reasoning is that it got eyeballs on and mouths talking about the series, even if said talk is done in mocking tones.

As neither is the case, it would be expedient to look at the reasoning for the claim. As a quick note: the argument will be solely made from a business perspective. Concepts of sportive legitimacy and reputation are often subjective and heavily based on preconceived notions. Therefore, the author feels it would be pointless to start that argument. It has been done in aforementioned motorsport media and by the drivers and teams and would not see anyone convinced or even entertaining the notion of changing their mind.

The first and arguably most important point is: will this debacle have lost Formula E’s core audience? The answer to that is no. Whilst it was the nadir of regulations-induced mayhem, it was by far not the only one. Anyone who has been following the Formula E championship in previous seasons and has developed a passion for it has experienced the rules strongly influencing races in a number of ways, partly during and partly after the event. A common joke when watching a race in the GPR Discord is to speculate how many drivers will receive a post-race penalty. The strict stewarding of Formula E events paired with a number of unusual rules is a common feature, so to the established fans of the series, this will most likely not cause them to stop their interest in the series unless they were already jaded. In that case, anything else could have very well served as the metaphorical straw breaking the camel’s back, and be it just a post-race penalty for a driver they liked.

bbcEven with rules that are not outright flawed or hard to understand, the Formula E Championship had produced a number of very weird circumstances. One such example of the finale of the 2015-16 season in London. When Lucas di Grassi intentionally took out Sébastien Buemi, the two championship contenders had a qualifying session within the proper ePrix to determine the champion. Everyone at the time agreed that it was a proper mess and time has not made it look any better. Still, Formula E persisted and its core fan base has mostly remained.

Whilst not offending your core audiences is one thing (and an important thing too, as NASCAR’s declining audiences can tell), it is another to ensure growth. If you fail to attract new viewership as a motorsport, works interest falls. With the series heavily dependent on manufacturers, anything that would keep away potential viewers would be extremely deadly. Surely, new motorsport fans must have been turned away; especially given how they must have read the very vocal comments ragging the series.

To that point it is worth noting that many fans seen in these comment sections have a rather “old school” mindset, in that they are generally opposed to new concepts. Especially a series like Formula E would be opposed on principle. The author believes that newcomers to motorsport are quick to recognise these patterns and thus are probably more than willing to make their own decision on whether they are willing to give the series a shot. Especially younger fans who simply did not grow up in the old “petrolhead” culture will certainly recognise that the critical comments are born more from a desire to reject change than actual criticism of the series.

Even the casual audiences were not lost. If anything, the idea of “no such thing as bad PR” is applicable the most for them. TV ratings for the second Valencia ePrix in Germany saw a noticeable increase in viewership, clearly pointing to a succès de scandale. As that concept is however very limited, the author wants to stress that any future increased viewership would be the product of Formula E’s entertainment value and not a direct result of this race.

Even with fans not lost, certainly sponsors must be appalled. After all, a brand can ill afford to be associated with such tomfoolery, right?

If anything, the sponsors would actually have the least problems with how events turned out. From day one, the mission statement of FIA Formula E has been “efficiency”, for better or worse. It is the driving statement that got said sponsors involved in the series to begin with. This principle is the reason why the energy reduction for SC periods exists in the first place. Of course, as is well known, corporations are willing to drop their principles out of the window the first time said principles encounter anything resembling opposition. However, as has been established, the opposition is negligible and a constant within its very small sphere of influence. This means that the majority of potential customers will not feel alienated by this strategic approach and would not be swayed by the negativity of the online motorsport scene.

What about the teams? Even if they lost neither fans nor sponsors, it is hard to imagine that the car manufacturers that spend their millions on the sport will be pleased to have been ridiculed by the events at Valencia, especially since they at first glance seemed to confirm the perception of electric cars lacking in range. Of course, cynics would point out that some manufacturers are mostly competing for the FIA Formula E World Championship as a performative “commitment” to green practices (especially those whose electric model range is lacking, such as Mercedes-Benz) and thus any damage to the perception of such cars is factually irrelevant. Leaving said cynicism aside, there is a noticeable mitigating factor that will make the damage easily dealt with: the FIA’s ruleset. One could even argue that the official response by the series (which functionally boiled down to telling the affected teams to get it together and stop whining) was designed specifically to aid said PR approach.

Fans not lost, sponsors okay with the state of affairs and manufacturers are left fuming, but have not lost face. The black eye for the sport that was expected when the events of the Valencia ePrix unfolded will probably not arrive. However, this is not a justification for complacency. There are many issues that need to be fixed. One thing the FIA must address at first opportunity  is the tremendous amount of post-race penalties. It is one thing to have lots of penalties within the race – NBA games are still popular even though they often are a referee showcase more than an actual athletic contest – but if you leave fans wondering too often whether the results they have seen will stand, fans will lose interest. Inevitably, too many post-race result changes will more and more cause the feeling in audiences that their time has been wasted. This is a luxury you cannot afford in today’s world with its copious forms of entertainment.

For now, however, the author will join hundred-thousands of German fans and millions of fans around the globe in excitement for the Monaco ePrix, which will use the full, barely modified, legendary layout of the street circuit, to find out what happens next.

One thing for sure about Formula E is that nothing’s for sure. It’s showtime, folks.

Sources: FIA Formula E, Quotenmeter, racefans.net, ran.de,