The first Formula E race is officially in the books! Taking place in Beijing, the race was won by Lucas di Grassi after a horrifying last lap shunt between Nicolas Prost and Nick Heidfeld, which will surely make the news bulletins around the world in the next day or two. But overall, in my opinion it was a good start to the series and it definitely has the building blocks for something bigger, assuming it doesn’t fall over within the next year or two.
Over here in the UK, the coverage given by ITV4 this morning was very good. Jennie Gow presented the programme with Jann Mardenborough and engineer Kyle Wilson-Clarke as guests. Wilson-Clarke was fine as a guest, Mardenborough looked a bit stilted in front of the camera, but nothing embarrassing. It may well have been the first high profile studio role for all three, I know Gow’s motor sport presenting has largely been trackside, so for the first go, with a new formula, it was a good build-up. I did read one or two people commenting that the build-up was too long. On the other hand, I’d argue that it is a wonderful change seeing something other than Formula 1 getting hours of air-time on free-to-air television.
ITV4 didn’t have to ‘go the extra mile’, but they chose to and in my opinion they should be applauded for that. There’s also nothing telling viewers that they must tune in for the entire hour of build-up, the purpose of it is to build viewership as the race approaches and catch a few more viewers channel hopping as well (okay, that technique may not work for a race starting at 09:00, but it will for later races). They might have chosen to have an hour build-up as well so they could fit in the ad-breaks, notably the race ran advert free which I was very relived to see! No live qualifying or practice, I suspect viewing figures will dictate the approach going forward on that front, it should be noted that some broadcasters did air qualifying live. Let’s not forget that from Uruguay onwards, qualifying will be at a much more friendly time in the UK, so viewership would be significantly higher than at 05:00.
The revelation for me was the commentary. Jack Nicholls is a gem. Alongside Dario Franchitti, you have a great commentary pairing. Again, a few hiccups along the way, but I don’t envy them commentating on the first race of a brand new series, with unusual liveries and a few driver names that viewers may not recognise. I really enjoyed listening to Nicholls, as I did earlier this year on BBC Radio 5 Live. Let’s not forget Nicholls is only in his mid 20s, should Formula E take off, then Nicholls could become the ‘signature voice’ for the series, but that is an ‘if’ rather than ‘when’.
One of the many things talked about before the start of the series was the sound track. I was sceptical about it, but for the most part it worked well. It was kept to being used at the start, replays and during the Safety Car phase. I didn’t feel it was overused, the only part I did not like was hearing music in the closing laps (or at least, it sounded like I could). If used well in future races, as in Beijing, then again it could become a signature for the series. Formula E has to stand out. It will not succeed being ‘another series’, it doesn’t work like that. It had to try different things. Obviously these are all initial thoughts from myself after one viewing, but the music did not detract from the race anywhere near as much as I expected. Another talking point was Fanboost. I’m avoiding commenting on that though, because I didn’t notice it. It didn’t affect the outcome of the race, so there is nothing to say about it, in my view.
I have to admit that the strangest part was the car changes, and I actually thought this looked odd on the broadcast. It should have felt exciting, but it instead came off as a damp squib, it looked slow and cumbersome. Obviously there are safety issues here, as the change has to be done safely, but it needs to be conveyed better on the broadcast in future races. I think it may have helped if Nicholls cut to Nicki Shields and Mark Priestley, I don’t think we heard Shields or Priestley during the race itself, which was a bit disappointing. Onto the graphical side of things, and in standard definition, the graphics looked poor, especially where the battery use was concerned, at one point the writing was too small as well. I suspect it looked good in high definition, but for people like myself who don’t have access to ITV4 HD, the graphics were not great. This might have been an ITV4 fault with them running a low bit-rate, but I don’t know that for fact.
Talking of high definition, I’ve read many comments who said that the on-boards looked stunning in high definition. Even though I was watching in standard definition, I agree that there were some fantastic on-boards and camera angles throughout the race. Aurora Media did a great job capturing the speed and chose their angles wisely, especially at the chicanes with the cars looking super aggressive over the kerbs. Admittedly, the cars did look a little slow in the latter stages, but for the first half of the race, I was left feeling ‘wow’. The lack of speed should not be a problem as the series evolves. Unlike A1 Grand Prix, this series has a road map.
Was the broadcast perfect? No. But, it is a very good base for what is to come. For those that thought the race was too slow, Formula E will only get faster, we could be in Beijing this time next year with lap times several seconds faster. The technology at the moment is immature, but over time it will only get more mature, which will allow it to be exploited more in the next few years. Once that happens, hopefully the series will grow its fan base. The potential is there for growth, this is only the beginning of that. For Beijing, I’d give it 7 out of 10 or a B+. It didn’t blow me away, but such an expectation would be unrealistic. It was a good start. The crash between Heidfeld and Prost will go viral, and no doubt will help Formula E going forward, like it or not. I enjoyed Beijing, the only sad thing is that Putrajaya is ten weeks away…