Formula E made its return to London last weekend after five years away from the UK.
Instead of racing around the Battersea Park vicinity, the event moved east, racing in and out of the ExCeL Centre in the Docklands.
Jake Dennis claimed victory in the first of two races of the weekend on Saturday, with Alex Lynn clinching his first Formula E victory on Sunday.
Motorsport Broadcasting was on hand to witness events throughout the weekend, from Friday morning through to Sunday evening, and here are some early reflections…
The on-boarding process
Normally, the on-boarding process heading into an event, at least in pre-COVID times, is simply a case of picking up your media accreditation from a designated place, and then making tracks towards the media centre. Not so here.
After picking up my accreditation, this time it was straight to my PCR appointment, because without a negative PCR test, I was not getting inside the ExCeL, a protocol that applied to anyone inside the Formula E bubble.
Those on-site for more than three days had to be PCR tested every other day (so, if you were on-site from Thursday to Sunday, you needed to be PCR tested on Thursday and Saturday).
From PCR, I went into isolation until I received the negative PCR result around three hours later. The PCR test did bring with it some anxiety from my perspective, as I tested positive for COVID three weeks ago – symptoms long gone thankfully.
The London E-Prix was also my first event since WEC at Silverstone in 2019, so I was mightily relieved to receive a negative result!
The whole testing process was efficient, and the wait for the result was not too long (I finished drafting this piece while I waited back at the hotel).
Within the ExCeL and the media centre, face masks were mandatory. Most of the time, people were socially distanced, although as pointed out elsewhere, the starting grid was more than a little congested.
Which begs the valid question: if Formula E allowed influencers, VIPs, and media into the event, why were fans not allowed?
The Race reports that Formula E needed special dispensation from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to stage the event at full capacity, and this was not forthcoming.
An interactive map of vaccinations helps explain the local context. In the Custom House area, where the ExCeL is located, only 56.9% of people have had their first vaccine, this figure dropping to 39.4% for both vaccines. The picture in the surrounding boroughs is also bleak.
The original planning application suggests that 30,000 spectators would normally attend, with around 2,500 of them hospitality.
Another interesting aspect to the planning application is that it allows Formula E to stage races at the ExCeL until the end of 2029, giving them time to refine the layout.
Aside from the double hairpin set-up, which turned into bumper cars during the second race, the rest of the circuit looked fine.
I hope the double hairpin solution disappears, preferably in favour of a right-left chicane. For me, the inelegant solution ruined the flow of the track and ended up breaking up groups of cars during the race as battles unfolded.
One observer on-site noted that the weekend had a ‘test event’ feel, so hopefully Formula E refines the layout for next year’s outing.
On the inside, the pit lane, paddock complex and turns 22, 1, 2 and 3 were all located on the South side of the building, with the TV compound located on the North side.
The South side of the building was largely perfect, but the TV compound was much more spaced out than usual, not that the team were complaining!
It did highlight though how Formula E did not utilise all the hall space, something I hope changes next year when fans are in attendance.
Visibility and perception remain a problem for Formula E
On Sunday morning, I asked my Twitter followers whether they had followed Saturday’s race.
Bear in mind that, if you are following Motorsport Broadcasting on the socials, you are likely big into motor sport, whether that be F1, MotoGP or IndyCar, and likely will have a good idea of when things are happening.
Did you watch the first Formula E race of the weekend on Saturday? [665 votes]
Yes – 42.7% [284 votes]
No – did not know it was on – 13.2% [88 votes]
No – not interested – 28.3% [188 votes]
No – other reason – 15.8% [105 votes]
Like any poll, the results are a snapshot of what a given subset of the population is thinking. The results highlight two key problems that Formula E has: visibility and perception.
Outside of the Formula E circle, a cursory glance at the #LondonEPrix hashtag on Twitter showed little activity outside of the usual fan accounts.
Formula E had several things against it last weekend, notably the Olympics. However, the bigger issue that I have is that the event immediately followed F1’s British Grand Prix.
If you are a non-motor sport outlet, and have a choice of covering Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen’s collision from Silverstone or Formula E in the mid-week articles, the decision is an easy one to make.
Arguably, organisers should position the race away from F1 in the British sporting calendar, potentially in the Early May Bank Holiday slot leading into the Monaco E-Prix.
I appreciate that there is never a weekend with no sporting opposition, but following the F1 means Formula E is fighting for the same column inches, which is not the position it wants to be in.
Commenters on Twitter noted that promotion was poor, which tallies with what I saw in the build-up to the E-Prix from Channel 4.
The races over the weekend started at 15:00 and 14:00 local time respectively, whereas the agreement between Formula E and the local council allows track action until 18:30, so there is scope to adjust timings to allow for an early evening race.
I am in the camp where I really want to see the electric series grow at home, but it has perception and visibility issues that organisers need to navigate.
Hopefully a regular visit to the ExCeL, in addition to some tweaks to the track layout and fans from next season, will help increase the championship’s profile and reach in the UK.
Attack Mode graphic change here to stay
Fans watching the E-Prix from home will have noticed that the Attack Mode graphic on the timing wall changed for last weekend’s action.
Gone are the chevrons, and in its place, is a simple timer, with the driver’s name highlighted on the timing wall.
Speaking to Motorsport Broadcasting, Formula E’s TV director West Gillett noted that the team has changed the graphic to “make it clearer for the viewers,” and that the change is a permanent one moving forward.
Keep an eye on this site over the forthcoming weeks for more insight from Gillett and the Formula E television team: how the championship gets to air, the infrastructure used, Driver’s Eye, and much more…
On a final note, a huge thank you to everyone within Formula E for their kind words about this site over the weekend, it really is appreciated (more in the Twitter image above).
Updated on July 27th with information about the special dispensation needed to allow fans to attend.
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One thought on “Reflections from Formula E’s return to London”
I think another large part of the problem with Formula E was highlighted in the post a few weeks ago announcing Channel 4 had secured the rights for London. Formula E has suffered from being bounced around between host broadcasters in the UK, coupled with (to a lesser extent), the ongoing problems at the BBC with sport’s rights in general.