Reflections from Formula E’s return to London

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.

Circuit layout

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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Channel 4 to air Formula E’s return to London

Channel 4 will air live coverage of Formula E’s return to London later in July, series organisers have confirmed.

It will be the first time that the free-to-air broadcaster has aired Formula E live. As thus, Formula E has now aired on all four of the main free-to-air outlets in the UK, following in the footsteps of the BBC, ITV and Channel 5.

Formula E says that Channel 4 will air ‘bespoke programmes’ presented by Vernon Kay. Produced by North One, the trio of Nicki Shields, Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti join Kay from the ExCeL London.

The move comes as neither the BBC or Eurosport will be airing the London races live on any of their television channels due to the Olympics from Tokyo.

However, neither Quest or BBC Two are options for Formula E over the London weekend, as Quest are airing live British Superbikes coverage from Brands Hatch, whilst BBC Two are covering cricket’s new experiment called The Hundred.

Without their deal with Channel 4, Formula E would be left without a live linear TV home for their biggest race from a UK perspective. Channel 4’s deal only covers the race, and not practice or qualifying, and is for the London round only.

Sam Bird, who races for Jaguar and currently leads the championship, said “It is great news for Formula E to be shown live on Channel 4 for such a key race on the world championship calendar.”

Channel 4’s Formula E schedule
Saturday 24th July
14:00 to 16:30 – Race 1
=> 14:00 – Build-Up
=> 14:30 – Race
=> 16:00 – Reaction

Sunday 25th July
13:30 to 15:30 – Race 2
=> 13:30 – Build-Up
=> 13:40 – Race
=> 15:00– Reaction

“This is the first time in five years we’ve raced in London – the first time in 17 years for Jaguar – and terrestrial TV plays a key role to put our sport into the homes across the UK at a milestone moment.”

Formula E’s chief media officer Aarti Dabas added “We are pleased to add Channel 4 to our ever-growing line-up of media partners. UK is a key market for Formula E’s ecosystem of teams, manufacturers, partners and drivers.”

“More importantly we wanted to provide our growing UK fanbase and potential new fans with easy access to watch and engage with the live coverage of their home races.”

“Channel 4 is one of UK’s most progressive free-to-air channels and this partnership for the London races provides both Formula E and Channel 4 to engage with progressive motorsports fans and new audiences.”

A look into the future?

The move by Formula E to partner with Channel 4 is likely to increase suggestions that Channel 4 is front runner to air the series for the 2021-22 season, as the existing BBC and Eurosport rights agreements expire at the end of this season.

While the BBC has given Formula E a free-to-air home over the past few years, it is clear that the partnership has not matured in the way that Formula E had hoped.

Over the past few years, the BBC has aired several Formula E races live on BBC Two, the last being the Rome E-Prix back in April. But this has happened inconsistently, with the corporation not committing to more races on linear television.

Formula E in the UK – at a glance
2014-15 – ITV
2015-16 – ITV
2016-17 – Channel 5
2017-18 – Channel 5, Eurosport
2018-19 – BBC, BT Sport, Eurosport, Quest
2019-20 – BBC, Eurosport, Quest
2020-21 – BBC, Eurosport, Quest
2020-21 [London only] – BBC, Channel 4, Eurosport

Elsewhere in the sporting spectrum, the British Olympic athletics trials did not air on the BBC last month after the broadcaster refused to pay for the rights or air it on their linear channels, leading to UK Athletics streaming the action on their own platforms to a much smaller audience.

The fact of the matter is, unless you are a tier 1 sport (which Formula E acknowledges that they are not), then it is highly unlikely that the BBC are willing to air the sport in question on BBC One or BBC Two, unless there is strong justification to do so.

Dabas’s comments to Motorsport Broadcasting last week, combined with the one-off Channel 4 deal, would suggest that, unless the situation changes, Formula E does not have a long-term future on the BBC.

For now, fans can watch live coverage of the London E-Prix weekend on Channel 4, as well as the BBC’s, Eurosport’s and Formula E’s digital platforms.

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Formula E looking for ‘channel consistency’ and audience consolidation in future TV deals

Formula E are looking for ‘channel consistency’ and audience consolidation in future television deals, series organisers have told Motorsport Broadcasting.

Since the electric series launched in 2014, Formula E has aired across five different broadcasters in the UK.

Currently, the series airs live across BBC’s digital platforms, with live coverage also airing on Eurosport, but both deals end following the 2020-21 season.

Speaking to Motorsport Broadcasting on the eve of the New York E-Prix weekend, Formula E’s chief media officer Aarti Dabas said that the series was exploring making it ‘simpler’ to watch Formula E moving forward.

“When you drive a message, with the clutter that’s around, you want a simple message, watch it on this channel, live,” Dabas believes. “You don’t want five different channels over there and five calls to action.”

“It’s a good question because we’re definitely looking at a more consistent channel strategy in the UK and other markets. And when I think of the channel strategy, I know that every race currently we are like, is it on BBC Red Button, is it on network, is it on Quest. It’s hard.”

Dabas, who joined Formula E in June 2020, believes that channel consistency, along with localised content, are both key if Formula E is going to become a tier 1 sport in key territories.

“For us we are aiming to be a tier 1 sport, and channel consistency is going to drive the numbers,” Dabas says. “We are looking to see how we can have consistent channels whether it’s with BBC, or with any other channel that we go with.”

Sat.1 deal in Germany an early success story for Dabas

Citing her previous role, Dabas notes that cricket saw a 50% jump in audiences in India following the creation of a localised feed, instead of the Indian coverage taking the English language feed.

Dabas’s team are trying to replicate that approach in Formula E, with their deal with German station Sat.1 an early success story.

Sat.1 airs a one-hour bespoke pre-show, with a dedicated on-site crew producing coverage for German viewers, featuring the likes of former racer Daniel Abt on commentary.

“It took a while to do and draft the deal [with Sat.1], because both from their end and ours, we wanted to work on something that helped them grow their audiences. Eventually they want younger people to watch their channel, and Formula E is the right fit.”

“They’re [Sat.1] actually owning the product with language, relevant talent, so it doesn’t look like they just take the World Feed.”

“I think ultimately that is the model we want to replicate in most key markets because that is what’s going to build audiences for us.”

“The second New York race is on CBS [in the US], a big free-to-air channel. There’s marketing support on the This Morning show on CBS which is a huge crossover from sport into entertainment.”

“We have to look at growing holistically rather than actually ‘here’s a sport, here’s a feed’, put it on and people will watch, those days are gone I think.”

Formula E is taking a long-term approach on the rights front, aiming to build their audience first, with the hope that revenues will follow later.

“It’s a hedge bet, placing 3 million for three years in a territory for rights. But in those three years, if that sport is not performing and building audiences, you’ve actually taken the sport backwards,” Dabas tells me over a Teams call from New York.

“I think, rather than focus on revenue first, you focus on audience first, and then the revenue follows. Those are the sports that will see growth, rather than sports that are looking at short term revenue versus long term growth.”

Formula E re-assessing social media content strategy

The championship is also re-assessing their social media content strategy to help them grow audiences further.

“When I joined, I could see that the Formula E content was all over,” Dabas recalls.

“It was everywhere, the teams were putting it out, partners, broadcasters, YouTube, but ultimately did that actually grow the audience? I think for us it’s about working with partners and adding value, otherwise we’re simply just putting the content on YouTube.”

“Avid fans will probably love it because they can see it for free, but we have to go beyond those fans and I think hopefully in two or three years we can reach a position where we reach the fans who don’t yet know us.”

“And then for our avid fans we have something else to give to our digital products. Avid fans should be actually looked after and rewarded for being avid fans, and right now all we’re doing is putting it out on YouTube.”

Dabas believes the content across Formula E’s platforms, whether it is the championship-led channels or the team channels needs to have a narrative.

“There has to be a narrative and we should cross promote each other, rather than all of us trying to be on top of each other, diverting attention and fragmenting audiences.”

“So, I think when I talk about the consolidation audience approach, I think there is also about complementary content rather than competing content that we need to look at.”

Formula E’s UK broadcast plans for the London E-Prix weekend, which takes place on July 24th and 25th, will be announced shortly.

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Who’s hot, who’s not? Reviewing 2020’s social media metrics

Each race weekend, teams, drivers and riders battle for points and prizes, with the aim of reaching the top of the mountain in their respective series.

Underpinning each entity is a social media team. For the likes of Formula 1 or MotoGP, the social media team may be a genuine business unit. For smaller championships, it may be a single person running the show.

The objective in all cases remains the same: to drive engagement on their social media channels, turning casual fans into passionate fans which, hopefully for the entity in question, turns into a profit further down the line when the fan begins to purchase their products.

Motorsport Broadcasting is an independent website without big backers, and therefore relies on trackable information already in the public domain, such as the number of followers across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Whilst this may not show who has engaged with individual posts, what it does help to show is who is attracting a newer, fresher fanbase to their platform, therefore becoming more marketable to their team or stakeholders around them or, alternatively, who is struggling to hit the mark.

A note of caution on Facebook: the platform is removing the ability to ‘like’ pages, instead only allowing users to ‘follow’ pages. Facebook notes that the update will “simplify the way people connect with their favourite Pages.”

“Unlike Likes, Followers of a Page represent the people who can receive updates from Pages, which helps give public figures a stronger indication of their fan base,” Facebook adds. This does mean some figures in this piece have increased slightly more than previously.

Championships

Motorsport Broadcasting compares social media data from 15 different championships, from Formula 1 to the new W Series. 2020 was disruptive for those hoping to grow their following, with most series inactive from March to July.

Some ventured down the Esports route to keep fans engaged during last year’s lockdown before the action restarted. Two championships suffered the most because of COVID: the electric Formula E series and the W Series.

Formula E hosted their final 6 races across 9 days in August, whilst W Series cancelled their second season owing to the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the W Series increased its following from 110,000 fans to 154,000 fans, the series no doubt hoping to capitalise on their presence during F1 weekends in 2021. Meanwhile, Formula E’s portfolio grew from 2.44 million fans to 2.63 million fans across 2020, an increase of just 7.7%.

After a period in 2018 where Formula E’s following was rising sharply, the electric series has seen its growth stall in comparison to other series. Whilst COVID has halted any momentum the series had; the reality is that Formula E’s social media platforms have been struggling since early 2019.

In April 2019, 2.19 million fans hooked onto their platforms, meaning that Formula E has only gained half a million fans on social media across the past 22 months.

Whilst Formula E’s slowdown is somewhat explainable, IndyCar’s stagnation cannot. The American series grew its following by just 20,000 fans during 2020, despite holding an Esports series which garnered worldwide attention, followed by a successful 14 race calendar.

Formula 2 continued its social media rise during 2020, doubling its reach from 536,000 followers to an excellent 1.12 million followers.

With Mick Schumacher and Callum Ilott both moving on, however, it is difficult to envisage Formula 2 continuing such strong growth during 2021.

Something that, in my view, will likely play against Formula 2 this season is the new championship structure, as the feeder series alternates its slot on the F1 calendar with Formula 3.

If Formula 2 continues to grow strongly during 2021, then it is possible F2 could overtake IndyCar in the social media pecking order later this year.

Out in front, F1 and MotoGP continued to surge unaffected by COVID during 2020, both quickly heading towards 30 million followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram combined.

F1 teams

1st on track, and 1st in the socials. 2020 was a success on and off track for Mercedes, as they continued to increase their lead over Red Bull in the social media stakes.

Mercedes’ advantage on social media is reflective of their openness across their social media platforms.

Despite Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas being their main players on-track, it is technical director James Allison who plays a key role in Mercedes’ digital output. Allison explains in clear detail the design decisions that his team make during each Grand Prix season, helping put Mercedes a step ahead of the rest both on and off-track.

Whilst Red Bull’s portfolio is still growing strong, arguably the Milton Keynes outfit has slipped back in recent times – a slip that we can trace back to Daniel Ricciardo’s departure at the end of 2018.

Statistics compiled by Motorsport Broadcasting show that Red Bull consistently recorded the strongest growth of any F1 team between 2015 and 2018, but has now not only slipped behind Mercedes, but also Ferrari and McLaren.

And, despite Ricciardo not being in a race winning car at Renault / Alpine, his growth on social media during 2020 was still bigger than his former team-mate Max Verstappen (see the chart below), showing how popular he is amongst the motor sport fan base.

Has Red Bull’s revolving second seat turned potential new fans off the team? Of course, we should note that Red Bull still has a combined 18 million followers across the three major social media platforms, an excellent number and only behind the black cars.

Red Bull’s figures will be one to watch this season as Sergio Perez brings his Mexican contingent with him from Racing Point, now rebranded as Aston Martin.

Fuelled by Perez’s shock win in Bahrain, Aston Martin ended up best of the rest on social media in 2020, meaning that they are highly likely to overtake both AlphaTauri and Williams in total followers as 2021 gets underway.

Both Ferrari and McLaren maintained strong growth despite their on-track misfortune in recent years (although the latter is now firmly on the road to recovery), showing how important it is to have a strong brand name behind you during tough times.

F1 drivers

If social media was a championship, then Hamilton, Ricciardo and McLaren’s Lando Norris were 2020’s winners.

The gulf between Hamilton and the rest of the F1 continues to get larger and larger, as Hamilton’s activism off the circuit cuts through to a wider audience that transcends the sporting world.

Hamilton’s combined social media following of 33 million fans is over 4 times the next best in F1, with Ricciardo in 2nd on a combined 7.56 million followers. On Instagram alone, Hamilton has 21.6 million followers, the highest for any motor sport driver by some margin.

Behind Hamilton and Ricciardo, 2020 was the year of the Twitchers, with Norris, Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, and George Russell all reaping the rewards, building a strong following during the first lockdown in spring.

Norris attracted further attention during the lockdown by participating in IndyCar’s iRacing Challenge, even if it did not necessarily help the latter in the social media standings.

Russell’s growth was one of the strongest during 2020. Helped by his Mercedes drive in Sakhir, his following surged from 551,000 fans at the end of 2019 to 2.55 million fans across the three main social platforms, a rise of 362% in 14 months!

To put that into context, current Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas grew his following by just 841,000 fans, considerably lower than his Twitch counterparts, including Alex Albon. If this was a qualifying session, both Bottas and Albon would be out in Q2.

The figures show how important the UK territory is to Formula 1, with 3 of the top 6 ‘growers’ during 2020 consisting of the British contingent.

In addition to the Grand Prix field, Motorsport Broadcasting also tracked Mick Schumacher’s following through his second season in Formula 2.

Schumacher’s growth across the year is remarkable for a driver who was, at that point, in the feeder series, reflecting the name and the weight that he carries on his shoulders with him into F1.

The 2021 season, for both MotoGP and F1, begins on Sunday 28th March, with live coverage of F1 testing beginning of Friday 12th March.

Coverage of testing for UK viewers airs live on Sky Sports F1, with coverage also available via F1 TV Pro for those territories with access to the series.

All the figures above compare the number of followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram between November 29th, 2019 and January 30th, 2021, therefore encompassing the whole of the 2020 motor racing season.

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BBC and Eurosport retain Formula E rights as season 7 approaches

The BBC and Eurosport will continue to show Formula E for the 2020/21 season, it has been confirmed.

As in the past two seasons, the BBC will air live coverage across their free-to-air platforms, including the Red Button service, BBC iPlayer, and the BBC Sport website.

Some races may also air on BBC One or BBC Two, however this is dependent on how the Formula E schedule evolves across 2021 owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Extending our partnership with the BBC gives us the platform to bring the unpredictable action of our all-electric racing to people in the UK on mainstream channels and the popular BBC digital channels, as we also look to engage the next generation of sports fans around the world with our BBC Global News content partnership,” said Aarti Dabas, Formula E’s Chief Media Officer.

In addition to the BBC’s offering, live coverage will air on Eurosport, whilst fans can also watch every session live via Formula E’s YouTube channel.

Since launching in 2014, Formula E’s live coverage has jumped around various stations: from ITV4, to Channel 5 and now remaining on the BBC. It is unknown whether Formula E benefits financially from the current BBC deal.

Normally the broadcaster pays the series to air their content, but it is likely that the amount of money exchanged here is negligible, given that the electric series benefits more from the deal than the BBC.

The season kicks off this Thursday, with 2 night races in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia.

Thursday 25th February
15:10 to 16:10 – Practice 1 (YouTube)

Friday 26th February
10:55 to 11:55 – Practice 2 (YouTube)
12:45 to 14:15 – Qualifying (YouTube / BBC Red Button)
16:30 to 18:30 – Race 1 (YouTube / BBC Red Button / Eurosport 2)
=> Eurosport 2 coverage runs from 16:50 to 18:00

Saturday 27th February
10:55 to 11:55 – Practice 3 (YouTube)
12:45 to 14:30 – Qualifying (YouTube / BBC Red Button)
16:30 to 18:30 – Race 2 (YouTube / BBC Red Button / Eurosport 2)
=> Eurosport 2 coverage runs from 16:50 to 18:00

Full scheduling details for the 2021 Diriyah E-Prix. Scheduling details correct as of Sunday 21st February and are subject to change.

Fresh from the I’m a Celebrity castle, Vernon Kay returns as Formula E presenter, Kay now heading into his fourth season with the team. Joining him in pit lane are the usual trio of Jack Nicholls, Dario Franchitti and Nicki Shields.

Who’s who?

Behind the lens, Formula E partners with many external stakeholders to execute its vision.

Production companies Aurora Media Worldwide and North One Television bring their expertise together to form Formula E TV, the entity responsible for producing World Feed coverage of every session.

Aurora have been part of the Formula E journey since the championship’s first ever race in Beijing in 2014, with North One joining them ready for the 2017/18 season.

On the facilities front, Timeline TV provides equipment and facilities for the production team to use every race weekend, ensuring that everything Formula E TV wants to achieve on-screen is technically possible.

No series is complete without a strong brand and social media presence, which is where both Little Dot Studios and CSM enter the picture.

In recent years, Little Dot has been responsible for some of Formula E’s best social media projects, including their stunt involving a Formula E car and a cheetah in 2017. The stunt has amassed 45 million views on YouTube, easily the most watched video on Formula E’s YouTube channel.

In addition, Little Dot works with Formula E’s outfits, helping them on their social media journey.

Meanwhile, CSM’s involvement surrounds Formula E’s PR and branding, on and off-site, ensuring that the championship’s branding is consistent across all platforms, from trackside hoardings all the way through to Twitter.

Eight races are currently scheduled for season seven, with further race announcements expected in early spring.

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