The Bumpy Present and Huge Future of Formula E

Miles WrayThe result of the third season of Formula E came down to a scheduling conflict.

The series only raced on nine weekends, an average of once per month in a cavernous schedule that lasted from October 2016 to July 2017. Still, Formula E landed one of its three doubleheader race weekends, in New York City, on the same date as one of the six World Endurance Championship races. The conflict knocked two Formula E drivers out of New York, eliminating them from two of the year’s 12 scarce races.

One of those drivers was Sébastian Buemi, who had won six of the year’s eight races before New York in a dominant championship defense. Buemi’s absence opened the door for Lucas di Grassi, his only mathematically plausible competition for the championship. After New York, di Grassi trailed Buemi by only 10 points going into the season finalé doubleheader in Montreal.

Buemi’s weekend in Montreal was an unhinged disaster, 48 straight doomed hours. An innocent enough shunt in Friday practice turned out to be a snowball that quickly rolled into a thundering avalanche.

Buemi’s Renault eDams team had to replace his car’s battery after the crash, incurring a penalty that dropped him from second to 12th on the starting grid. After spending all race picking through the field, Buemi finished in fourth — only to see the result wiped away when his frantically repaired car was deemed underweight, a disqualification. Buemi could only manage to qualify in 13th for the second race, and could only fight his way up to 10th. Di Grassi, meantime, won the first race on pole and then gently coasted his car home for seventh in race two: he won the championship by 24 points.

I have buried the lede. After race one, Buemi steamed up and down pit lane — ignoring the broadcaster attempting to interview him — shouting at whichever opposing driver was nearest. The moment cemented the dour Buemi as the series’ bona fide villain, and Formula E themselves posted the tantrum on their official YouTube channel. The championship victory for the charismatic di Grassi felt like some sort of karmic justice.

But: that scheduling conflict.

The vastly different likability of the two drivers has meant that Formula E coverage has ignored something that’s clearly obvious from the outside: di Grassi’s championship requires a massive asterisk alongside it. In the ten races that he entered — including just one point during disastrous Montreal — Buemi scored 15.7 points per race. In all 12 races, di Grassi scored 15.08 points per race. If Buemi had been able to be in New York, he could have overcome the ultimate points gap by submitting two below-average (for him) races. Being friendly is the only category where Buemi was the inferior driver, period.

This saga shows just how different the worlds of Formula E — still an infant — and Formula 1 are right now. It’s hard to imagine the circumstances that would keep a healthy, championship-leading Formula 1 driver out of a full sixth of a season. Formula E can absolutely deliver exciting races and an exciting season. It’s just not that big of a priority for anyone yet.

The frayed edges around Formula E make one realize just how smooth a show Formula 1 is, with its decades of practice. The race order graphics will glitch and drop from the screen. Team radio cuts in, only to blast fuzzy static. Despite the stellar color commentary from IndyCar legend Dario Franchitti, Formula E for some reason has two play-by-play men — who furiously ignore one another, as if the viewer is always being dropped into the icy aftermath of an argument. The rules — especially about pit stops, where drivers literally unbuckle and run over to a second, fully-charged car — are unclear at a surprising number of crucial moments. At Turn 1 off the starting grid, the quiet whine of the electric engines means you can hear every bit of carbon fiber clattering, and the whole thing can suddenly feel like a bunch of remote control toys.

Still, I am all in on Formula E. It’s hard to think of a sport — any sport, racing or no — that is so diligently focused on building into the deep future. The point of even watching Formula E now is like watching a teenage prospect move their way up the minor circuits: some future day, you want to say that you’ve been following a juggernaut since way back when. With Mercedes and Porsche set to join the grid in 2019, that big future is coming closer and closer.

Also unlike any other sport: Formula E’s biggest fans aren’t just intrigued by the novelty of a shiny new thing. They are believers. Because when you watch a Formula E race, the thought occurs to you that maybe you aren’t only watching a race. You are maybe, just maybe, looking at a way to help save the world.


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