The Great Bright Hope of Formula E

With high-voltage cars and social media buzz, an all-new electric racing series aims to finally make fans out of millennials.

Sitting in his memorabilia-packed Indianapolis office on a warm summer day, the normally reserved Michael Andretti lights up, and it’s not over a discussion of the Indy 500 or the latest Formula 1 results. The son of fellow racing legend Mario Andretti has always been cool and composed, even as he was racking up countless trips to victory lane, so to see him this excited is infectious. And today he’s preaching the gospel of Formula E, an unproven, tech-laden, all-electric race series he believes has the potential to rev up the next generation of motor-sports fans.

Every few years, there’s an ambitious project to reinvent the racing wheel. The goal? To get millennials hooked. “Our fan base is from 30 to 50, and they aren’t getting any younger. The young people aren’t there to replace them,” says Andretti, 51, now retired from racing and the owner of AndrettiAutosport. That’s a huge problem. Corporate sponsors crave a twentysomething audience to peddle products to, and Formula E is desperate to shore up that youthful fan base.

Formula E kicks off this month in Beijing, featuring 10 teams backed by international megabrands like Audi and Mahindra, former F1 stars JarnoTrulli and Aguri Suzuki, and famous owners like Richard Branson, of Virgin Racing, and Leonardo DiCaprio, a backer of the Venturi team. Formula E is set to roar into cities ranging from Miami to Monte Carlo with a festival-like atmosphere, concerts, glitzy parties, and souped-up racers that look like IndyCar entries but sound like spaceships and use no fossil fuels. Naturally, there’s talk of social media gimmickry in the works, including a fan vote on Twitter to give a driver extra “push-to-pass” power, and a chance to race the champion in a simulator after the season is over. It all adds up to a package that might make old-school racing purists cringe. (Michael admits that his father, Mario, “isn’t even going to watch” the new series.) 

Still, “it will appeal to the kids and keep them interested,” Andretti argues. “It’s a way to show them that green can be exciting.”

Photo Courtesy of FIA Formula E Championship

The concept is simple: Each team has two drivers, both of whom will have two cars. Races will last an hour, with a required pit stop. But these pit stops aren’t to change tires—in fact, tire changing isn’t allowed. They’re for switching cars when the batteries die. Practice, qualifying, and then the actual race will take place in a single day, seemingly perfect for the short-attention-span generation. 

Formula E is the brainchild of the FIA, the international motor-sports federation, and led by Spanish politician and financier Alejandro Agag. It’s the first big push to recruit young fans since the A1 Grand Prix—a nationalistic approach to motor sports that was meant to emulate World Cup soccer, using open wheel F1-style cars—crashed and burned in 2010. 

If history is any indication, Formula E is a risky proposition, which makes Andretti’s involvement all the more important. With four cars already in IndyCar, two in Indy Lights, two in Pro Mazda, and two in Global Rallycross, AndrettiAutosport will add two Formula E cars to its supercharged stable. 

“At first we were like, ‘Eh, we’ll see,’ ” says Andretti about entering Formula E. “But then we started doing more due diligence and we realized, ‘This is better than we thought.’ The more we got into it, the more excited we got. It’s going to be a real world championship, totally separate from F1. We’re doing our own thing with a green footprint.”

That element is impacting every component of the series. Motor sports have been suffering financially since cigarette companies were run out in the 2000s. Also, the younger demographics of Formula E should draw interest from new, big-name sponsors—an influx of funding that has been missing from a notoriously expensive sport. “The green aspect is huge,” says Andretti. “People we’re talking to perk up when they hear the green and the electric side of it.” 

The car itself, dubbed the Spark-Renault SRT_01E, built by manufacturers such as Dallara, Renault, McLaren, and Williams, is set to be the ultimate electric racer. In the future, the teams don’t necessarily need to use the Spark; they can build their own components, as long as they meet the regulations. 

Photo Courtesy of AJ Mast / Corbis

Dallara is the chassis maker for a number of series, including IndyCar, and its Formula E model looks appropriately lithe and futuristic. “They make a great spec car,” Andretti says. That’s one reason why he isn’t keen on opening his wallet to build his own chassis. “If we build our own cars, budgets shoot to $100 million and the series goes away,” he says. “I’m really against that.” That’s why Andretti and other team owners are lobbying to keep the Dallara as the only chassis so manufacturers can focus on the drivetrain.

Andretti Autosport is already investigating ways to make the cars more efficient and faster. As team engineer Takashi Nakachi says, “We’re particularly looking into developing the motor. Right now, 91 percent of the power that leaves the battery becomes torque at the wheels. It’s a good number. We want to do better.” Given that the cars max out at 270 horsepower, every last bit of power is crucial, especially in a car with a 440-pound battery pack and a weight of just more than 1,700 pounds. It will be a totally new style of racing, with massive torque powering cars out of the corners on tight tracks where acceleration, not top speed, is key.

“There’s a ton more work than we’re used to because there’s wires coming out of everywhere,” says Nakachi, who spent the past few years as a data engineer for Andretti’sIndyCar team. “From battery charge to telemetry and everything in between, we have to examine it all.”

But the team also takes pride in being a part of something bigger than racing, namely the future of transportation as we know it. “Right now the batteries will last about 30 minutes, but in five years they’ll be going way faster and lasting twice as long,” says Andretti. “That’s what excites me, especially when the manufacturers get involved and we have the trickle-down to road cars in five years.”

But in the end, Formula E is still about racing, so success will be measured in the number of checkered flags Andretti and his team win. Ultimately, as Nakachi points out, “We’re in it to win it.”

Photos by Francois Flamand / DPPI / FIA Formula E Championship