“We must deliver racing.”
All sport has been stripped bare from an operational and organisational point of view in under 12 months. So when Jamie Reigle, the CEO of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship, begins our conversation with the above statement it’s hard to know whether it’s stating the obvious or avowing mere survival.
In truth it’s a bit of both. The promoters of Formula E have a commitment and obligation to do just that – go racing. But they must also do so safely, respectfully and consciously within the context of a once-in-a-generation global emergency which has already killed 2.1 million worldwide and severely maimed economies.
Motorsport stars, with all their pre-conceived, and let’s face it, grossly misconceived privileges, cannot afford ‘Djokovic moments’ of complacency.
“When we go into a city, we’re responsible citizens,” attests Reigle.
“We did Berlin [last August], which we were proud of, and it was fit for purpose for 2020.
“We knew we had to finish the season, we knew we could have done it in a way perhaps like Formula 1 moving around.
“But ultimately, we thought, ‘hey this is going to be the most responsible, efficient way to complete the season.’”
Reigle is right to see Berlin’s week of six races as a success but it was a gruelling one and an event that no one in the championship, least of all team mechanics but also media partners too, has any desire to repeat.
Double-headers will be a feature of the present calendar – which was partly announced earlier today – but nothing more intensive than that.
Within the need to go racing, come practicalities. Formula E, like many global competitions, believes it will get a type of sporting exemption that existed for most of 2020. Put succinctly, it has to.
The Champions League and Europa League football competitions starting up again next month will be a litmus test for whether a relatively smooth exemption procedure will function in the now more hostile UK territory, where one variant has caused a further intensive lockdown and more stringent travel restrictions.
The world championship moniker, which as of yet has been curiously underused by Formula E, brings elevated expectations across the board, but specifically to Formula E’s commercial partners.
“We have to deliver the Formula E that people have signed up for,” Reigle tells The Race.
“It is one that people believe in, that it’s a global championship, it’s in cities. But we need to be pragmatic too.
“Would we compromise on the type of venue? I think it’s really important that we stay true to the DNA of Formula E, and why we are differentiated from other championships.”
Reigle is a big believer in Formula E’s street racing mantra, and essentially has to be one because Formula E is founded on the principles of urban competition.
Ask any of the manufacturers involved and they will tell you how integral it is that they can wine and dine partner VIPs in major cities, showcasing how they can bring their products to city environments to make impacts on new demographics and future mobility consumers.
Motorsport series need points of differentiation – whether it’s the climate change angle or racing in cities. But when they are faced with a pandemic that has festered and consequently changed society, perhaps permanently, then they have to be agile.
When a new virus variant emerged in the UK last month that agility’s hand was forced and Formula E’s planned January Santiago opener was gone within days. That’s just the reality of the environment everyone is in at present .
“We want to be a championship that reflects our status as a world championship, we want to be true to Formula E’s principles, but we also want to make the decisions in a way that we can be adaptable and flexible,” says Reigle
That is why Formula E set up specific ‘gates’ of calendar confirmation, with the latest one coming earlier today.
It’s a calendar which has challenged Formula E’s new structure of its operations department, led by Formula E’s deputy CEO and co-founder Alberto Longo. Working in a Tetris-style calendar landscape must have infuriated and challenged Longo and his team in equal measure.
That team includes sporting director Frederic Espinos, event operations director Roger Hooker, cities development director Oliver McCrudden and strategy planning director Gemma Roura. It is an experienced and highly capable team, which has had to adapt to some truly convoluted scenarios.
In addition, experienced motorsport enforcer and former Renault and Lotus F1 staffer Barry Mortimer has recently been confirmed in the role of head of technical operations, working closely with Joe Vickers and Solenne Arrighi on the event management side.
Their work means that Formula E feels confident to make today’s calendar announcement and commit to a set of races in Rome, Valencia, Monaco, Marrakesh and Santiago to follow the Diriyah opener.
That package represents a strong Formula E feel while at the same time “minimising collective risk”, according to Reigle.
The loss of Paris was somewhat inevitable. The FE track is located in the heart of the city and through a combination of commercial and residential properties there was no way it was going to happen in early spring let alone in 2021 at all.
It is a particularly disruptive race to that part of the city, and despite having the explicit support of long-time city mayor Anne Hidalgo, and of course the FIA, it couldn’t be made a safe or realistic proposition.
“Paris, for reasons that are specific to the challenge of putting on an event in such an iconic city in this time, will be replaced by Valencia,” says Reigle
“But we feel OK with that, because we have Monaco a few weeks later, which is obviously an iconic venue in motorsport.”
The Race understands that an open conversation between Formula E and the Parisian authorities concluded that in the context of the uncertainty around the pandemic that the race would be let go for a second consecutive year.
“The responsibility we have, I think is what trumps all the commercial considerations or the brand considerations” Reigle says regarding the Paris cancellation.
“But nothing has changed in terms of our commitment to Paris, or indeed their desire to have us. So, I feel really confident that we’ll be back in 2022.”
Ultimately Valencia in April and Marrakesh in May should be relatively simple plug-in and play affairs, although Valencia will need some creativity from Formula E Operations and the FIA to make a workable and interesting track – which by design it plainly is not. As outlined by The Race recently, this process is well underway.
It became clear quite quickly that racing in Asia would not be possible for European-based teams from an early stage this year, so the planned Sanya and Seoul dates will be revisited for the end of the campaign – with a self-imposed deadline of September 5 for either to happen.
This could be the date of the Seoul E-Prix finally being able to run. Asia is a vital market for the vast majority of Formula E teams but with mostly closed borders and strict quarantine measure it is impractical to confirm at present.
The likelihood of Formula E going to Asia this year is slim. But one optimistic possibility is that with Beijing scheduled to host the Winter Olympics in early 2022, Chinese authorities take the view that smaller-scale international events such as Formula E are worthwhile to test some protocols in readiness.
But Reigle has a modicum of optimism, saying that “in the case of South Korea, I would say I am a little more optimistic, but [there is] a similar overall kind of framework [closed borders].
“South Korea has a very clear plan around vaccinations, which starts later this quarter, and it will be a government-mandated programme,” he continues.
“I think they vaccinated 30 million people against the common flu last autumn as a precaution, out of 50 million people. So they would have the ability to do that [vaccinate] quite quickly.”
Formula E has strong support from the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG), and is part of what’s called the ‘Seoul Festa’, which is a celebration of Korean culture, music, food, etc. Within this, the SMG wants to use Formula E as a way to showcase that the country will be ‘open’ again soon.
The objective for Formula E’s ‘Americas leg’ is clearly to try to optimise logistics in as efficient a way as possible. The cars and much of the freight has already made one journey of almost 7000 miles and is currently making an even longer one to Saudi Arabia for next month’s Diriyah E-Prix openers.
Should the rescheduled Santiago races be possible for June 5-6 – and remember that this will be winter in the southern hemisphere, making the threat of more disruptive COVID-19 outbreaks very possible – they could begin a Santiago/Mexico City/New York City trilogy.
That is the ideal situation for Formula E to start what is essentially the back end of the 2020/21 season.
“Santiago we feel good about as they have started the vaccination programme,” says Reigle.
“Chile is a more compact country, and you see, for example, Israel has already vaccinated 25% of the population, and they’re saying that will be done in March.
“We believe there’s a commitment in Chile which gives us the confidence – combined with vaccination rates in Europe meaning travel restrictions being reduced – that we should be able to go there.”
Let’s also not forget that Reigle and Formula E feel confident because Santiago is also a good pay day for them. The Antofagasta minerals company is a generous supporter of the event and there is a degree of pressure from a commercial standpoint as well as some of the manufacturers, especially Nissan and DS, having sizeable activations in Chile.
Mexico City is more precarious because a vaccination facility has replaced an emergency hospital in the paddock and adjoining circuit offices. It is due to be in-situ until at least April.
With the city being one of the most densely populated on earth, it is hard to see how Formula E can get a race there and tick off its efficient logistics potentially a fortnight after the planned Santiago event.
“There’s some uncertainty around that [Mexico City],” admits Reigle, “which is why we’re not committing to it today.
“I am confident that we should race in Mexico this year, whether it’s in June, or another date. I think it is a TBD [to be decided] at this point, because we just don’t want to make a commitment that we have to backpedal from.”
Whatever 2021 brings in the shape of a first world championship calendar, it is cautiously presumed that in reality the final season of Gen2 competition in 2021/22 will be a glittering and diverse valedictory for the current striking cars before Gen3 supplants them.
Reigle is confident that the next calendar will be known this summer as scheduled and that it will consist of some new venues to complement most of those known and loved in the championship.
As reported last year by The Race, Japan is closing on a first E-Prix, while Moscow, Cape Town, Eindhoven, Atlanta and Vancouver are also prospects.
“I would expect we’ll work towards the same timeframe [in announcing the 2021/22 calendar], and I am optimistic about season eight and 2022,” reckons Reigle.
“In terms of a lot of the venues, we’ve talked about returning [in 2022] in the dates that they are meant to happen [in 2021]
“We’ve also actually got some interesting cities that Alberto and the team have been working with to try to add to the calendar.
“Nothing is signed as of today, but we’re in this interesting time where the near term is so uncertain, and the variability is so high.
“But where we’re really encouraged is with the feedback from cities, potential promoters and from local governments, which is incredibly strong.”
What the last 12 months has shown is that no one can be complacent, no matter how influential or commercially sound they might think they are. The term ‘future-proofing’ has been diluted and bigger-picture geopolitical analysis is more important than ever.
In a way this is good for Formula E, which holds an ace hand when it comes to the inevitable poker games played in sport.
These are clearly climate topics that have only accelerated up the political agenda, as well as the corporate one.
The new President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, has re-entered the Paris Climate Agreement and manufacturers are pouring in more investments to EV tech.
Formula E is also now certified as the only sport to be net zero carbon from its inception, meaning it has another convincing and legitimate selling-point for future partners.
Yet, conversely Formula E is in the live events business, which is markedly unfavourable at the moment.
“If we can get through this I’m really excited about season eight [2021/22],” says Reigle.
“It’s too early to say for sure, but I’m kind of cautiously optimistic we can announce new venues that are that are going to be very attractive.”
For the future of the Formula E world championship that optimism will have to ride out another fractured path in 2021 before the series can get back on to further enhancing itself as the most future-relevant racing discipline around.
And for that to happen it has to fortify its aims of differentiation. Its owner Liberty Global is seeing to that with a large executive and management recruitment drive from companies such as Sky TV, McLaren, Manchester United and IMG in an effort to monetise and grow its prospects.
At the same time it needs to be remembered that for all its slick marketing and smooth creative sub-elements, Formula E is, at the end of the day, a sport.
And it is one that needs consistent homes within urban environments to flourish, because without those, all the brand campaigns in the world will not protect it from falling into the trap of being just another race series.