Inside Line: A visit to the Berlin ePrix and related musings

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Formula-E was happening on my doorstep – literally 30 minutes away from my home on public transport – so I applied for media accreditation to get a feel for what the all-electric series brings to the table.

Last year I made a brief visit to the Berlin ePrix, paid a nominal entry fee and with my wife we roamed around for an hour or two before departing. Because at the time this was a social visit of sorts, not planned, just stumbled on it and got a taste.

So this year I applied for media accreditation and off I went cameras in hand to get a deeper feel for the sport and to jot down my impressions.

One day at a Formula-E event does not make me an expert on the series, far from it in fact, and I would probably need to tuck into at least half a season to get familiar with the nuances.

So here is my perspective on the ePrix race day at Berlin Tempelhof Airport, a place steeped in history.

The site of the airport was originally Knights Templar land in the 13th century and from this emerged the name Tempelhof.

Last century the airport halls and the adjoining buildings, described by British architect Sir Norman Foster as “the mother of all airports”, were built as a symbol of Adolf Hitler’s world capital dream of Germania and was intended to become the gateway to Europe.

Shortly after the second world war it was the base from which the historic Berlin Airlift saved the city and a monument now stands at the entrance honouring the 39 British and 31 American airmen who lost their lives during the operation.

It remains an impressive, even hallowed, place to this day.

Fast forward to 2018 and the Berlin ePrix, first and foremost all I can do is lavish praise on Alejandro Agag and his team who make Formula-E happen. The whole operation is a lesson in astounding logistics, meticulous organisation, targeted marketing and slick major event hosting. Hassle-free springs to mind.

The race weekend, the ninth round of the 12 rounds 2017-2018 Formula-E season, consisted of a prep Friday, followed by most of the track action on Saturday.

Again every box was ticked in terms of efficiency, ease-of-use, friendliness from the officials through to the security staff – no stress, everyone pleasant and helpful. First class and faultless.

On the corporate side, there is a growing band of blue-chip companies getting involved in Formula-E. Already Audi are heavily committed with their team run by Allen McNish, as are Renault, Andretti, Penske, Citroen and Jaguar. Mercedes and Porsche are soon to be added to the ten-team list.

In a nutshell, we have us a series that you cannot really fault in terms of delivery and execution, while impressive growth is virtually guaranteed as it continues to gather steam. Its future is bright.

In the official overview for Formula-E it says: “In 2012, the concept of all-electric international single-seater racing was born. FIA President Jean Todt developed the idea as a means to demonstrate the potential of sustainable mobility. Inspired by this vision, Formula-E Founder and CEO Alejandro Agag created a global entertainment brand with motor racing at its heart.”

Note to self: Is motor racing a sport or a brand? A subject for another time…

Formula-E trumpets with justified pride: “Since making its global debut in the grounds of the Olympic Park in Beijing in 2014, Formula E has become a destination for the world’s best drivers, teams and manufacturers.”

“Now in its Fourth season, the Championship boasts one of the best driver line-ups in motorsport, with an exciting calendar of host cities and increasingly innovative technology on the track,” the report overview concludes.

Race day in sunny Berlin was packed. The five massive temporary stands (probably good for a couple of thousand people seated on each) appeared full to capacity. Those who paid five bucks entry fee had to watch from the trackside through the fences. At the start of the race, without a free seat in the stands, there were two or three rows deep with spectators aligning the track fencing to get a glimpse of the action.

They certainly got their crowd on the day and if organisers add three or four more grandstands from the final turn, down the main straight, to the Turn 1 complex they are sure to fill them also next time.

The fact that local German hero Daniel Abt qualified on pole created a big buzz among the crowd and then going on to win produced a lively and enthusiastic post-race celebration ceremony. Abt and his fans were happy and they showed it in style in the podium arena, by then my cameras were packed and I just savoured the celebration.

Before the race, 2016 Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg did the first public demo laps in the Formula-E Gen2, enthusiastically describing the experience live to fans over several giant TV screens strategically scattered around the venue. A good part of the day for fans, attending an ePrix, is spent peering at the giant TVs.

I have previously watched (on TV) Formula-E races that were exciting, but this one on the day was a dull procession at the front with Abt leading home Audi teammate Lucas di Grassi by six seconds and Jules Vergne taking third for Techeetah a further six seconds adrift.

There were some close battles down the field, with plenty high-pitched electric engine whining, screeching tyres and bodywork scraping either tarmac or other cars os scraping walls. All very underwhelming even within arms reach of the cars.

On the downside, one spends a full day at the venue for an hour of actual racing but granted it was packed with alternative off-track entertainment which appeared to be a hit with fans.

Qualifying early on Saturday afternoon lasted about an hour and I would say was moderately exciting. The format leaves little room for error as drivers have a couple of laps to hit the sweet spot and set a time for a grid slot.

The top five proceed to a shoot-out for the top five grid positions, including pole, which lacks that nail-biting tension of a final run in Q3.

After qualifying, there was a three-hour break with no on-track racing at all.

Instead, we got the much appreciated run by Rosberg in next year’s car that lasted about 15 minutes in total. There were also hot laps in electric GT cars, pit walks and of course the pop bands, games areas, food stalls etc etc.

Thus, it has to be accepted that this is how race meetings happen in this new age. People want to be entertained with variety and in this case have some racing thrown into the schedule.

I am of a bygone era, from my pre-teens I went to Kyalami with my grandfather to watch racing at least ten times a year for dozens of years and those race days delivered… racing!

National race days were busy with 12 to 15 back-to-back races per weekend, international races such as the grand prix and even endurance events were also packed with support races and huge fields of competitors.

As a racing fan this is what you did: find your regular spot at your favourite section of the track, reserve places on a section of prefab stands for mates, haul out the cooler bags, spread the homemade grub and in the process watch non-stop racing from 9am to sundown, with maybe an hour lunch break for a visit to the pits.

Never was there a need to ride a carousel, or do go-karting, or break virtual lap records, or buy merchandise, or listen to bands. That shit didn’t even cross our minds. We were there for the racing!

Yes, F1 does have support races during the course of a race weekend, in most instances, they share the track with Formula 2, GP3 and Porsche Super Cup. All with high potential of entertainment, yet I always find it (sad and) remarkable how few people are in the stands watching these support races, including Formula 2!

But modern fans appear to have spoken to the marketing gurus – no doubt through social media and surveys – and fans want concerts, paddock club, fan zones, simulators, go-karts, bouncing castles, kiddie zones and (expensive) food. In other words, they can go to the ‘races’ and have a day filled with ‘fun’ but don’t ask who finished fourth.

As mentioned I accept that as a motor racing fan I am a dinosaur and for sure the clever marketing people are not targeting me or my generation by a long margin. They are delivering a product that the current generation want. Accepted.

But even in this modern era, I am not alone, when eavesdropping on conversations during the course of Saturday in Berlin, the gripe of too little racing was pretty common on the day.

However, Agag is shrewd and has a tin-top support series in the pipeline for next season. This will provide much needed real racing track time on ePrix weekends.

With this in place and perhaps another junior series – a Formula 3E of sorts – they will deliver an action-packed day or two of real racing. I presume this will be the logical road they will follow into the future, to the point that I envisage a total electric motorsport world living in parallel with the traditional motorsport categories.

Visually, into their fourth season, the cars still look wicked in a ‘Star-Wars-inspired-race-car’ kind of way and I am sure followers of the series know every driver and car combination as we know our Formula 1 grid.

The new car – the Gen2 that Rosberg drove – is equally good looking, perhaps even more sci-fi looking and will be capable of running a full one hour race without a change of cars. But despite all the good stuff, the thing that stands out for me is the lack of noise.

These things are life-size Scalextrix on steroids. They make the whistling sound of a jet starting up before the real stuff kicks in and then whine away into the distance – something missing there!

My mind hard-wired the old-fashioned way: ‘noise equals speed’ in this instance fools my brain top believe that these things are not fast.

However, the eyes defy the ears because the boys are toiling hard in those Spark chassis with ridiculously narrow rear tyres (Note to Mr Agag: Please make those rear tyres twice the width) while extracting the maximum from their performance, and let’s be honest there are some top notch drivers among the drivers currently plying their trade in Formula-E.

Several guys in the field should have had a crack at Formula 1 along mix it with those who did, some who perhaps deserved better and of course the up-and-comers.

I am not going to elaborate but it is an impressive field of drivers: Andre Lotterer, Lucas di Grassi, Sam Bird, Neel Jani, Sebastien Buemi, Luca Filippi, Jean-Eric Vergne, Stephane Sarrazin, Antonio Felix da Costa, Oliver Turvey, Daniel Abt to name some.

Pure respect for what the FIA, Agag, his team and his partners have achieved in such a short space of time. It’s all highly commendable, but it is not my cup of tea.

As much as professional beach football (soccer for our USA mates) is fun and filled with action – plenty goals, great atmosphere, amazing skills, fast and furious – but it will always be second or even third tier behind proper first top-tier football.

I reckon, while I am still around on this planet, Formula 1 (as we know it now and how it plans to evolve) will always be a level or two up on Formula-E, but the potential exists to serve each other well and to co-exist with mutual benefits.

Formula-E has the capacity to attract city fans, not necessarily racing die-hards, who seldom have the opportunity or inclination to watch motor racing. Good marketing and reasonable prices, as well as the promise of ‘fun things to do’ on the day, attract these fans who may get ‘bitten by the motorsport bug’ and decide to explore motor racing beyond Formula-E.

As for Formula 1 fans, I encourage you to make a point of attending an ePrix, if it comes to an area near you, and see for yourself.

(Some advice: Buy numbered grandstand tickets – they are not expensive – you don’t want to be watching through a fence, standing around for hours.)

Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t. Either way, both series can benefit from the crossover of fans, while helping grow a new generation of global fans for motorsport as a whole.

Wearing my editor hat, I must admit that earlier this year I toyed with a plan to add Formula-E coverage to GrandPrix247 or create a Formula-E247 site, but that has gone out the window because the electric version of our sport does not incite the same kind of passion felt for Formula 1, which in turns inspires what goes into producing this site.

The focus of GrandPrix247 will continue to be 100% on Formula 1 news and time permitting we will visit the likes of Formula 2, Le Mans, keep an eye on Indy and the adventures of former F1 drivers.

It took a visit to the Berlin ePrix to confirm that despite the hype Formula 1 rules!