Opinion: Formula E’s ‘night club’ theme somehow works

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It might have felt like being in a nightclub, but London’s Excel centre proved a strangely good venue for a Formula E race.

For anyone who thinks that Formula E lacks noise, think again. Having just emerged blinking from the Excel exhibition centre after watching the London E-Prix, my ears are ringing.

That’s not because of the engine noise, of course: these are electric single-seaters, and while they aren’t silent you can hold a conversation as they whizz nearby. Instead, it was the music: loud, receptive dance music that was played at high volume throughout the 45-minute race. I feel like I’ve just emerged from a nightclub more than attended a world championship motor race.

That said, I certainly got to witness a race. And for all the challenges and compromises inherent in staging a race on a ridiculously tight, twisty course that ran around and through an exhibition centre, Formula E certainly put on an entertaining, if occasionally surreal, show on its return to London after a break of five years.

Due to the lack of engine noise, Formula E has been able to stage races in some highly unusual locations, but the London e-Prix course might well be the most surreal yet, with 22 packed into 2.25km. The pits and main straights were located inside one of Excel’s show halls, with the drivers tackling a tight series of turns indoors, before bursting outside on a tight down ramp. The course then twisted round the outside of the halls, before a steep up ramp led to a final series of turns back inside.

The transition between the indoor and outdoor sections presented a major challenge, especially when rain in morning practice fell on the outdoor section of the track. To aid the drivers with visibility, the indoor section of the circuit featured overhead lighting similar to that used for an outdoor night race, and for contrast the indoor spectating areas and pits were barely illuminated. Nissan motorsport boss Tomaso Volpe compared working at the event to attending a motor show: no natural daylight and lots of blaring background noise.

Still, the unusual venue definitely made for a good show. While some motorsport purists still sniff at Formula E, there’s no doubt the championship’s mix of energy management, Attack Mode boost system and tight circuits makes for some entertaining racing – and that was true with the first London race.

The grid was somewhat shuffled, and while Alex Lynn did a good job to lead early on in his Mahindra, BMW Andretti’s Jake Dennis patiently waited for his opportunity before grabbing the lead. Once in front, the Nuneaton driver puled clear and cruised for glory.

There was plenty of entertainment behind him, not least Nyck de Vries’s inspired charge up to third place in his Mercedes. And there was plenty of overtaking and side-by-side racing – both outside and inside. Formula E bosses deserve some credit for that: because the course was so slow, they cut the battery energy available to teams and increased the amount of Attack Mode boost on offer to ensure drivers still needed to use energy management during the race.

I had a privileged viewing spot right by the start line, from where I could watch the cars zip past at full pelt – while still being able to hold a conversation. Well, in theory. Because, as mentioned, organisers chose to pipe music into the convention centre throughout the race. Add in some weird disco lighting effect and post-race indoor fireworks as Dennis celebrated a home win on the podium, and it was quite the sensory overload. In a way it was almost a shame, because it really wasn’t needed: Formula E’s electric motors actually have a pleasant note, and it’s genuinely fascinating to hear the tyre squeal, and when the cars hit each other.

The London E-Prix really shouldn’t have worked – yet somehow, it did. It’s a shame the pandemic meant only a small crowd could attend, but hopefully that will change in future years and more fans can experience a surreal slice of motorsport. But perhaps with the music volume turned down a notch or two.

James Attwood

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