This piece was first published at the end of Season 7, but with Formula E hitting 100 races this weekend, we thought it was the perfect time to bring it back to life!
We sat down with writer and journalist Sam Smith - author of Formula E: Racing for the Future - for the inside track on how the electric racing series made it from ideas noted on a napkin to world class motor racing championship.
What started as nothing more than a shared dream between Formula E Founder Alejandro Agag and FIA President Jean Todt, noted on the back of a napkin back in 2011 in a Paris restaurant, has developed into the fastest growing motorsport series on the planet.
One person who has followed the whole journey, with his ear firmly to the ground from 'day zero' to the moment Nyck de Vries lifted that first World Drivers' Championship trophy in Berlin, is writer and journalist Sam Smith, currently of The Race.
The paddock stalwart has chronicled the series' history, its trials, trailblazing technology and engineering and on-track drama with the blessing and unprecedented insight of the people that set the motors in motion a decade ago, in his officially-licensed book Formula E: Racing for the Future.
Fresh out of a 10-year spell with Lola Racing Cars, via work for Drayson Racing's early electric Le Mans Prototype car, Smith started his own business consulting in various motorsport series before Alejandro Agag's Formula E Operations won the tender to promote Formula E.
Smith treated himself to a glance at what would come next with a trip to Punta del Este in Formula E's maiden 2014/15 season - and he's been a fixture in the paddock ever since.
'Nine out of 10 people said it couldn't be done'
"I rocked up in the paddock at Punta del Este doing some freelance work for Motorsport Magazine after a busy year following sportscars and a bit of Formula 1," said Smith. "I wanted to see what it was all about, and it was fairly rudimentary at that first race. The drivers were great, and the teams were no doubt excellent but you got the feeling everything was very fresh and new.
"There was cynicism from pretty much everybody early on, apart from the people who set the thing up. I wasn’t a hardened cynic – in my previous job at Lola, I worked with the development of the all-electric Le Mans Prototype. I knew a bit about the technology that was out there at the time and how exciting it could be.
"People like Frederic Bertrand from the FIA, Fred Espinos the Sporting Director and Alberto Longo at Formula E weren’t on rails with the regulations. They understood the situation and they could flex, which was key, with the powertrain eventually opening up for development – they were very clever from the roadmap sense.
"The work that Dallara did to get things off the ground, alongside Williams and Spark was sensational. It was critical the championship went with a spec chassis and powertrain for people to get a foothold and even after three races at that, the foothold was slipping - when you’re putting on the majority of your races in a calendar year, and building the circuit and infrastructure, it’s a huge undertaking.
"That’s one aspect of Formula E that people maybe don’t fully grasp, just how difficult it is and how accomplished the people are who put these events on. I remember being in Santiago with the circuit traversing about three different municipalities and there were political things to deal with. I looked at Nico Prost and we both said ‘this ain’t going to happen!’. Miraculously, it did though, as did all those early events.
"There are so many constituent parts that make up a successful championship, but I don’t think there’s ever been as many with new technology and street circuits. Nine out of 10 people 10 years ago said you couldn’t make it happen, but it somehow did. Alberto [Longo] and the management must take a lot of credit for that – without that pioneering element in the first couple of years, we wouldn’t have what we have today."
Rapid growth and an influx of top talent
Smith's book covers those early trials and shines a light on just how close to the wind things came in pulling off the impossible during that first season.
In conversation with Agag, Longo and other key figures at Formula E, Smith was able to explain how the championship came out of those tough opening few months and went on to hooking the might of the world's automotive manufacturers and motorsport's top talent inside a turbulent first year.
"Early on, I recognized a lot of faces from manufacturers early on, BMW’s Adam Baker then James Barclay, some senior people from Audi then the odd Porsche person would turn up in the paddock," he continues.
"The interest was there after just a few races. Season 1 finished with a hugely successful event in London – it was a great, great weekend but behind the scenes, few people knew how close to the wind things came for Formula E. It needed investment and that feeling of being on borrowed time in the very early days is something that fascinated me at the time and looking back on for the book.
"The investment came through Liberty, and a real strong foundation was formed after the great work to get things off the ground. From there, it escalated quickly through Seasons 2 and 3 from the milestones of the first race in Beijing, the race in London at Battersea Park and then Moscow – proving the championship could put on these events in city centres.
"In Season 2, we had the incredible title battle between Lucas di Grassi and Sebastien Buemi which was a kind of Senna-Prost down-to-the wire scenario. Everybody remembers that from a sporting level – it caught all the headlines and manufacturers really started to have serious conversations with the FIA and Formula E about getting involved. In Season 3, a whole host committed and already, there was an incredible backbone including Porsche, BMW, Jaguar, Renault.
"It just became one of the most competitive championships in the world. The strength in depth from drivers to teams and manufacturers was second to none – including Formula 1, in my book. Formula E’s grid has been absolutely exceptional for the last three or four seasons now.
"Once the teams had made it through the early stages and that roadmap was underway, some did get it wrong. Andretti did and had to revert to their original powertrain and Trulli paid the ultimate price for getting it wrong. When you’re working with technology that is new and ever-evolving, especially the motors and inverters then people are going to get it wrong.
"Those lessons are needed for teams to thrive in the future. With the manufacturers in there, the customer model worked for TECHEETAH for one, with the Renault powertrain and back-to-back titles with Jean-Eric Vergne across Gen1 and 2 before Antonio Felix da Costa made it a hat-trick."
World class motorsport
Smith's a real motorsport fan at heart and Formula E had him sold early on in terms of enthralling on-track entertainment, as well as the challenges it throws the way of its drivers - even those that have been there and done it across the upper echelons of the sport.
"When it comes to the spectacle – and I’m a hardcore motor racing person – there are lots of different things to love," he says. "I grew up with motorsport in the 80s and 90s, and first and foremost it’s about the level of competition. Secondly, it's the relevancy to what’s going on now and in the future in terms of technology. Nobody can argue at those constituent parts of Formula E, and I don’t think anyone can argue that Formula E hasn’t delivered entertainment. It always amuses me when critics call something a gimmick – what do they think DRS is?
"I remember speaking to Andre Lotterer shortly after he joined and he described in great detail how difficult the cars are to drive and how hard it was to have a successful race. For someone of his experience across top disciplines in motor racing – a multiple champion – to speak as he did about the test Formula E offered up was quite something. I’ve spoken to drivers after races sometimes and they’re just fried – it’s underestimated how tough it is.
"I also remember speaking to drivers that were a bit hesitant early on, then 18 months down the line I’d be interviewing them about a full-time drive in Formula E.
"I don’t think you have to be a diehard racing fan to get Formula E. My daughter watches it on TV because she like the noises and she’ll love it when she can see it live because she’s already seen it on television. Getting that next generation involved is crucial."
After seven seasons spent lapping the paddock the highlights are many, but Smith did manage to earmark a couple of moments that really stood out to him.
"It’s probably easier going through the list of average races because there are so few!" he said. "Two stand out in terms of drama. I’ve never experienced anything like Montreal in 2017 – and that’ from everything I’ve done in the last 25 years in the industry. It was just incredible what went on that weekend; the stories within the stories and the drama of the title battle. With Sebastien Buemi winning six of the first eight races and not winning the title was remarkable.
"For pure racing, Rome and the battle between Mitch Evans and Andre Lotterer in Season 5 was just exceptional. The Monaco race this season, too, but that one I remember because of that battle. Two disparate characters, great talents and a big age and experience difference but as pure racers they’re quite similar.
"It came down to an opportunistic move by Evans which was borderline but just on the right side of acceptable. I remember speaking to Evans after the race and he was wide eyed! He’d missed his ATTACK MODE activation and had to go again, and it all came down to an epic move at the chicane.
"From a journalistic point of view, I’d tracked the Nissan twin motor story for months before we could nail it down and it transpired what they were working on. It was very dramatic and brilliant technically and in a sporting sense but it was a stressful one to follow. I think it was a fascinating story for everybody who read it even though it was quite technical – there was so much going on from start to finish with it.
"Just seeing the championship develop has been fascinating and getting the World Championship name, even if it’s always been at that level in my opinion. I really enjoy being in the paddock. There are such great people and great racers there as well as some experienced engineers and people like Dario [Franchitti] who just oozes knowledge and authority. Even grabbing five minutes with someone like him or characters like Allan McNish is fascinating."
Accessible insight into a unique championship
In his book, Smith dives into everything Formula E, from a significant chunk on the technical workings of the series' cars and everything from batteries to software and safety equipment but he has also made a concerted effort to lift the lid for prospective new fans with a curiosity about the unique electric FIA World Championship.
"There’s a lot of the book that's accessible, simplifying what Formula E is, what it means and where it sits in motorsport, but I also wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a 'guide to' feel to it.
“So, there's a strong narrative is the first half of the book; the history of why Formula E had to happen, the influence of the FIA, of Agag, and those tough early months, then through the first three seasons and the growth, so there is a strong sporting element there too, surrounding what happened in the racing.
“At same time, I wanted to make sure that we dug deep into how the engineer, how the driver, and how the key people in the championship go about their business as well, because I think what that evidences is Formula E is very different, it is a unique startup, but actually it’s got its roots in traditional racing."