All-electric racing series Formula E starts its third season this weekend in Hong Kong. It’s an exciting year for the young series, because big names like Jaguar and BMW have joined the already competitive field. The series is also heading to new locations like New York City and Montreal.
Formula E has only run 21 races so far, so you might be wondering just what the hell it is. You’re not alone! The series has pulled in hundreds of thousands of viewers per race in both the US and the UK last season, but the awareness is still pretty low — especially outside of the motorsports world.
That said, there’s a lot to like about Formula E that might even appeal to people who have never sat through a full NASCAR, IndyCar, or Formula One race. (For one, Formula E races are short!) So here’s a quick breakdown of how you can watch this weekend’s season premiere, and a guide on the most important things to keep an eye on if you’re new to the series.
How to watch
Fox owns the broadcast rights in the United States, and many of the races air live on either Fox Sports 1 or Fox Sports 2. That means they’re also available on the Fox Sports Go mobile app (if you have a cable subscription). This weekend’s race in Hong Kong will air late Saturday night (or Sunday morning, if you’re so inclined) on Fox Sports 1 at 3:30AM ET. It will be replayed at 4:30PM ET on Sunday afternoon on the national Fox broadcast network.
The broadcast rights have shifted to Channel 5 in the UK this season, and the Hong Kong race can be seen live at 8:30AM BST. Formula E broadcasts in dozens of other countries, too, and those schedules can be found here.
Outside of certain countries (like the US), Formula E streams its races for free. If you miss a race, the series usually has a 5–6-minute highlight video posted to YouTube within the first 24 hours. A 15-minute highlight package typically gets posted within a week, and shortly after that the series always uploads a 50-minute version — essentially the full race for free.
What to watch for
Formula E is a racing series. The cars may be electric, and there are definitely some other quirks (which we’ll get to), but if you’ve seen an F1 or IndyCar race, it’s fairly similar. There are 10 teams with two drivers per team for a total of 20 cars, competing across a 12 race season. There are two championship trophies: one for the driver with the most points at the end of the season, and one for the highest-scoring team.
But there are important differences in Formula E that set it apart.
Locations, locations, locations
One of the most unique aspects of Formula E is that almost every race takes place on a temporary street circuit in or near the center of a major city. The series leverages the fact that the cars are relatively quiet compared to their oil-burning counterparts, as well as local governments’ willingness to promote anything related to clean energy, in order to pull this all off. It’s a refreshing break from the purpose-built racing circuits that flood the Formula One race calendar.
The series has already pulled off races in cities like Paris, Berlin, London, Miami, and Long Beach. In season three, Formula E is adding New York City, Montreal, Hong Kong, Marrakesh, and Brussels to the mix. The series is also returning to the legendary Monaco street circuit in May — it raced there in season one, but scheduling conflicts kept it off of the season two schedule.
There are a few reasons for racing in cities. First and foremost, it’s a promotional tool. If you can pull off a race in the middle of a city, you’re bound to attract more attention from outside the motorsport world than you would at a track that’s miles away. Second, it keeps the courses shorter, since the series has to minimize the impact on the host city. Shorter courses mean closer racing, but more braking and turns means the batteries can last a bit longer, too.
The drivers have to race these electric cars differently
Formula E is like other racing series at a very high level, but the actual racing is distinct, because the drivers aren’t always pushing the cars as hard as they possibly can. Formula E drivers have to strike a very tough balance between running hard to race for the win and managing the remaining energy in the battery. The cars have both regular brakes and regenerative brakes, the latter of which can send kinetic energy back into the battery. But recharging the battery this way heats it up, so they also have to be sure not to overheat the system — otherwise, the car will shut down.
You can watch Formula E races without really paying attention to this aspect of the competition, but it’s a significant source of drama. The broadcast does a good job keeping you informed about what drivers are struggling to strike this balance, thanks to a great pair of announcers, the occasional eavesdropping on team radio communications, and the fact that you can always see how much battery each driver has left.
There are some huge automotive names involved with Formula E already. Jaguar, BMW, Renault, Audi, and Citroën all run (or have a hand in running) teams. Lesser-known startups are in the mix, too — Faraday Future and NextEV, two electric car companies with Chinese backing, race in the series. Formula E also has some big-name team sponsors, like Virgin and Panasonic. And there are some legacy motorsport names involved, too: legendary F1 driver Alain Prost runs the Renault team (and his son drives one of the cars), Mario Andretti’s son Michael runs another team, and Jay Penske — son of NASCAR and IndyCar team owner Roger Penske — runs a team as well.
But this is electric racing, so where’s Tesla?
The thinking is that all these other companies are just starting to explore electric vehicles, so they are interested in Formula E because it can help lay some technical and philosophical foundation when it comes to developing an EV. Tesla has been making electric cars for a while now, so it’s likely that the company just doesn’t see the need to get involved. Joining Formula E would also require time, money, and labor — things that a company with thin margins like Tesla probably can’t afford. (Tesla fans looking for a racing fix should keep an eye on the Electric GT World Series, launching in 2017.)
The announcers are great
Speaking of, those announcers are superb. Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti have become an incredible announcing team over the course of the first two seasons. Nicholls is excitable and high-energy, while Franchitti — a four-time IndyCar champion and three-time Indy 500 winner — is cool, insightful, and funny. The races are worth watching to listen to their commentary alone. Unfortunately, they won’t be together for the season premiere in Hong Kong.
The races are short, and that’s a good thing
Formula E races are shorter than almost every other major motorsport. NASCAR’s marathon races can last upwards of four hours, F1 and IndyCar hover in the 1–2-hour range. Formula E races last about 50 minutes. This is a good thing — during a long NASCAR race, it’s sometimes easy to lose the thread of what’s going on. The ticking clock of Formula E means the drama is always palpable.
The short race length is also out of the series’ hands right now, since the batteries in the cars are only currently capable of lasting around 25 minutes under the stress of the race. This will change in season five when the series gets a newer, more powerful battery. But until then, it means every driver has to make one pit stop in the middle of the race. They don’t swap batteries though, they swap cars.
The drivers swap cars mid-race, but it’s fine
I’ll admit, it’s weird watching a driver — especially one who’s spent 25 minutes fighting tooth and nail for the lead of the race — pull into the pits, hop out of a car, hop into another one, and take off again. Formula E chose this route because quickly swapping a battery in the middle of the race could be extremely dangerous for the pit crew (and making the battery easily removable would add weight to the cars, making them slower).
Here’s the thing though: it’s fine! The car swaps take about a minute but they are otherwise no different from a pit stop. And since the drivers only have to make one stop — not two or three or four like in other series — the car swaps add some clear drama to each race. Some drivers try to conserve energy in the first half of the race in order squeeze an extra lap out of the battery, allowing them to push the second car harder. Other drivers push their cars too hard and risk killing the battery before crossing the finish line. The race broadcasts constantly show each drivers’ remaining battery percentage, too, so there’s no guesswork.
Regardless, this will all change in season five, when the series will have a new battery from McLaren that will last the entire race.
One of the most talked-about aspects of Formula E when it was created was “Fanboost,” a fan voting contest held before each race that awards the winning drivers an extra boost of power that they can use in the race. Many people, especially longtime race fans, hated this idea. But over two seasons it’s amounted to almost nothing. The drivers mention it on broadcasts and tweet about it all the time, but that’s because they have to — it’s an obvious tool for engaging with the fans. In the context of the race, the extra bit of power often means nothing.
While the voting aspect is unique, the idea of a power boost isn’t — other racing series have similar ideas, just in different forms. IndyCar drivers have access to a “push to pass” button that affords a number of boosts throughout a race, and Formula One has a few different systems that let drivers temporarily make their cars go faster.
The drivers are talented, but you probably don’t know who they are
The drivers of Formula E are a pretty exceptional bunch even if they’re not household names. (To be fair, recognition is a problem for most motorsports these days.) A cynic could look at them as cast-offs from other series like Formula One, but the reality is that F1 is a really hard series to compete in — if you even come near running an F1 car, you’re probably one of the most talented drivers in the world.
Some of the drivers already have outsized personalities that match their talent. Lucas di Grassi is a happy-go-lucky championship contender. Sebastien Buemi is a temperamental trophy-winner. Nelson Piquet Jr. is probably the most recognizable of the bunch to anyone who’s casually followed motorsports in the last decade.
The drivers who’ve been in the series for a while now never shut up about how competitive the field is. But if Formula E wants to grow beyond being a niche sport, it’s either going to have to bring world-renowned drivers into the mix or find a way to make its current stars more recognizable.
Or it could ditch drivers altogether. At some point this season, Formula E will have a warm-up act called Roborace. It will supposedly pit some Tron-style self-driving cars against each other on the same city circuits that Formula E runs on. But Roborace’s organizers haven’t picked an actual debut date yet. So far we’ve only seen footage of its test car, known as “DevBot,” but the people behind it are going to start publishing behind-the-scenes documentary shorts later this month, which should shed some more light on the project. It’s a fascinating idea, for sure, but Formula E is already a really hard sell in a crowded media landscape.
Whether you find it interesting or not, Formula E is doing something completely outrageous. The series gathered up hundreds of millions of dollars of investment money and pumped it all into this electric racing series. When you look at where things are headed with electric vehicles, it makes sense that there will be all sorts of electric racing in 5, 10, or 20 years — in fact, it’s already happening.