Throughout its brief but notable existence to date, Formula E has largely been talked of in terms of its potential.
The question was always whether this series, with its city centre racing in electric cars, was in fact the future of motorsport or a nice idea that would never quite gain the required traction. Now, in its fifth season, that question will begin to be answered.
With a coterie of high-end manufacturers poised to make their entry over the next two years, the championship is proving to be an attractive setting for sustainable research and development – perhaps the most road-relevant test case available for carmakers. Curiosity around the technology, however, must now be converted into real interest and affinity among fans.
Central to those efforts will be the much-vaunted new Gen2 cars being introduced for the 2018/19 campaign, which promise longer battery life and an end to the mid-race car switch that always threatened to undermine Formula E as a racing spectacle and engineering showcase. The championship’s organisers are using the new vehicles as the basis for a step-change in presentation. That begins on the track, with a new ‘Attack Mode’ power boost added to the social media-based FanBoost, and Formula One veteran Felipe Massa the highest-profile addition to an improving grid.
Making the series more visible is a priority, and that goal is being pursued across a range of platforms. A new broadcast partnership with the free-to-air BBC in the UK is at one end of a content strategy opposite an expanded presence on YouTube, with supplementary live streams and an influencer-led show helmed by KSI and Laurence McKenna. New blue-chip sponsors are also on board in the shape of alcohol brands Heineken and Moët & Chandon.
Above all, Formula E plans to tell its own story – one that positions it as a driver of green innovation – to a wider audience. Leading the charge on that front will be Jerome Hiquet, installed as chief marketing officer in mid-November after joining from a similar role at mass participation promoter Tough Mudder. The Frenchman, whose CV also includes spells at Voyages-sncf.com and Club Med, spoke to SportsPro at the series five launch in London, ahead of the opening ePrix in the controversial host city of Ad Diryah, Saudi Arabia.
In what ways are you going to be building on what has been put together so far? What can you bring to the role to help take the series forward?
The next step is to say, ‘We want to become even more of a fan-centric organisation’. We’re going to push to think more around how we can continue to innovate, how innovation is going to remain important for season five and season six. And I spent a lot of time with my previous organisation working on that.
The second aspect is that we are an organisation that has 13 races over 12 weekends, but we are also an organisation with a lot to say around sustainability, for example. It’s about how you create connections with your fans all year long. And it’s something that when you are in the travel industry or when you are with Tough Mudder, that’s something that was a focus that I worked on a lot there.
I think, also, how we are keeping the brand and product consistent with the higher purpose, the mission of the organisation. It’s something that matters a lot to me. And I would say that it’s also an organisation where we need to build up a global strategy but we also need to be very strong at the local level – at the race level and in specific markets where we see there is a lot of potential.
You have the Gen2 cars coming in and new manufacturers entering the series. How much pressure is there to show that this is now a mature operation that can deliver for fans as well as for broadcasters and brands?
I would say it’s a good pressure. A lot of motorsports would like to have all these manufacturers coming with them. We built the foundation to be able to be successful: there is a new car, there are more teams, there are more drivers. So the pressure now is to let let people watch or come to see the races and see how everything is going to work.
I think it’s fair to say that the manufacturers are going to be very, very important for the credibility of the series, but we don’t see any more pressure. We just want to deliver, weekend after weekend, high-quality races and events for the drivers and for the fan on TV. We’ve invested a lot this year, you’re going to see, to improve the experience that people are going to have on TV in terms of production. We’re trying to bring in new types of shows, with influencer shows on YouTube. So we feel quite good.
Ahead of season five, Formula E has stepped up its commcerical drive, securing a number of new sponsors
How would you describe some of the work you have to do in the digital space to bring some of these communities together? Will your digital activities start moving closer to the core of what you’re doing in terms of brand positioning?
I think that’s something that, frankly, between season three and season four last year, the growth in terms of viewers was around seven times or something like that. So it’s a huge effort and it very much started last year to see how we can build our platform, how many new types of content we can create – not only at the races but around the races, hero content, etc. So digital is at the core.
I would say what I want to do is create content, keep engagement around key pillars, but also find new ways to distribute our content. Our social media channels, for sure, YouTube is another example, and maybe there is other stuff coming in. But I think we also want to reach new audiences and to reach new audiences, younger audiences, we will have to continue to do more about YouTube, for example.
Formula E has always been bult around city races but after recent events, your first race in Saudi Arabia now brings the spotlight to that in a more negative way. How do you respond to the concerns that people will have about ‘sportwashing’ and other issues around that?
First of all, we are a sports organisation. We are not a political one. So we are not commenting on that. Point two is that we are following the rules. There is nothing from a legal standpoint to say that we should not go there so we are going there.
I would say, and I would say it as a newcomer, that on the flip side we are going to a territory where we’re going to bring women drivers to test at the race in a country where women were only allowed to drive one year ago. We’re going to bring an electric race to a country which has a very strong vision – Vision 2030 – about how we can shift from oil to electric. We’re also going to be have a non-segregated gender race, where women and men are going to be able to watch it. And even in the show, the live show and the concert, people are going to be allowed to dance which is quite unique.
And I would say the last point is that it’s one of the first sports events where we will have tourist visas allowed for people. So I think it’s something where we are going there and we are happy to be going there, we’re happy to show the world our sport and to participate in the evolution of our country. That, I think, is where we are.
Recent events have made the hosting of the Formula E's first race of the season in Saudi Arabia a controversial issue
Where else is the hosting strategy going, not just in terms of where you’re having the races but how they will look and feel?
City centre is always our focus, and when you think about what we just signed with the promoter for Seoul in South Korea, or even with potential topics around New Zealand or others, we want to focus on that. It’s the uniqueness of Formula E; it’s a point of differentiation. It creates drama around the races and we want to focus on that.
Now beyond that, as you can imagine with a founder and CEO like Alejandro Agag and the team, there are other ideas in the pipeline. I don’t know how much we can talk about it but soon we will be able to talk about it. There are other ideas that we have but right now the priority is to try to build a consistent championship because we have bigger manufacturers, we have bigger expectation, we have a strong momentum.
I know that sometimes young organisations will never die of starvation but sometimes they will by doing too much stuff. So I think our focus on this series is to deliver quality races for viewers and for people, for drivers and teams, and to make sure the show and the sport is great.
As a relatively young sport, are you able to experiment more with things like the Ghost Racing esports project?
In gaming, before even thinking about esports, etc, what you need is a strong game because the ecosystem is not enough. The virtual live, Ghost Race live game is potentially where we think there will be an opportunity to create an ecosystem around. But we want to be strategic on that and have a strong product. We could be different than what could be done right now in motorsport in general, and when we have that, let’s also build an ecosystem on our own or through esports.
There are some projects and some ideas around that but, as you said, we are now in the big leagues. We have big manufacturers. We don’t want to come with esports because it’s a buzzword for approximately one thousand per cent of any sport in the world. We want to bring it in a way that makes sense for the series.
What are your targets for season five? What will make it a success?
Season five is going to be a success if the drivers and the teams feel that the car is something that makes a difference. I think from a fan standpoint, viewers’ interest in new shows and experience on site, all of the usual aspects.
For us now, we have set up everything we want to deliver in the year. We want to have, you and I, a discussion in New York [where the final ePrix is being held], and feel that in terms of viewers, in terms of ratings, in terms of excitement, we continue to be on the track we were last year. That’s the main focus for us this year.