Many Formula One fans scoff at Formula E, but in an era where F1 has struggled to provide exciting races and close championships, Formula E’s nail-biting title battles and plethora of passing have made it a thrilling alternative. The all-electric championship was started back in 2014 by the FIA, the governing body which controls F1 as well as the World Endurance Championship, among other series. Formula E cars are largely the same throughout the grid, creating competitive racing—the only unique parts are the electric motors, whereas F1 permits teams to develop everything from the engine to the aerodynamics, causing wider gaps in performance. The 2018-2019 season saw nine different race winners from eight different teams, while the top five drivers in the championship were separated by only 31 points at season’s end. This year, Jean-Éric Vergne became the first two-time Formula E champion—a stark contrast to the dominance of Lewis Hamilton in F1 since 2014—but it was not an easy repeat, with the battle coming down to the final two races in New York.
While I had loosely followed Formula E since its inception, I got my first real taste of the series back in 2017 when I attended the inaugural New York City ePrix weekend. The two races provided great racing and there were opportunities to see electric road cars and prototypes in the “eVillage,” but I found several aspects of the fan experience to be lacking, from a scarcity of TV screens to limited track access and a botched autograph session (you can read my 2017 review on my old blog here). When I returned two years later to watch the second 2019 New York City ePrix race, I hoped to find improvements.
Instead, I found much of the same. The racing was hard and tight on both Saturday and Sunday, with some brilliant passes, intense crashes, and championship drama. On Saturday, contact between DS Techeetah driver Andre Lottrerer and his teammate Vergne while avoiding an incident ahead forced championship leader Vergne to pit with a punctured tire, dropping him out of the points and opening up the title fight. Jaguar’s Mitch Evans made a bold move on Audi’s Daniel Abt into Turn 8 for third before swiping second from BMW driver Alexander Sims with a confident pass up the inside into Turn 11. On Sunday, Vergne fought his way into the points, finishing seventh and clinching the championship, while Audi driver Lucas di Grassi and Evans battled for second and third, crashing spectacularly on the entry to Turn 11 on the final lap.
While the actual racing was a high point, watching the action proved more challenging. Back in 2017 I complained that the screens seemed set-up only for fans in the grandstands, and that following the race from trackside was virtually impossible. Unfortunately, the situation was actually worse two years later. For fans with general admissions tickets, there was only one spot, by Turns 12 and 13, where they could stand along the catch fencing to watch the Formula E cars blast past; many of the spots that I had watched from back in 2017 now had banners covering the fencing and blocking the view. Furthermore, the only TV screen visible from this area was so far away that the timing tower was impossible to read and the angle caused the car’s liveries to be virtually indistinguishable. Employees directed me to the screen in the eVillage, but this meant standing in a concrete clearing where the track was not visible. Formula E’s atrocious set-up for those with general admission tickets meant that fans had to choose between watching the cars on track and having no clue what was happening the in race (the speakers were barely audible as well) or watching on the screen but not seeing any on-track action. Being forced into this choice was frustrating, especially since I had been able to find several spots when I attended Formula One’s Spanish Grand Prix in May where both screens and the track were visible with a general admission ticket.
Poor crowd management once again meant that it was tricky to get into the driver autograph session or the Formula E simulator unless you were one of the first in line. However, the eVillage made up for this mistake with the series of stands run by the automakers who take part in Formula E. Trendy electric cars abounded: BMW had the i8 sports car (done up in safety car guise) and the new Mini Cooper S E, while Jaguar showed off its I-Pace SUV next to the racing version (which competes in a support race before the main Formula E race). Mercedes brought the new EQC and Audi had its e-tron, both of which recently went on sale in the U.S. BMW and Audi also displayed flashy concept cars: BMW showed the buck-toothed Vision iNext that previews an upcoming electric crossover, while Audi brought the more pie-in-the-sky PB18 e-tron, a sort of supercar-hatchback with large expanses of glass, exposed shocks, and dramatic proportions. Each automaker also displayed a copy of their Formula E car, allowing fans to get an close-up experience with the cars they saw on track. Harley-Davidson also made an appearance with its new Livewire EV motorcycle, letting fans sit on some examples while revving the electric motors in others. Jaguar had trivia events with prize giveaways while BMW handed out Alexander Sims and Antonio Felix da Costa autographs. The eVillage also had several water-refilling stations where they handed out reusable plastic pouches.
While exploring the eVillage was fun, it wasn’t enough to overcome the disappointing race-watching experience. The lack of visible TV screens for general admission fans who also want to actually see the race they are attending was frustrating. Coupled with the fact that there was only one place to watch trackside meant that I ended up watching the race only on the screen, instead of actually “seeing” the action. A few extra screens and a few other uncovered fences would go a long way next year, bringing the incredible on-track action that Formula E produces to all of the fans.