Formula E CEO eyes further growth, success for all-electric series ahead of Diriyah E-Prix

Riyadh: Formula E may be only in its 10th year, but it is no longer motorsport’s new kid on the block.

Ahead of the Diriyah E-Prix double-header of night races, Formula E CEO Jeff Dodds told Arab News that the all-electric series was set to grow even more in the coming years, having already amassed a global following of 350 million fans.

The action in north Riyadh represents rounds two and three of Season 10, the second in which the Gen3 car will be employed on the track. The novelty of the fastest and most efficient Formula E car yet saw a significant number of podium winners last season.

Dodds said: “I think we had eight different winners last season, which was pretty incredible. So, I wouldn’t be surprised to see as many different winners this season.

“What we saw in the first race in Mexico, is that the performances are getting closer together, the different teams are working out how to optimize the performance of the Gen3 car. I think in qualification there was a 10th of a second between the top four qualifiers.

“So tiny, tiny margins here. Clearly, we love the racing to be competitive. I expect the racing to be competitive. They’re beginning to work out the Gen3 a bit better in the second season.

“The challenge will be, from next season, we’re into Gen3.5, because we have the evolutionary change of the car. I think we’ll see much tighter racing this season, but I also think we’ll still see a number of different winners,” he added.

Similar to many of the drivers, Dodds has a soft spot for the Diriyah street circuit, which has been hosting Formula E racing since 2018.

He said: “I love it, because the investment that goes into building this racetrack and the infrastructure is second to none.

“First of all, the investment from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia into putting on a spectacular, not just race, but total event with the drone displays, and the Backstreet Boys playing, and the build of the track, is just an incredible spectacle, because it’s so professional, so well invested in.

“The race itself is also unique. You’ve got this racetrack carved into the UNESCO World Heritage Site here in Diriyah. So, you get this juxtaposition of the birthplace of Saudi Arabia, this kind of beautiful legacy environment with state-of-the-art racetrack and the most cutting-edge cars racing through the middle of it. Completely unique.

“It’s a night race. Our only night racing of the season. So, it’s also unique, the drivers love it. Sam Bird, the most successful driver ever on this track in terms of point scores, you’ve got Pascal Wehrlein, who won on this track last year, absolutely desperate to get back to it. All the drivers I speak to, there’s a real affection for racing on the Diriyah track,” Dodds added.

He was also looking forward to regional drivers eventually being part of major motorsport events, with an announcement on a talented Saudi driver imminent.

“The Middle East region has been a key investor in elite motorsport now for many, many years, whether that’s Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Saudi Arabia.

“We know in sport that once different locations invest significantly in certain sports, generations grow up getting more and more involved in that sport.

“We saw it with tennis in Scandinavia, we’ve seen it with football, and I’m sure we’ll see it with motor racing as well. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more elite racing drivers come out of the Middle East region,” he said.

On comparisons with Formula 1, Dodds highlighted the giant strides Formula E had made in a comparatively much shorter period of time.

“They (Formula 1) are 75 years old. Incredible history, legacy, huge fan base, very loyal fan base, I’m one of them. I’m a big Formula 1 fan and have been for almost my entire life.

“We (Formula E) are nine years old and of those nine years, two of them were impacted by COVID-19 (the coronavirus pandemic) and lockdown. So really, we’re seven proper racing seasons old. And we are already up to just under 350 million fans around the world.

“Now to give you the comparison, I think Formula 1 has about 900 million. So, we’re over one-third the size of Formula 1, in only nine years, of which a couple were affected by lockdown.

“Last year, we saw our fan base grow by about 17 percent. And my ambition this year would be to grow even faster and continue that trajectory.

“The one thing we can’t change is how old we are, we are what we are. What we can do is showcase a brilliant product to people, take the product to different street circuits around the world, and different cities around the world. And continue to drive the PR message out there for people to come and have a look.

“But I’m very optimistic that we will continue to grow, hopefully at an even faster rate than last year. We’re on the upward trajectory,” he added.

Dodds was bullish about the quality of drivers in Formula E, and noted they were as good a collective group as in any racing format.

He said: “I’ve worked around a lot of drivers in the past, so I would argue a few things here. First, the drivers are as good as any drivers in the world, in my personal view.

“In Formula 1, you have a handful of absolutely elite motor racing drivers. But you also have a large number of drivers in Formula 1 who pay for their seat. So, they’re there perhaps not always on merit, but they’re there on commercial backing.

“In Formula E, the teams are paying for some of the best drivers in the world. A number have raced in Formula 1; Stoffel Vandoorne, Nyck de Vries, Lucas di Grassi. We have several racing drivers who came out of Formula 1, we also have a number who will potentially go on to Formula 1. A very different racing experience,” Dodds added.

He pointed out that until a few years ago, not all Formula 1 drivers were the superstars they are today thanks to the intervention of streaming giant Netflix. Formula E drivers, he said, would benefit from similar exposure.

“I did a little exercise, I went back and looked at the last Formula 1 season before (Netflix series) ‘Drive to Survive.’ And I would say probably half of the drivers were recognizable and known — half of them were pretty much unknown to everyone I asked the question of.

“What ‘Drive to Survive’ did was really put those drivers on the map as personalities in their own right. It made them household names.

“Now, we (Formula E) haven’t yet launched a big global streaming series, one of the things we’re actively looking at now. That would help to put drivers’ names on the map as personalities.

“But we should be under no illusion. They might not be household names today, but they are some of the best racing drivers in the world in any format,” Dodds added.