Formula E’s 100th E-Prix: Eight years of all-electric racing

Looking back with co-founder Alberto Longo and former champ Lucas di Grassi.

Formula E's first race, the 2014 Beijing E-Prix (Sam Bloxham)

When the checkered flag drops Sunday in Seoul, Formula E will have run its 100th race. It’s a far cry from the series’ humble beginnings: a shared idea from Formula E chairman Alejandro Agag and FIA president Jean Todt, jotted down on a napkin in 2011. In three years, a group launched the world’s first all-electric single-seater championship. And the rest, as they say, is history.

“The people that we knew were laughing about the venture,” Formula E co-founder and chief championship officer Alberto Longo said on a call with the media last week. “And now, look how far we’ve come.”

Longo’s assessment is accurate. Formula E has indeed come a long way since Season 1 and that first race at Olympic Park in Beijing. Most notably, the series has become a hotbed for innovation with a number automakers fielding teams. Mahindra has been there from the start, with Audi, BMW, DS, Jaguar, Mercedes, Nissan, Porsche, Renault and others participating along the way. Several teams — like Mahindra, Venturi and Andretti — have also remained active in Formula E since that first season.

“Race 100 is a huge validation of the work people have done,” Longo said. “Everybody was saying we were going to fail.”

With all of that in its past, only one driver is poised to drive in all 100 E-Prix: Season 3 champion Lucas di Grassi. He also won the first-ever race back in 2014, amassing 13 wins and 38 podium finishes since. This weekend in Seoul, he’s on the verge of eclipsing 1,000 career points. So, he knows a thing or two about how far the series has come.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 31: Lucas Di Grassi of Brazil and ROKiT Venturi Racing drives his car during the of ABB FIA Formula E Championship -London E-Prix Round 14 on July 31, 2022 at the ExCel Arena on July 30, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)
Lucas Di Grassi won the London E-Prix in July. (Sebastian Frej/MB Media via Getty Images)

“Since Season 1, there have been massive changes,” di Grassi said during a media roundtable. “It has matured and it has moved from being something new and full of doubts to something which has been able to deliver on its promises.” He explained that Formula E is just like any other racing series now when you consider teams that have come and gone, and those that may return.

The Gen2 car debuted in 2018/19 for Season 5 with double the energy storage capacity of Gen1, which meant teams no longer needed to trade out cars during the race — or pit at all for that matter. Of course, the cars are faster, but one car per driver also meant the stakes were that much higher on E-Prix weekends.

“When we went from Gen1 to Gen2, you could actually see that the technology was starting to work,” Longo said. “We moved from having to use two cars to only one car.”

Gen2 also debuted a more “Batmobile-esque” design, with more power and a top speed of 174MPH. One of Formula E’s unique elements, Attack Mode, also arrived with Gen 2, giving drivers a timed power boost. The only catch is they have to leave the main racing line to activate it, which can mean sacrificing position for the extra power.

"The technology is only getting better and the cars are getting faster,” di Grassi explained. “Every month the battery tech, powertrain tech and so on evolves. It’s still in its relative infancy and we’re going to see big leaps still going forward."

Like every sport in the world, Formula E had to deal with the effects of a global pandemic in 2020. The series had completed just five races by the end of February when everyone, everywhere entered lockdown due to COVID-19. The season was suspended in mid-March. Formula E would emerge that August in Berlin, holding six E-Prix in nine days at the Tempelhof Airport.

“Looking back, those six races in Berlin were really important for us,” Longo said. “During COVID, we managed to mitigate the risk of traveling and finish the season.”

BERLIN, GERMANY - AUGUST 12: In this handout provided by FIA Formula E,  Oliver Rowland (GBR), Nissan e.Dams, Nissan IMO2 and Robin Frijns (NLD), Envision Virgin Racing, Audi e-tron FE06 lead the field away at the start on August 12, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Alastair Staley/FIA ABB Formula E/Getty Images)

It’s fitting then that Formula E’s 100th race marks the end of the Gen2 era. When the series returns in 2023 for Season 9, the Gen3 car will be in every team’s garage. Formula E has already shown off “the world’s most efficient racing car,” unveiling the design and key specs ahead of the Monaco E-Prix in April. Indeed, the jump to the next generation will deliver another massive leap in innovation for the series. A top speed of 200MPH with 350kW of power, 100kW more than Gen2. The electric power units can convert over 90 percent of their energy to mechanical power, making them insanely efficient. Not to mention producing around 40 percent of the power needed to complete a race through regenerative braking. Plus, there’s a new body design that’s decidedly more F-18 fighter jet than Batmobile. And overall, the new cars should allow for tighter wheel-to-wheel racing across Formula E’s calendar of street circuits.

“We’ll drive much faster, smaller and lighter cars which will be even more impressive to see on-track,” di Grassi said. “The events are going in the right direction, providing a better and better product for fans to come and involve themselves with. The evolution will continue in this way — on the technical side and in the spectacle."

Formula E’s impact hasn’t been solely on the race track either. di Grassi knows the series has opened the world’s eyes to the potential of EVs.

“We can also see how many more people are interested in and aware of electric vehicles,” he noted. "For me, even if you help a little bit, this little bit has already helped to accelerate the advent of technology and change perceptions of consumers and manufacturers about electric cars — so it’s been well worth it.”

Formula E Jakarta
The Jakarta E-Prix circuit. (Formula E)

Both the 100th race and the end of Season 8 are poised to be must-see TV. There’s a four-way fight for this year’s championship, with Mercedes-EQ’s Stoffel Vandoorne sitting atop the standings, holding a 36-point lead. Jaguar TCS’ Mitch Evans and ROKiT Venturi’s Edoardo Mortara sit 2nd and 3rd, separated by five points. Both Mortara and 4th-place Jean-Éric Vergne failed to score any points in the last two rounds during the double-header in London.

Mercedes-EQ could not only snatch its second consecutive driver’s trophy (its other driver Nyck de Vries is the defending champ), it’s leading the team standings heading into the last two races by 36 points. A team championship would make two in a row for Mercedes, and the perfect ending before McLaren takes over the team next season.

There’s no denying Formula E’s popularity has grown in eight years and it’s poised to continue the upward trajectory. The Jakarta E-Prix in early June was watched live by 13.4 million people — just in Indonesia. It was the first time the series had hosted an event in that city too, and over 60,000 fans attended in-person. Celebrating the most memorable moments, Longo mentioned Jakarta when listing off key achievements during the 100-race stint.

“The most-watched race in Formula E history,” Longo said.