Formula E Isn’t Perfect, But It Does Some Things Better Than F1

Most people aren't sold on the FIA's electric single-seater race series. But it can still teach Formula 1 a thing or two.
PORTLAND, OREGON - JUNE 29: Robin Frijns of Envision Racing battles Edoardo Mortara of Mahindra Racing during ABB FIA Formula E World Championship 2024 Portland E-Prix at Portland International Raceway on June 29, 2024 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)
John Lamparski

I’m not here to sell you on Formula E. If you haven’t found yourself the slightest bit curious after 10 years and three generations of cars, it’s not worth trying to convince you now. What I will tell you is that, for all its flaws, Formula E can still teach Formula 1 a thing or two about being worth your time.

At no point since its inception have I followed Formula E. I couldn’t even tell you more than a couple of the drivers’ names, and even then I’d mainly just know the F1 alumni. I know them from spending most of the last decade watching F1 instead, giving up only after watching the FIA decide its best title fight in years with an officiating error. I’ve left F1 alone since then—I just don’t care to see Max Verstappen win. But my abstinence has left me with an appetite for racing, and not much of an outlet short of learning decades of NASCAR lore. So when I realized I’d moved to a city that hosts not just NASCAR Xfinity, but also Indycar and Formula E within a 20-minute drive of my house, I couldn’t not indulge in them all. Yes, even including the divisive Formula E.

2024 Portland E-Prix round 2
2024 Portland E-Prix round 2. Formula E

I went to this past Sunday’s “E-Prix” in Portland, Oregon, which paddock rumors say will be FE’s last stop in the U.S. for years. It’s the only event on the calendar to take place on a real racetrack rather than a street circuit, so it’s easier to draw parallels from this race to conventional series.

Though I got my ticket for free through a friend flagging the race (thanks Molly of Avants), it would’ve still been cheap had I paid my way in. Adult tickets started at $40. The last time I went to an F1 Grand Prix, I saw concessions that cost that much alone. That’s without mentioning the hundreds of dollars an F1 ticket costs to begin with, and the elevated lodging prices you’ll pay during a Grand Prix weekend. Things have only gotten pricier since the Netflix-driven popularity boom, sometimes ludicrously so.

FE also tries harder to make your ticket worth the money. There was live music, family-friendly activities, free posters, and papercraft helmets that nobody was too grown-up to wear. It’d be a lot easier to make a family day out at FE than F1.

2024 Portland E-Prix round 2
2024 Portland E-Prix round 2. Formula E

As for the product on-track, I’ll start with what’s simply different from ICE racing. For one, the lack of exhaust noise brings out the rest of the race car sounds you otherwise don’t get to hear. Gear whine is the most prominent, but as the car flies past you down the pit straight, the aero whooshes audibly. More audible tire screeches announce every mistake, and the clunk of bouncing over curbs (or into other cars) their consequences. It paints a more complete picture of what being in a race car sounds like to the driver.

This isn’t the only sense that Formula E effs with, either. No exhaust means no fumes of unburned fuel. Instead, FE cars smell like…hot electronics. Like an overworked laptop mixed with a warm VHS tape just ejected from a VCR. The extreme amount of regeneration going on means the harsh scent of hot brakes is all but absent, too.

One of FE’s most extreme contrivances is “Attack Mode,” where drivers go off the racing line to unlock extra power. This always sounded like a Mario Kart-style gimmick to me, something meant to shake things up for show at the expense of the race’s integrity. In practice, it’s not that simple: I saw drivers pull off passes sometimes, and other times just get boxed in. It’s more strategic than it first looks, and if anything reminds me of the joker lap that’s common in rallycross. I can’t remember anyone ever whining about those.

The crowd is worth commenting on too, because it hailed from more walks of life than most racing crowds I’ve seen. You have your dyed-in-the-wool race fans who’ve been to more short tracks than U.S. states, as well as their perceived opposites, the EV fanatics. Anecdotally, I think I saw more women than I have at other races, and not ones that seemed like they’d been dragged there by someone else. Seasons-old racing merch attested to deeper investment. And maybe this had to do with it being Pride Month in Portland, but I saw more queer people than at most races. That may not matter to you, but as a he/they heathen that tires of how locker-roomy car culture can be, that was an encouraging sign.

Only now do I get around to being a Formula E apologist, starting with the cars. Not only do they look cool as hell, but they’re way faster than 400 horsepower lets on. Portland International Raceway doesn’t have much of a pit straight, but the cars were steaming into turn one at speeds of up to 172 mph. That’s on pace with Indycars, which Motorsport says dive in at close to 175.

Indycar also benefits from exiting the last corner on slicks, which Formula E doesn’t use. Instead, the tires on an FE car are hard, with low rolling resistance, while the chassis comparatively lack downforce. That makes FE machines more reliant on mechanical grip than most top-level race series, but less sensitive to being over-driven, and not as crippled by aero damage. I watched Pascal Wehrlein fight for the lead for more than half the race after losing his front wing—something you’d never see that in F1. In turn, that means dirty air is almost a non-factor, making passing attempts much easier. That also means more failed passing attempts, and more “racing incidents,” if you catch my drift. Again: $40 to sit at turn one.

Mind you, I still have plenty of criticisms. For the most part, they concern how the series presents itself. “E-Prix,” for starters, is a dumb name. Call it a Course de Rue, which is French for “street race”—fitting of most of the Formula E calendar. The constant background of dance music, some of it a decade-plus old, felt like Formula E was trying too hard for a music festival atmosphere. It could’ve done with something more ambient, and I couldn’t help but think some original tracks by Keiki Kobayashi would be perfect.

The lack of support races in the long gaps between on-track sessions also felt like time ill-used. Even some electric time attack cars or a local spec series would be great additions. I would’ve liked the 45-minute main event to last a little longer (a technological limit, I know), and as much as I hate to agree with the sentiment, I want louder cars. I was surprised that I couldn’t hear the cars from a quarter mile away like I could the VW ID.R, whose gear whine could be louder than a Porsche GT3 Cup car. I’m not suggesting adding fake noise like the Dodge Charger Daytona EV makes either—even amplifying that gear whine would go a long way.

Better merch options also wouldn’t hurt. I remember NASCAR Xfinity—which is a second-tier national spec series—having event-specific shirts, which I lamented not buying. No such options were offered by Formula E. Also, how the hell does Dan Ticktum have a Formula E seat? Vet your drivers better, guys. Also, quit sportswashing Saudi Arabia. It’s inexcusable when F1 does it, and it’s no less gross for FE.

Would I go to a Formula E race again? I suppose I would, though I’d like the company of someone familiar with the series. The appeal of any sport is being able to follow the storylines that give the action on the field (or track) meaning. Anyone who wants to be the S1apSh0es of Formula E, be my guest.

Formula E isn’t a replacement for a series like Indycar or F1, much in the same way an EV doesn’t replace the experience of an internally combusting performance car. They’re different means of enjoying speed, and they have room to coexist. While most people have yet to understand that, Formula E showed me that we (meaning all walks of the car community) can still unite under whatever banner flies at the track.

Like all race series, Formula E brings good ideas to the table as well as some not-so-good ones. If nothing else, you can praise Formula E for trying to do something new, and making it worth the time and money you spend on it. And that’s better than I can say of F1 right now.

Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: james@thedrive.com