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Formula E, a globe-trotting race series of open-wheel, single-seater electric cars zipping around the streets of iconic cities, was in Brooklyn last month for the annual New York City E-Prix at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal.Handout/Getty Images

If, in this summer of drought and wildfires and flooding, you have found yourself eager for a shred of hope among the climate calamities, you might have considered taking a stroll through Brooklyn last month for a snapshot of where we all went wrong and how we might yet go right. For, in that formerly hard-knock New York borough that is now a cliché of craft brewing/climbing gym/crypto-lab gentrification, a travelling circus of sorts had set down for a weekend, to spread environmental evangelism through the unlikely sport of motor racing.

Formula E, a globe-trotting race series of open-wheel, single-seater electric cars zipping around the streets of iconic cities, was back in town for the annual New York City E-Prix at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, on the former site of an ironworks plant that made a specialty of converting the furnaces of ocean-going vessels to oil from coal. To get there from central Brooklyn, you might have crossed the Gowanus Canal, a waterway so putrid and carcinogenic after serving as a sewer for coal-based industries through the 19th century that the Environmental Protection Agency designated it a Superfund site.

As you walked the last couple of blocks to the grounds, you would have taken in the autobody shops, where grease-stained workmen laboured to keep dinosaurs of a different polluting era – a rusting Ford Falcon, a dented Chevy Impala – from the junkheap.

Arriving at the gates of the cruise terminal, you would have been welcomed by a sign for something that, even here in the 21st century, might prompt puzzlement and laughter: a bike valet service, offering safe and free parking for “all personal sustainable transportation vehicles.” Formula E signals its virtue at the door.

And virtue is big business nowadays. In the eight seasons since launch – the final two races of the calendar are scheduled for this weekend in Seoul, South Korea – Formula E has attracted the sponsorship dollars of global luxury brands, amassed a small army of celebrity ambassadors, struck a partnership with UNICEF, sent a delegation to the COP-26 United Nations Climate Change Conference, and become the latest play thing of blockchain bros.

In recent years, sports across the globe have rushed – and often struggled – to graft what marketers call “purpose” onto their brands: to use their platforms to promote a higher social good, such as eradicating racism or spotlighting the importance of mental health. Formula E is one of the few sports created with purpose in its DNA.

CEO Jamie Reigle joined Formula E in September, 2019, after a couple of years as executive vice-president of business operations for the Los Angeles Rams.Sam Bloxham

“We’re big believers that sport inspires,” Jamie Reigle, the CEO of Formula E, says in an interview. Born and raised in the Laurentian Mountains town of Morin-Heights, Que., Reigle (pronounced “regal”) left Canada as a teen to pursue competitive skiing, went to Dartmouth and Stamford, and then lit out for a global business career.

The annual report of Formula E contains a section entitled “Creating value through values,” and boasts that the series “was founded with a purpose bigger than the sport itself, with a vision to accelerate sustainable human progress through the power of electric racing and grow the sport in such a way that it creates a better future for the planet.” Inspiring words. But after a string of setbacks, including the recent departures of all three German manufacturers it had in the paddock, Reigle acknowledges the series has had to confront something of an existential crisis, and accept an uncomfortable truth: Inspiration and purpose can take you only so far.

How far has Formula E come in five years?

Formula E paves way for electric cars on and off the racetrack

Formula E was a marketing platform before it was a sport. In 2001, Alejandro Agag, a Spanish politician-turned-businessman, bought the F1 TV rights in Spain. But, as Agag explains in the 2019 documentary about the birth of Formula E, And We Go Green (Leonardo DiCaprio was executive producer, with a world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival), the terrible environmental reputation of F1 made it increasingly difficult to sign advertisers. “I thought, We have a problem. I said, We need to find a green Formula One. Because if we can find a green Formula One, that’s where the big business for the future is going to be.”

In time, Agag was proved right, at least in terms of sponsor interest. Top-tier brands that bought in to his vision include the electronics and power cell company ABB, which signed on as title partner, the Swiss private bank Julius Baer, DHL, Tag Heuer, Bosch, Saudi Airlines, Allianz, Hugo Boss, Moet & Chandon and others.

Agag is wielding a thick, half-finished cigar as he relates this story in the film. He is a flamboyant fellow, with friends in high places: His one-time boss, the former Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar, is also his father-in-law; Silvio Berlusconi and Tony Blair served as witnesses at his wedding.

Reigle, 45, is the anti-Agag. Shortly after 8 a.m. on the Sunday of the New York City E-Prix, we meet outside the cruise terminal, and together follow the director of communications for Formula E to an outdoor VIP lounge that overlooks a tight stretch of track and, beyond that, the Statue of Liberty. Servers step forward to offer an assortment of beverages and breakfast foods. We decline.

The current second-generation Formula E cars run on a 385-kilogram battery that pumps out 250 kW, or about 335 horsepower. It’s enough to go zero to 100 kilometres an hour in 2.8 seconds, with a top speed of about 280 km/h.Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Though it is early, the sound system is pumping out a remix of Spandau Ballet’s True so loudly we can barely hear each other. Reigle nods toward his PR man and apologizes. “Dan likes to stage things. He used to work at WWE, so he’s all about the show.” Dan gets the volume lowered, which is good and clearly necessary, but it’s also kind of a shame, because a few minutes later the DJ begins to play the Dave Matthews Band’s Crash Into Me, and you just have to admire the chutzpah: Saturday’s race had ended abruptly – and expensively – after rain began to lash the track and three cars hydroplaned past a tight turn and crumpled into a retaining wall and each other. (No one was hurt.)

Reigle joined Formula E in September, 2019 after a couple of years as executive vice-president of business operations for the Los Angeles Rams. Before that, he spent a decade with Manchester United, working on corporate finance before heading to Hong Kong to lead the club’s global commercial expansion and its initial public offering. (He and his family – he has two sons – are now based in Singapore, where his wife is the co-founder and CEO of Kingfisher, a mobile-device financing company.) Earlier, there were stints with J.P. Morgan and Carlyle Group.

“My wife teases me,” he smiles. “She’s like, ‘You know you only take jobs with names of companies that people can recognize immediately?’” Formula E was different, a disrupter. “We are trying to change people’s perceptions around mobility. We operate in an environment where people have perceived expectations of what the product should be – sounds, smells, presentation, location – and we are everything that isn’t that. So, by definition that’s disruptive.”

The races last 45 minutes plus one lap, but with only 54 kWh of usable energy in the battery (plus whatever is recaptured through regenerative braking), a large part of race strategy is smart energy use.John Jones/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

As he talks, that day’s qualifying rounds get under way, cars whipping past the lounge with a space-age zing. If they don’t give fans the same primal shudder of Formula One internal-combustion beasts, it’s still a kick to be passed by a vehicle that sounds like a Star Wars X-Wing fighter.

The current second-generation Formula E cars run on a 385-kilogram battery that pumps out 250 kW, or about 335 horsepower. It’s enough to go zero to 100 kilometres an hour in 2.8 seconds, with a top speed of about 280 km/h. The races last 45 minutes plus one lap, but with only 54 kWh of usable energy in the battery (plus whatever is recaptured through regenerative braking), a large part of race strategy is smart energy use.

Next season, Formula E will roll out its Gen-3 cars, which are lighter and faster: 469 hp, with a top speed of about 320 km/h. One of the major consumer obstacles to considering an electric car is charging time, so Formula E is toying with incorporating a recharging pit stop into races – say, 30 seconds with a superfast 600 kW charger.

Reigle has never taken one of the cars out for a spin. “Alejandro does laps,” he explains. “My job is to grow the product. My job is to make the people out there into professional heroes. Or villains. To create the conditions for great sport-story-telling entertainment. I am not the person who should be in a car.”

Locals walk the track during the Zurich E-Prix on June 10, 2018, in Switzerland. This weekend, Formula E is scheduled to hold its final two races of the season as part of Seoul Festa.Handout/AFP/Getty Images

The day before, after the crash brought a premature end to the race, the party moved over to a rented photo studio a few blocks from the racetrack. Ava Labs, a blockchain company that became the title sponsor of the Andretti Autosport Formula E team last fall, had transformed an empty lot next door into a simulacrum of a Brooklyn backyard: A plush carpet of fake grass, scattered lawn chairs, a table-tennis surface festooned with the Amazon Web Services logo, six kinds of hard seltzer, a local IPA brew. Out on the street, a pair of food trucks fed a stream of hungry hipsters. A modified bus housed a funky, purple-lit exhibit of NFTs.

Inside the studio, Ava’s chief marketing officer, Devon Ferreira, was kicking off a panel discussion with Andretti team principal Roger Griffiths and Michael Andretti.

He was getting emotional. This was, he admitted, not in the script.

But these are tough times for the crypto set, what with the sector losing two-thirds of its market value over the past year – Ava’s Avalanche crypto coin was priced at about US$65 when the company signed its Andretti sponsorship, went up to a high of US$134 a few weeks later, and is now hovering below US$30 – and Ferreira evidently felt he needed to wave at the elephant in the room. “Omigod,” he exclaimed, “when we started planning this event, it was right when the market started to get bearish, and we were, like, ‘Well, I guess we’ll do this thing?’” he admitted, voice upticking. “And, uh, we decided to keep doing it. I hope you agree it was a good decision?” The crowd buoyed him up with gentle applause.

He began to explain that Ava executives had been trying to figure out how best to build the brand for their Avalanche blockchain platform. “We looked at our community – and, no disrespect to the ladies, we’re trying to change the equation here a little, but – most of the people in crypto and blockchain are males, 20 to 35,” he began. “We started to think about the things that the community cares about, and we looked at sport.

“Formula E is about speed, it’s about science, and it’s about sustainability, and that’s what Avalanche is really about,” he offered. “Not speed at all costs, but high performance consistently, in a way that’s friendly to Mother Earth. And so, the value system of Formula E is something that really stuck with us.”

Back at the VIP lounge the next day, Reigle acknowledges that sometimes that value system isn’t enough.

Car manufacturers join motorsport series for a variety of reasons. They use it as a research-and-development lab, taking their breakthroughs and deploying them in the road cars they sell to consumers. But it is also a powerful marketing platform – as the old F1 adage has it, Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday – which made it vexing when Mercedes informed Formula E it would be leaving the series at the end of this season, following Audi and BMW, which left after last season.

“When Mercedes says they’re going to invest €40-billion into electric, and they talk about how important that is to their company, and they’re making a shift – a 300,000-person company, the biggest shift in the history of their business. … Surely Formula E has to be part of the solution,” Reigle says. “And yet we’re not. And why is that?

“And I think with Formula E, we were complacent, right? We believed the narrative, which is: ‘The world goes electric’ – we don’t know when, but – therefore, Formula E inherits the world. Because it is inevitable that the world goes electric, and it’s inevitable that car companies therefore believe that Formula E will be the only place that they could promote their electric credentials. And that analysis was flawed, right?”

Reigle and his team overhauled the rules for the qualifying rounds, which had been a sticking point for some manufacturers, and instituted a cost cap to level the playing field among teams. Maserati and McLaren will join the series next season.

“I think we have to be humble about it. Just because more people are driving Porsche Taycans and Teslas does not mean we are preordained to be successful. Ultimately, we have to build what I call a Tier 1 sport. Meaning we operate with integrity, the sporting proposition is strong. All that good stuff. And if we do that, then we have a chance. Even that doesn’t guarantee it.”

At the same time, he knows Formula E has to set an environmental standard. It bills itself as “the first global sport to be certified with a net-zero carbon footprint from inception,” and, if you are so inclined, you can pore over the energy-consumption calculations in its annual report. (Total gross emissions of the 2021 season: 19,541 tCO2e. Much of that, of course, is through carbon offsets.)

“But here’s the thing,” he says. If you want to be an absolutist, “then we shouldn’t be flying around the world putting on car races, because by definition we’re consuming energy.” But electric cars are beginning to break through, and if Formula E can help that transition “the savings on carbon output from all those cars on the road that are not petrol? It dwarfs our carbon footprint from taking all the cars and equipment,” around the world. “And that’s marketing in simple terms: It’s the demonstration of the product, and it’s a promotional tool to push forward an agenda that we think is really important.”

This weekend, Formula E is scheduled to hold its final two races of the season as part of Seoul Festa, a five-day blast of K-Pop concerts, retail promotions, and other local culture that the government hopes will jump-start post-pandemic tourism. But after the city was hit by a biblical deluge this week, with thunderstorms predicted for Saturday and Sunday, it wasn’t clear whether the races could proceed. That’s the thing about climate change: It doesn’t distinguish between those who are trying to help fix the problem, and everyone else.