MOTORSPORT

Formula E X Cape Town: You Can Both Stay

Cape Town’s inaugural Formula E race will be fondly remembered.

Avon Middleton
April 1, 2023
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Cape Town’s inaugural Formula E race will be fondly remembered for its on-track scrimmage, exceptional hosting, and stunning location. It’s a coup for Formula E and, even more so, the Mother City in what the race has done to shift and advance the local motorsport and automotive industry.

The build-up to Formula E’s confirmation on the 2023 calendar was not without its fair share of halted postponements as the local promoter worked to meet all of the requirements of Formula E, the FIA and the City of Cape Town. With the event signed off and confirmed late in 2022, the 5th race of the Formula E season occurred on the same day as the Kyalami 9H Intercontinental GT Challenge race. We’re still slightly concerned as to how and why that happened, but ultimately, Formula E played out in glorious fashion, with South Africa putting its best foot forward as far as hosting and supporting an international sporting event is concerned. Part of Formula E’s strategic pillars is to bring racing to the people, which is why the series competes in iconic city centres around the globe on temporarily constructed street circuits, including London, Berlin, Rome and Sao Paulo to name a few. Cape Town was always going to be the city to assume that role for South Africa, known for hosting millions of tourists annually.

The race itself was nothing short of spectacular, with the track layout set against the backdrop of Cape Town’s most iconic attractions: Signal Hill, Mouille Point, Cape Town Stadium and Table Mountain were all within part or full view of the track. The weather played its part, too, presenting cerulean skies and only a hint of wind throughout Sunday. Off the back of a scintillating qualifying session on Saturday in which Nissan’s Sacha Fenestraz took pole position, the race on Sunday was almost everything a race should be. From the first turn of the first lap, there was mayhem as championship leader Pascal Werhlein crashed into the back of Sebastien Buemi, ending his race. Following that, there were a number of events that all would prove instrumental in the final outcome, including drive-through penalties, missed Attack Mode opportunities and more crashes. It was a disaster of a race for both Maserati Racing cars not to finish the race. The biggest winner was Antonio Felix Da Costa, who pulled off an audacious move on the last lap to emerge victorious for TAG Heuer Porsche over Jean-Eric Vergne. It was one of those races in which you didn’t quite know where to look because the battles were taking place throughout the grid from start to finish.

Polesitter, Sacha Fenestraz from Nissan's Formula E team

The reception from fans and the Formula E paddock alike was glowing. Celebrities came out in numbers to support the race, from local sporting heroes and TV stars to international racing names like Naomi Schiff and Nelson Piquet Jnr of F1 fame. Black Coffee also came through for the event.

The stars came out for Formula E Cape Town

Despite the perceived difficulty of holding a Formula E race that only lasts 40-45 minutes, the entire event was stellar, including the e-Fest event that can best be described as a food village, beer garden, concert and fare combined into one. Tickets were certainly not cheap, but the value was difficult to argue against because the execution was slick and relatable to all.

The salient disappointment during the Formula E race was home hero Kelvin Van Der Linde’s late withdrawal. As the reserve driver for the ABT Cupra racing team, Kelvin was fortunate to be in the race seat, especially for his home race, but it was not to be. All Mahindra customer teams, of which ABT Cupra is one, were forced to withdraw from the race due to a rear suspension issue. So many fans were drawn to the race because of the South African star driver, who is the first Saffer to compete in Formula E.

Whilst the racing experience was excellent, the real power of Formula E is what it stands for in the greater mobility equation. The property was started as a means to fill a gap that didn’t exist previously, that of electric motor racing. But as with the origins of most racing series, the ultimate strategy must filter into the mainstream. That famous saying, “Race it on Sunday, Sell it on Monday”, still rings true in Formula E.

Our host at Formula E, Cape Town, was Nissan, an OEM that plays a massive role in the all-electric racing space. Initially, Nissan joined FE in 2018 as a powertrain supplier before buying out the e.Dams team in 2022 for a full-on factory-owned campaign. Nissan’s commitment to Formula E is currently running until 2026. If there ever was an investment in electro-mobility, this is it.

Nissan has been at the forefront of electro-mobility tech for a long time and remains the first OEM to launch a production version electric car in South Africa with the Nissan Leaf a decade ago. The technology has evolved, as has Nissan’s command over it. Now, the brand is uniquely positioned to deliver cars across the powertrain spectrum, from ICE vehicles to EVs and everything in between. This technology is transferred from learnings in Formula E to road cars and vice versa.

Nissan’s Global Head of Motorsport, Tomasso Volpe, spells it out in three key points. Firstly, he says, “Formula E is the pinnacle of EV Racing, and it assists us in promoting our Ambition 2030 vision.” This is Nissan’s 10-year plan, so to speak, a business strategy that outlines its acceleration in electro-mobility.

Tomasso Volpe, Head of Nissan Motorsport

Within this is an outlook to 2050, by which time Nissan, as a global giant, aims to be entirely carbon neutral. This is the second point Volpe makes. “Formula E is already carbon neutral, and so Nissan’s involvement shows our commitment to achieving our goal of carbon neutrality.” The final point, one that hits home, is that of Globalisation. Volpe says, “Formula E is a world championship that races in various parts of the world, and Nissan sells its cars and has operations in every market that Formula E races.” As a local player also producing the Nissan Navara here, racing in Cape Town is indeed a helpful event to extend and augment its marketing and manufacturing efforts.

We also chatted with Giovanni Tommaso Sgro, the global head of Maserati Racing. Giovanni leads Maser’s motorsport efforts, and the strategic goals are very clear. “My role is to apply the learnings from racing to the broader Folgore strategy. By 2030, Maserati will produce only electric vehicles. Like Nissan, Maserati is interested in the technology transfer between the racing series and road cars, but there are some distinct differentiators in the how and the why when you consider the differences in these brands. For Tommaso Sgro, the brand essence remains vital. “We have to do this without losing the emotion behind the brand. We are Masters of Italian Audacity. Passion is what has built the Maserati brand, and this does not change.”

Giovanni Tommaso Sgro, Global Head of Maserati Racing

He adds, “With Formula E, we’re in a new space, but we’re always learning. We get real-time data from software, yes, but also from a human. That’s a big learning, someone behind the wheel not producing the tech but experiencing the tech as any Maserati driver would. That is very important to us.” I love that perspective of IP transfer. It’s not all about the science, batteries and the hardware; it’s also about the person behind the wheel, you and me, essentially.

When pressed on the loss of that iconic Maserati sound, the conversation is an eye-opener. “There is a generation of people who are drawn to the electric sound like you and me were drawn to the sound of a V8. My son loves the electric car sound. He says it sounds like a spaceship.”

This is why Formula E is an ever-growing series, gradually improving on the hardware, the spectacle and the on-track action. It’s a new generation of racing with a new generation of fans. It’s a carbon-neutral property that seems set to continue on its path of global success. Set against Cape Town’s city and landscapes, we’re looking forward to its return.

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