In its first race, Formula E proves its already more of a sport than Formula One

The only cars not adding to Beijing’s air pollution.
The only cars not adding to Beijing’s air pollution.
Image: Reuters/Barry Huang
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Formula E is here. The first motor-racing championship featuring all-electric cars began its inaugural season in Beijing on Saturday, and it was won in an exciting finish by Audi Sport’s Lucas Di Grassi after leader Nicolas Prost crashed at the final corner.

Formula E arrives and takes over city centers for a day, which encompasses practice, qualifying laps, and the race itself. The races only last an hour and each team has two cars—the organizers haven’t quite figured out a way to safely change batteries in one car nor make one battery last the whole race, so there’s a switch halfway through the race.

It’s very different than Formula One, which takes place mostly in dedicated racetracks like Monza, where the build-up to the races take place over the leisurely course of a long weekend. Formula E is also more of an actual sport: The 10 teams have exactly the same cars, unlike In Formula One, where the teams each make their own cars within rules set by the FIA, the world motor-sporting body. That leads to two variables affecting the outcome of the race: the quality of the car and the quality of the driver. Without a level playing field on the former variable, it’s impossible to evaluate the latter—and tell who is really winning.

Take, for example, the current world champion, Sebastian Vettel. When he joined Formula One in 2007, he finished 14th. Then his car manufacturer, Red Bull, made a better car. He won the last four world championships in a row—joining legends of the sport like Alain Prost (the father of Formula E driver Nicolas) and Michael Schumacher. This year, his car is not as good. He’s currently sixth and being beaten by his unheralded teammate.

The current leader of the 2014 championship is Nico Rosberg, who has previously not finished higher than sixth in Formula One. But Mercedes have made a great car this year and Rosberg and his teammate, Lewis Hamilton, are in first- and second-place, leading the third-placed driver by more than 50 points.

So, who is the best driver in the world? Who knows? It’s like having a tennis match between Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, only Federer’s half of the court is grass and Nadal’s is clay.

The only way to make Formula One more of a sport would be to have to the driver in the same car. Or perhaps to use driverless car technology and test the quality of the car. But neither is going to happen. And in fact, it won’t be this way in Formula E for much longer. From next year, the 10 teams—who are owned by people like Leonardo DiCaprio and Richard Branson—can begin to design their own cars. Let’s savour the true competition while it lasts.