Formula E is looking to be urban and cool

Formula E is looking to be urban and cool

Michelin's quite fond of using the phrase "track to street"; it's a nifty way to neatly encapsulate what the tyre manufacturer is trying to do with its move into, well, if not quite Formula 1, then its electric cousin, Formula E.

The French producer will be the sole supplier of its Pilot Sport EV 18" tyre to the Formula E ten-race championship, which kicks off in Beijing this September and rolls around city streetscapes of the world such as London, Monte Carlo, Buenos Aires and Long Beach among others.

Michelin is not disclosing how many noughts are on the cheque, but its three-year tie-up with Formula E is not insubstantial and they will be clearly hoping TV coverage plus their logo and safety message on every car, will translate into sales.

But back to track to street. Formula E is trying very hard to differentiate itself from its gas-guzzling, noisy (though I still don't like the new sound) and corporate-laden cousin of F1, through all sorts of snazzy initiatives.

It's clearly gunning for a completely different audience to the traditional petrolheads on show at last week's British F1 Grand Prix for example, by pursuing a purely electric line, confining the racing to street circuits and letting Michelin provide a tyre that is suitable for both wet and dry.

So what are the coat tails on to which Michelin and a host of blue chip sponsors such as Renault, Qualcomm, Tag Heuer and DHL are trying to tag?

Well, some of them are clearly green, environmentally-friendly, sustainable, renewable, urban, all the buzzwords apparently associated with a younger generation not necessarily enamoured with noise and gasoline.

Confining itself to street circuits Formula E - FE? - is clearly sending a message from the city rooftops that electric is urban and cool.

It is looking to the future - a future where fossil fuel burning is no longer the first option - although the marketing blurb doesn't dwell too much on where the battery power will originate - the sunlit uplands where tyre conservation and technology can trickle down to real life and where Michelin for example can build on its Challenge Bibendum green credentials.

At Donnington race track last week, I spoke to Formula E Holdings CEO, Alejandro Agag, the impresario of the whole kit and caboodle, can we call it a circus a la F1 yet? And he was adamant the electric championship will not compete with Bernie Ecclestone's big top.

""We are not in competition with Formula 1 - I am a big fan of Formula 1," Agag told me. "Whoever wants to compete with F1 will fail and we don't like to fail."

The series has attracted some former big hitters from the world of Formula 1, namely Jarno Trulli, Bruno Senna and Nick Heidfeld, as well as at least two women drivers.

No-one at Formula E is saying it, but much about the racing seems to be, subconsciously at least, targeting a female audience and F1 may be casting a nervous look over its shoulder with the inclusion last weekend for example, by the Williams team of development driver, Susie Wolff.

It also appears the concept of EV racing is causing some consternation among the more traditional petrol fraternity, but Formula E is in no way sedate.

I watched a succession of cars fly around the Donnington track last week and they seriously shift - this will be high-speed - just not high-octane - racing. You can hear the tyres squeal in a way rare in F1 and the noise - well it's akin to the whine of a jet engine.

Will that be enough?

Michelin thinks so in a way that perhaps F1 can't offer with its tyres that degrade and huge energy consumption.

The French insist its Formula E tyre variants are as close to road vehicles as it's possible to get in motor racing with their snazzy 18" profile, while the clean image of electric power for urban environments sends out a modern message.

"What is important is to use [the] competition as a laboratory to accelerate innovation," Michelin global Formula E manager, Serge Grisin, told me at the Donnington track.

"What is interesting is Formula E is working with sustainability - Michelin has been involved with sustainability with green tyres and the Michelin Bibendum Challenge [for example].

"We are talking about the future of mobility, especially in cities. For Michelin, we will use Formula E to make improvements in tyre technologies, especially for electric cars, which is an answer for mobility in cities."

The latter is noteworthy as the electric championship starts in Beijing. Ever-rising levels of car ownership are sparking - in part - there are other triggers such as fossil-fuelled power stations - apparently dire levels of pollution in major Chinese cities.

Increasing middle class income levels and higher car ownership are creating gridlock and smog-filled environments, so Formula E offers a vision of the future that could address the issue.

Agag again: "The race in Beijing - which is a fantastic city - it also symbolises the problem with pollution.

"If it [championship] succeeds, it can have a huge impact on electric car making."

So in a nutshell, the Formula E boss offers a twin approach to why his championship should succeed, laced with a commercial, approach through manufacturing. As Agag says, he doesn't like to fail.

There's no doubt EV producers - and it's no coincidence Renault is heavily involved in Formula E - are looking to the series as a shop window to sell their products - ditto Michelin.

The fact it comes wrapped in eco-credentials is laudable in itself but there's no free lunch here - much like the powertrains themselves.

These are hard-hitting businesses looking to capitalise on a growing and long-term trend of environmentally-aware consumers wanting something different.

At Donnington, that 'something different' was certainly offered up by the Formula E beasts hurtling round.

But in an ironic twist, the relative silence of the cars' engines was interspersed with thumping techno music and a load of razzmatazz.

Too much silence it seems, is not what is required.

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