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SMITH: Why Formula E Drivers Have the Power to Shape the Future

Formula E editor Sam Smith looks at how the role of drivers in future racing will be ever more crucial to attract and inspire fresh stars…..

Photo: Formula E

“In India when you are five years old you either pick up a bat or you pick up a ball,” said one of the greatest sportsmen of all time, the ‘Little Master’ himself, Sachin Tendulker.

In motorsport, something similar or something so pure doesn’t happen in quite the same fashion. Racing, at present, is too complex, too elitist and of course too expensive in comparison.

Yet, in the future perhaps new generations of racing driver will absorb a like-minded instinct to race, whether it be through new technology, gaming or virtual reality stimuli.

With such openings into future motorsport competition there will surely come with it added social and mobility responsibility. Such traits could define future racers and especially their authenticity.

So where are we in the present day when authenticity is taken in to account for a sportsman or an athlete?

Does it really, truly exist? Do racing drivers understand the sometimes-nuanced messages that big companies or manufacturers want to get across?

I’m sure it’s no shock to learn that at present not all of the drivers on the current Formula E grid drive an electric road car or even a hybrid at home. Nor have they all seen the remarkable Leonardo DiCaprio fronted documentary “Before the Flood.”

Does anyone really care anyway? Why should they?

When sport has a message, its stars shouldn’t be made to buy into its principles and worldly objectives wholesale, should they? You can’t force politics and ideals on to a broad spectrum of professionals. These values cannot be created or faked like some kind of anodyne PR activation.

But at the very least Formula E’s protagonists should know the basics of “the message” and of the “culture” in which its cornerstones lie.

In this regard, Formula E seems to do a fair job and pretty much all of the drivers in the championship have had “the talk” from founder, CEO and all-round visionary leader Alejandro Agag to some degree or other. They get the basics.

Whether or not they choose to learn more and really understand where electric mobility is heading is then up to the individual. That’s the way it probably should be.

On the day after the Marrakesh ePrix last November the paddock was invited to watch Formula E’s documentary film about attempts to run a Formula E car on an iceberg just off the coast of Greenland.

The film never shies away from the fact that it was essentially a publicity stunt, but one with important messages.

The difference with this PR, which featured fairly obvious “opportunities” for the series partners to be seen and mentioned, is that the significance it promoted is one that is inherent to both the philosophy of the series and also a wider presentation to more serious matters, ones that will affect all our futures, and those of our kids too.

So what has this really got to do with the drivers?

First of all, not many of them turned up to watch and promote it at the premiere. Fair enough, travel plans and other commitments sometimes get in the way.

One of them though, reigning champion Lucas di Grassi, features strongly throughout the film in an engaging and authentic style.

There are some in the Formula E paddock that scoff at the Brazilian’s opinions, knowledge and sometimes cloying intelligence on both sporting and existential matters.

Is it jealousy, is it diffidence, or maybe just a sense that racing drivers are there to compete on the track rather than philosophize from it?

It’s probably a combination of all these things and frankly it’s rarely done with malice, more a sense of bemusement as to why a driver should spend so much energy on matters outside of the cockpit. But it didn’t seem to do him much harm last season as he took the title, did it?

Some even believe it is an act. If it is, then di Grassi should swap serious notes with DiCaprio on method acting!

There is certainly no pretense to Lucas’ convictions and he should be not only listened too but also lauded for his belief on what future racing, and indeed the automotive landscape, could offer for the wider world.

It’s not for everyone, though, and there should not be any expectation for drivers to become “Stepford wife” style evangelists for all that is green and electric.

Sport should always be a healthy mix between the technical and the human individual’s commitment.

There are signs that new generations of drivers, with an interest and desire in future mobility, is growing.

In 2012, a few years before Formula E was unleashed on an unsuspecting public, a young and talented professional single-seater driver took me for a spin in the Cambridgeshire countryside with his Tesla.

That driver was Alexander Sims and it always puzzled me why he wasn’t considered to be at least a potential protagonist in Formula E. In an unassuming manner, he oozed knowledge on EV mobility and he was also at a stage in his career where he was clearly capable of racing the best in Formula E.

Now, Sims is on the cusp of achieving it with Andretti and probably eventually BMW.

He is exactly the sort of personality who should be embraced for his in-depth knowledge and understanding of positive EV tech. For now he’s likely to influence many engineers, curious young EV “tech heads” and yes, future drivers.

In decades to come, the inverter and the battery, as unlikely as it sounds right now, could become, like the “Little Masters” bat and ball theory, considerable DNA for the future of our sport.

Sam Smith is e-racing365's Formula E Editor. A 20-year veteran in motorsports media, including press officer roles in both the FIA Sportscar Championship and at Lola Group, Smith is a well-known face in the Formula E paddock, where he served as series editor for Motorsport.com from 2014-17. Contact Sam

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