I just finished watching “And We Go Green,” the documentary about Season 4 of the Formula E championship and I thought I would post a few words. I don’t normally write film reviews on Motorsport Prospects but as the film deals with sustainability in motorsport, a topic that will be covered on the blog in a few weeks I thought it would be a great segue into that.
The focus is on the drivers first, the technology second
First of all, if you are one of those people that loathe the very thought of Formula E, who think it is an abomination and that there is no way in hell you will watch this then all I have to say is that it would be a mistake. This is a great racing documentary. Setting aside what powers these race cars, the heart of “And We Go Green” are the drivers. Specifically, it looks at 5 drivers who competed during season 4: Jean-Éric Vergne (a.k.a. JEV), Lucas Di Grassi, Sam Bird, Nelson Piquet Jr. and André Lotterer. It looks at their motivations, their fears, their highs and their lows. We get to see their personalities, their strengths and their faults both on and off the track in probably a rawer form than the F1 Netflix series “Drive to Survive” (which is excellent by the way).
The animosity between Frenchman Vergne and Brazilian Di Grassi is clearly on display and is a storyline that runs throughout the film but what really comes through is how complex a character Jev is. His struggles under a “dark cloud” as he himself describes it are at times heart wrenching, especially when discussing his friendship with the late F1 driver Jules Bianchi. Di Grassi comes across as cocky, a self-admitted perfectionist who tends to rub people the wrong way. And yet his brutal honesty is a welcome respite from the “PR-speak” of so many drivers these days. The struggles of Bird to finally be the bride and not the bridesmaid are echoed in his face before and after every race and makes it hard not to root for him as the season unfolds. Lotterer, an easy-going Belgian-German who’s conquered Le Mans 3 times, works hard at understanding this new series after racing sports cars for so long while trying to maintain his friendship with his higher-strung teammate JEV. Their interactions are at times funny and at other times poignant. Finally, there is Nelson Piquet Jr. To describe him as a black sheep is, I suppose a bit harsh but not far from the truth. He is shunned by drivers as he works to redeem himself after his disastrous foray in F1 where he essentially crashed on purpose on team orders to assist his teammate. The strained relationship between Nelson Jr and Senior is another revelation that clearly weighs on his still young shoulders.
While the film does talk about the environment, electrification of vehicles and motorsport and the wider issue of climate change and necessarily so, it does not beat you over the head with it. It is of course an important part of the narrative, the very reason Formula E (and Extreme E) exists but make no mistake, this film is about racing. The footage is amazingly candid, the driver’s stories are compelling and the story behind Season 4 is riveting. For the drivers it is a story of their attempts at redemption. Formula 1 is never far from the thoughts of the drivers, but it is never portrayed negatively. It is acknowledged as the pinnacle of motorsport and the aspiration for all these drivers but for one reason or another the dream was not fulfilled to their satisfaction. Formula E is their chance to show what they are truly capable of.
Introducing Alejandro Agag
For a lot of people outside motorsport, and perhaps within as well, series founder Alejandro Agag comes across as yet another fascinating character. Emerging from a background in Spanish politics, Agag became passionate about motorsport and that passion has not dimmed. He refers to himself as a “racing guy” not an environmentalist and his quest to start Formula E was not based on any real altruistic motives but was the solution to a problem. When he was involved in F1 and working to raise sponsorship he found that a lot of the companies he was approaching were not interested in F1 because it was not “green”, and his response was to start Formula E. While he himself admits that if Formula E is better for the environment then that would be as he says “fantastic” but there is no doubt that he is a racer at heart, and it becomes obvious throughout the film.
The film also does not hide from showing the warts of the series either. It kicks off with the first race of the season in Hong Kong and when the start line lights malfunction, you get to see another side of Agag. The relaxed, cigar smoking racer becomes a pissed off boss looking to find out what the hell is going on and more importantly, what is being done to fix it. He is clearly the man in charge.
Sustainability in Motorsport
No matter how you look at it though, “And We Go Green” weaves in the necessity of sustainability in motorsport throughout the film. It is a bit unfortunate that the cars featured were the Gen 1 cars which required a driver switch to a second car halfway through the race, but this is addressed up front. Nobody in the series be they drivers or organizers felt that this was anything but an embarrassment. They work hard in the film to explain the technology going into their Gen 2 car which successfully runs a full race distance of 45 minutes plus 1 lap without too much trouble. And the Gen 3 car will be even faster and more efficient while possibly introducing fast charging which will change the complexity yet again of a Formula E race.
Now let’s get this out of the way. Motorsport, like much human activity will never be 100% sustainable. Agag admits this, Nico Rosberg, F1 World Champion, greentech entrepreneur and a Formula E investor admits this and in fact everybody but those who despise the series with a vengeance admit it. The point of making motorsport sustainable is not to be completely environmentally impact free. The point of making motorsport more sustainable is so that it remains a viable sport for the future. If motorsport causes or is perceived to cause more damage than what it is worth socially, it will be either legislated out of existence by governments or made economically nonviable by insurance companies. The sport has no choice but to change with the times.
So, what are the options for the future? Like many things in life there will not be one option but a confluence of many as different technologies battle for supremacy. Will it be electric? Will that electric car be powered by some type of lithium ion battery or a hydrogen fuel cell or something still on the drawing boards? What about range, weight, charge time? And how are these batteries to be charged? Where will hybrid engines fit in running on sustainable fuels? How about bio composites and natural fibers? Where do they fit into the equation? The R&D into all these technologies is going full steam ahead and motorsport is a key part of the solution. Even Agag admits that electric will not and cannot be the answer to all our transportation needs. He is nothing but a pragmatist. As Jesse Gröse of Von Gröse Motorsport pointed out in a recent Motorsport Prospects blog interview:
Looking at the near future, I think professional racing series like Formula 1 or FIA World Endurance Championship will start to dabble more in things like hydrogen and electric motors. The larger portions of the industry (national competition, amateur, and club level) are likely to remain as internal combustion for at least another ten years. The further future, from ten years and further, I think you will see hydrogen being the main power units in endurance or long-distance racing. Electric motors may be king for sprint race format series. I do not believe IC powered racing will be gone. Just shrink to more club level races or be separate classes within amateur endurance events.Motorsport Prospects blog April 21, 2020
The more things change, the more they remain the same
Motorsport will change but it will not go away. I love the scream of a V12 at full song but that will now be the province of vintage racing (a section of the sport that is growing in popularity). But the essence of racing will always remain. You just have to look at the ending of the Mexico City Formula E race of 2019 to see that the key to the attraction of motorsport is not necessarily the technology (while it is fascinating) but the battles on the track. Don’t like the sound (or lack of) from an electric racing car or motorcycle? Deal with it. It is part of the future of the sport you profess to love.
This is why I am less concerned with autonomous transportation as posing some kind of threat to motorsport. People watch sport to see athletes compete. Human beings make mistakes. They feel pressure. They make bad decisions. That is the essence of sport. Even the autonomous racing series RoboRace admitted as much. Ironically headed by Lucas Di Grassi, RoboRace was intended to be a series featuring nothing but autonomous racing cars. While they looked cool and the technology is awesome, it dawned on the series that people want to see people race each other and not computers. So now RoboRace features a human driver racing with a computer as a way to optimize each other’s performance on the track. Interesting but not what was originally intended, and this will probably remain as a niche within the sport.
The final issue that opponents rarely want to confront is simple; who is going to pay for all this? Manufacturer involvement at some level is crucial for the growth of the sport and yelling for old school V10 engines is not going to make it happen because that is not where manufacturers have their priorities. Sustainable fuels even in non-hybrid engines can potentially provide somewhat of an option, but this would probably only be in the short to mid-term until electrification is on par with hybrid engines performance-wise.
Ironically it is not so much what propels the cars that is the issue on the sustainability front but the logistics of how the sport is run. Multiple jumbo jets, crowds driving to the tracks, the waste of giant motorhomes that have no real practical reason to exist is more an issue than the efficiency of the engines and this is something that can and will be addressed. Not as fast as some may like but it is on the radar of every major and a lot of minor series out there.
Sustainability and the Race Driver
“A Pessimist Sees the Difficulty in Every Opportunity; an Optimist Sees the Opportunity in Every Difficulty.”
Sustainability actually presents some unique opportunities for drivers. Formula E is not alone. There are more electric racing series in the works and Le Mans will be running a hydrogen test car in the near future. While the COVID-19 situation has slowed most of these down, they will come back on song in the near future. These series and sustainability in general are a huge opportunity for drivers in their quest to raise sponsorship. There are companies working on green technologies and their ancillary services that are not currently involved in motorsport and that are ripe to be approached by the enterprising driver who includes sustainability at his or her core. This is something we will be looking at in more depth in the future on the Motorsport Prospects blog.
The final verdict
Haters will hate. They will point out the flaws of Formula E (of which there are plenty) but they are missing the point. If you are going to launch a brand-new series based on a technology that does not exist, specifically an electric race car, it will always be a process and it will never be 100% completely sustainable. No human activity ever is. That does not mean you do not try. Every step is a learning one, a chance to advance towards the overall goal. Sometimes you get it right, often you get it wrong but if you are committed to what you are doing you do not give up. And putting aside the environmental message, if you love the human drama that is motorsport, driver pitted against driver in modern day gladiatorial combat, then you will love this film, regardless of what powers the cars. Watch with an open mind. You might surprise yourself.
You can see the entire film at the YouTube link below.