Looking back at Formula E’s inaugural season

The 2014-15 Formula E season came to a thrilling climax on June 28th from Battersea Park in London, with Nelson Piquet, Jnr clinching the championship in a finale that could be described as the electric version of the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix. Overall, the inaugural season has been a success, ten cities hosting eleven rounds. But what has gone well, what hasn’t gone well and what could be improved for season two? There are a lot of lessons that the championship could learn going forward, but also some things that they should be congratulated on.

Viewing figures and scheduling
According to overnight viewing figures from overnights.tv, the inaugural season of Formula E averaged 216k (2.6%) on ITV4 for their eleven race day programmes, with an average peak audience of 366k (4.1%). It is worth remembering that the championship decider was broadcast live on ITV to an audience of 700k (6.9%). Removing that number brings Formula E’s average down to 168k (2.2%), with an average peak of 285k (3.4%). Broadcasting the final race live on ITV’s main channel made a huge difference to the season average. The audiences for ITV4 have been solid, but they have not been spectacular. In my opinion, I don’t think ITV is all to blame for that.

Formula E: the future?
Formula E: the future?

Some of Formula E’s scheduling decisions during season one were bad, some their own fault, and some beyond their own control as we saw with Malaysia being moved from October to November, thus creating a two month gap between rounds one and two. Their season two calendar unfortunately does not fill me with much hope. The Formula One season starts in April, and I had hoped that Formula E would take advantage of that fact. Instead, what the provisional calendar shows is an seven week gap between rounds three and four, with a further six week gap between rounds four and five, neither gap makes much sense. Formula E should capitalise on Formula 1’s absence with a race every three weeks (Christmas aside), if feasibly possible.

The season two problems are compounded by Battersea Park’s date currently showing as TBA. The calendar needs to be more compact, to get the viewers into a routine in the off-season. From ITV’s perspective, it is difficult to promote something that is not on regularly. There’s less incentive for ITV to broadcast races on their main channel with long gaps. As of writing, we don’t know whether ITV will be covering Formula E for season two. I assume the answer is yes, given that ITV’s Formula E presenter Jennie Gow has referenced Formula E in some of her tweets recently, in but this has yet to be confirmed to me. I would outline what I think ITV should do scheduling wise for season two, but I think it is worth waiting until official confirmation that they are actually screening season two live first…

Graphics and Direction
The World Feed for Formula E’s inaugural season was produced by Aurora Media, who packaged each session with their own broadcast crew, led by Nicki Shields, with Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti on commentary (more on that later). From a graphical perspective, the package was slick, and looked great in high definition. Unfortunately, the graphics did not stand up very well in standard definition, which was evident when I watched the races live on ITV4. The main timing graphics wall, which included the energy percentages, was superb. Easy on the eye, allowing the casual viewer to easily track the story of the race. Kudos to whoever came up with that idea for the percentages on screen, because it was executed fantastically. There were two graphics in my opinion which suffered from fatal flaws.

The first problem was the speedometer, which stayed the same for the entire season. The problem here was that too much information was being conveyed in a small amount of space. One of the core fundamentals of any user interface is that the user should be able to understand what it is telling you within around 10 seconds. When I’m looking at the speedometer, what exactly am I focusing on? And is that information important for the casual viewer? If the guy who watches every race struggles to understand or digest the graphic, then the casual viewer has no chance. It is good that this information is being provided to the viewer, but it certainly needs to be separated out to be made more useful (aka. separation of concerns).

The qualifying kW output during the second 2015 London ePrix.
The qualifying kW output during the second 2015 London ePrix.

The second problem I found concerned the qualifying graphics. I also want to put this under the “let’s make the commentators job easier” category. The graphic itself is an addition to the timing wall, and normally sits to the right of it, which shows the amount of kilowatts that the driver is currently using. Normally, it is either 150 kW for a slower lap and 200 kW for a fast lap. The problem I have is that the graphic fluctuates considerably as the driver goes round the lap, sometimes even going into negative values. I mentioned this on Twitter a while back, and the reaction to the graphic seemed positive so it may be just me that feels this way.

Across the season, the direction was largely good, highlighted by the superb camera angles. I don’t think you can ever get tired of seeing Formula E cars leap over kerbs and hurl themselves towards the fence and the onlooking camera. One worry before the season was whether the camera angles would convey the speed well, however for me this was quickly dispelled with round one in Beijing, as described above. Not every round was perfect, I didn’t think the open airfield of Berlin portrayed the cars well, as it meant that the camera angles were not generally as close as previous rounds. But overall, it was good and for the most part it was clear that the team were learning as they went along, the pit sequence an example of something which improved significantly as the season progressed, helped by the aforementioned on-screen graphics.

However, as with the graphics, there were two aspects about the direction that I wasn’t a fan of: cutaways and heli-cam. I can understand the occasional cutaway to Alain Prost or whoever in the pit lane. But as the season progressed, the cutaways felt more intrusive on the coverage, and also held onto the subject for far too long, some shots seemingly stuck forever. A separate issue was heli-cam. It works the majority of time in Formula 1 as it can help visualise the speed at places like Monza. But when the Formula E cars are slower than other single-seaters as it is, you really shouldn’t use any shots that highlights this fact. The heli-cam was used frequently in London, and I wasn’t a fan. I don’t like saying this, but the direction behind the restart of the second London race was a mess as a result.

Commentary, other bits and looking ahead
The commentary team of Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti does not need much explanation, nor analysis. Why? Because it was Nicholls and Franchitti that helped made Formula E what it became during season one. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Nicholls and Franchitti are currently the best motor sport commentary duo around. The young, energetic style of Nicholls alongside the veteran analysis from Franchitti is a fantastic combination, and one that I hope is maintained for season two. It certainly deserves to be.

A helicopter shot looking down at Battersea Park during the second 2015 London ePrix.
A helicopter shot looking down at Battersea Park during the second 2015 London ePrix.

A few other bits to round off. Social media is good, with great use of Grabyo for instantly sharing clips from the race, which has paid off with famous stars sharing the clips. Weirdly though, there has not been much direct interaction with fans from Formula E themselves, in the form of Q&A’s and the like. Furthermore, I found that Formula E did not promote their own live streaming, which was incredibly bizarre. I mean, if you want someone to access the live streaming, surely you would provide a direct link to it? As I say, the social media content itself is great, but the interaction, not so. The website is okay, but it is not optimised for mobile browsing as far as I can see. Speaking of live streaming, if you didn’t have a direct link to it, chances are you would find it difficult to spot it. It is silly that the Video page, linked from the homepage, has none of the full sessions listed, but the Live Streaming page, not linked from the homepage, has every session listed. A goldmine if you want to grab new fans, if you ask me, which is not being exploited.

Season one for Formula E has gone incredibly well. Have they proved the naysayers wrong? I’d like to think so. The points I have outlined above will only serve to get better as time progresses. The cars will only get faster, the technology will become more mainstream and attract a bigger audience. Formula E has its baseline. But the race is not over. The chase for viewers is only just beginning. Please, just don’t do anything stupid. Keep it free and accessible, and you will attract more viewers.

Oh, and the segway is fantastic. Never forget the segway.

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