Though Monaco has been the home of Formula 1 street racing since 1955, the principality in fact hosted its first Grand Prix in 1929. Britons have played a prominent role since its inception: that debut race was won by one William Grover-Williams, whose left a promising racing career to become a spy and was captured and executed by the Nazis; three decades later, Graham Hill won the race back-to-back between 1963 and ‘65, then twice more before the end of the ‘60s, to earn the moniker ‘King of Monaco’.
The latest British driver to try and make his name here is Sam Bird, who pilots DS Virgin Racing’s Formula E car. That Championship, which is contested by electric vehicles, has visited Monaco twice in its debut three seasons. Its governing body’s aim is simple, if hopeful: “to reinvent racing for the 21st century.”
DS Virgin Racing, one of the founding teams, lines up alongside nine others, each of which field two drivers. Bird has driven since the inaugural ePrix and was this season joined by Argentine racer Jose Maria Lopez.
The team’s principal is Alex Tai, a former RAF pilot who started his commercial career with Virgin Atlantic and is now owner Richard Branson’s head of special projects. It was Tai’s evangelical zeal to help champion a more modern, cleaner way of driving that saw Virgin Racing relinquish Formula 1 and move into Formula E.
The sport focuses on city circuits, in an effort to promote more environmentally friendly methods of transport. It also creates a motorsport championship that, as Tai put it between qualifying rounds in Monaco, is competed for on a “very level playing field. It’s great racing. There’s no predictable winner.”
The team was dissuaded from Formula 1 by the monopoly of its biggest spending teams, where success can boil down to “how much you spend on your wheel nuts.” Formula E is instead accessible and immediate in a way that the commercial juggernaut of F1 can no longer match. City’s are more accessible than purpose-built tracks and rather than gobbling up a long weekend, everything from qualifying to the spraying of champagne takes place either in one day or, occasionally, two, so punters don’t have to cherry-pick which parts they attend.
But this is only the second-biggest shift; fans of F1 will immediately notice a more visceral difference between screaming petrol engines and less obnoxious electrics. Not that the ePrix cars are quiet – they can still top 200km/h, which makes an impression. It’s just that you don’t have to wear earplugs to enjoy it.
It is also a purer test of driving skill than Formula 1. All the cars are provided by one company, so skill with a wheel matters more than the money a team can pour into R&D. And like petrol engines, the Formula E’s battery’s are finite, which means teams need to be tactical about when they swap vehicles. Although it is planned that within a couple of years, they will be completing races in one car.
Spectators can monitor battery depletion on the various screens that are placed around the circuit and can contribute with a unique interactive element – called Fan Boost – which provides a favourite driver a temporary power bonus. These elements are part of Formula E’s push for something more important than who’s on the podium.
“This sport didn’t exist four years ago,” says Tai. “Even the cars didn’t exist before. And you also have to convince ten, 12, eventually perhaps 14 cities to close their streets. But it’s good for the planet, and that is something that people can associate with.”
So the race for our hearts and minds is being run, and as far as Alex and his sport hopes, it is also in the process of being won. “Formula 1 is well over fifty years old.” he says. “We have to show that Formula E is here to stay.”