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Formula E, the first major battery-electric motor sports series, wraps up its 5th season

Key Points
  • Formula E, the first major battery-electric motor sports series, wrapped up its fifth season over the weekend on a temporary track along the waterfront in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood.
  • Formula E founder Alejandro Agag says the series has become more "sexy," "relevant" and "mainstream."
Sebastien Buemi of Nissan team won 1st place on podium during trophy presentation after New York City E-Prix 2019 Formula E Round 12 at Red Hook.
Lev Radin | Pacific Press | LightRocket | Getty Images

It came down to the wire, something appropriate for the first major battery-electric motorsports series.

Formula E wrapped up its fifth season over the weekend. Of 11 teams competing this year, five still had a shot at winning the season's twin weekend races on a temporary track along the waterfront in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood.

Under a scorching sun, Sebastien Buemi crossed the finish line first for team Nissan e.dams on Saturday, while Robin Frijns of Envision Virgin Racing took the checkered flag the next day. But thanks to Formula E's complicated point system, Jean-Eric Vergne nabbed his second consecutive title for team DS Techeetah. Points are awarded for earlier races during the season and for factors including pole position and fastest lap.

Yet one could argue it really was Formula E itself that came out on top after the season clincher, with program founder and organizer Alejandro Agag declaring the series more "sexy," "relevant" and "mainstream."

Conceived in 2011, it was far from certain Formula E would ever get off the ground — right up to the moment the green flag dropped at its first race in Beijing three years later. Within more traditional motor sports, the betting was that the upstart series wouldn't make it to year two. Support was tepid, even among manufacturers investing in battery-electric technology.

But Formula E slogged on, and with season six on the horizon, it's seeing interest pick up, both among manufacturers and fans. The twin bill had been sold out for weeks, seats in the bleachers commending $155 apiece.

Season five also had drawn new participants down in the pits. Notably Nissan, which launched the world's first mainstream battery-electric vehicle, the Leaf, a decade ago.

"It really validates the (EV) space … seeing the growth in motor sports," Brian Maragno, the Japanese automaker's head of electric marketing, told CNBC at the track. Despite falling short of a title win, Maragno said the automaker is "ecstatic" with its first-season results and committed to stay on for at least two more seasons.

It will face more entries, however. For 2019-2020, Mercedes-Benz is signing in as lead sponsor for an early team, with the 12th and final slot taken by Porsche, which not so coincidentally, will launch its first all-electric vehicle, the Taycan, around the start of the new season.

The just-finished run was important in a number of ways. Among other things, it saw the debut of Formula E's second-generation cars. While the original models looked a fair bit like Formula 1 clones, the new ones are more distinctive. Among other things, they don't feature the massive rear wings seen in most other open-wheel race series.

It's what's under their skin marking the most dramatic advance. For the first four years, the cars carried 24 kilowatt-hour battery packs meaning the two drivers on each team would have to take a pit stop during a race, clamber out and strap into a second car to finish. This year, the pack grew to 54 kWh, enough to finish a race — with careful planning.

Meanwhile, each team now designs and builds its own drivetrain. None will discuss plans, but it can give them a critical advantage.

Ironically, the original cars reinforced the concept of range anxiety, "something that has limited public acceptance of battery-electric vehicles," said Kim McCullough, North American marketing chief for Jaguar Land Rover, which not only fields a Formula E team but runs the E-Trophy support race featuring its own I-Pace electric SUV. "Now, that's taken off the table."

Manufacturers have long subscribed to the mantra, "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday." For now, Formula E serves as an education tool for EVs, said McCullough. But among the throng that gathered in Red Hook, there was plenty of interest in the technology.

"I like the fact that it's helping save the environment," said Bronx resident Donisha Lloyd. "I'd buy one."

While Formula E's complicated point system can confuse fans, organizers aim to appeal to the next generation of car buyers with rules clearly influenced by social media and videogaming. Twice during each race, drivers must swerve through "Activation Zones" triggering a four-minute power boost. And the five drivers scoring the most likes online get an additional 45-second boost.

Drivers have to balance those boosts against the energy they will suck down. Some have been left with batteries drained before the end of a race running 45 minutes plus one additional lap.

With Formula E on a roll, organizer Agag confidently told an audience during a Friday seminar on the motor sports technology, "I think (all auto racing series) will have to go electric or they will have no relevance."

How accurate that might prove is a matter of debate, but hybrid technology is now a norm at both Formula One and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For now, Formula E's backers are simply hoping the series' growing popularity will translate into increased interest among car buyers around the world.

Disclosure: Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. His travel and accommodations to the Formula E competition were paid for by Nissan.