10 years on from Formula E’s debut in China, what’s changed?

Formula E returns to the country where it all began this weekend as it heads east to China.

10 years ago the series debuted in Beijing’s Olympic Park. It was a huge step into the unknown — electric cars were only just emerging as a mainstream option in the consumer market, and as for racing? Well, racing with a full field of them had never been done before. It was a historical moment.

Lucas di Grassi won on the day, but the race is perhaps best remembered for the monumental crash between Nick Heidfeld and Nicolas Prost.

Heidfeld, holder of the unenviable record of most Formula 1 podiums without a win, was on course to get a 15-year-old monkey off his back and finally win in an open-wheeler again until Prost took him out at the final corner. Contact as Prost lunged up the inside sent Heidfeld flying over a curb and into a barrier. Heidfeld emerged unscathed, while Formula E managed to quickly dismiss the stigma that electric cars are somehow ticking time bombs in a crash.


Since then Formula E has evolved at a rapid pace. As the series prepares to return to China for the first time since the COVID pandemic, this time in Shanghai, here are the biggest differences.

Car swaps, power, and “Fanboost”

Some people think they still happen, but car swaps have been consigned to the history books since the introduction of the GEN2 car six years ago — and they’re on GEN3 now.

Initially (above image, top) Formula E cars had a maximum power output of 200 kW, with 170 kW being the figure in race trim, and a battery that would only last half the race distance, necessitating the much-maligned mid-race car swaps.

Nowadays, not only can the battery last the distance, but it’s dishing out more, too. Peak power is 350kW and the figure increases to 600 kW with regen, while cars are capable of 200mph –a world away from the sub-140 they were cracking a decade ago.

Fanboost is also gone. For eight years, the series’ first two generations of car, fans could vote for their favorite drivers, with the top-five drivers in the vote getting access to a five-second power boost. That was shelved ahead of last season.

The cars, drivers, race management and racetracks of Formula E have all undergone significant evolution since 2014. Steven Tee/Motorsport Images

Drivers and teams

With names like Takuma Sato, Jarno Trulli, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Heidfeld, as well as then-recent Formula 1 departees Bruno Senna, Karun Chandhok, Jaime Alguersuari, and Jérôme d’Ambrosio, Formula E initially had a reputation as something of a retirement home for F1 drivers.

While a handful of Season 1’s F1 expats remain at the forefront of the series, with F1 seats being harder to come by than ever as grid expansion is routinely dismissed and driver careers seemingly now go on forever, Formula E has emerged as a legitimate alternative for rising drivers. Names like Jake Dennis, Jake Hughes and Mitch Evans have all built solid careers in Formula E, while Season 7 champion Nyck de Vries even used it as a springboard to Formula 1.

What’s more, with continued strong manufacturer and sponsor involvement along with massively smaller budgets, a driver’s career in Formula E is one that comes with a healthy regular paycheck, and without the need to go around with a begging bowl every off-season to accrue budget that teams require. Pay drivers might be a regular theme in modern F1 and IndyCar but it is something of an alien concept in Formula E.

That first Formula E race was contested with a grid of single-make cars — Spark-Renault SRT_01Es — but technology was opened up the following year and now there are no fewer than six different powertrain providers in the field, as well as factory teams from Porsche, Jaguar, DS, Maserati, Nissan, and Mahindra. The latter is one of the original works teams in the series along with Renault (whose entry was taken over by alliance partner Nissan in 2018) and Audi (whose motorsport partner Abt still competes in the series).

While the energy requirements of Formula E rule out most F1 circuits, the full layout of Monaco fits the bill for its latest cars. Sam Bagnall/Motorsport Images


Street circuits still predominate but as the cars have got faster, they have needed to adapt.

The often-asked-for full F1 circuits won’t ever be part of the series. Regen and energy conservation are key pillars on Formula E racing, necessitating the need for shorter straights and regular heavy braking zones. But despite that, the quicker breed of car in the current era has seen the championship outgrow some of its cramped city settings.

This weekend’s races in Shanghai will take place at Shanghai International Circuit, the grand prix venue, while races in Mexico, Italy and the United States are also on permanent tracks this season.

A couple of races ago, Formula E was in Monaco, where there’s also been evolution over the years. The inaugural Formula E race in the principality took place on a shortened, one-mile version of the GP circuit which cut off with a hairpin on the run up to Massenet. Since 2021, the full layout has been used.

The calendar itself has also swelled, from 11 races in 10 locations in Season 1, to 16 in 10 this season (it would have been 17 in 11 but for the cancellation of the Hyderabad E-Prix in India earlier in the year for local political reasons).

Of course, after 10 years, Formula E remains divisive. It brought something entirely new to the motorsport landscape that hasn’t been to everyone’s taste. But there’s no denying its massive evolution over the last decade. While other open-wheel series have been happy to rest on their laurels, Formula E has continued to refresh and re-invent itself year-on-year. It leads one to wonder, when we gear up for a potential 2034 E-Prix in China, what will this story look like then?

Story originally appeared on Racer