Opinion: COVID-19 throws a new sustainability challenge to the FE paddock

Opinion: COVID-19 throws a new sustainability challenge to the FE paddock

It’s been a very long, very depressing time since any of us were trackside for a Formula E race weekend. I was the last IE team member to go to a race (Marrakech, in February 2020) and I will, bar anything majorly disastrous happening – a circumstance I’m no longer foolhardy enough to rule out – be the first to go back to one, in Diriyah, essentially a full year later.

Formula E completed Season 6 with the Berlin finale, a gruelling event that I don’t think anyone involved ever wants to have to repeat but which the championship has to be applauded for putting together in difficult circumstances. And they’ve managed to adapt and announce a calendar for Season 7, despite travel restrictions increasing well beyond anything we experienced last year and specific issues around travel to and from the UK making that being where FE’s base is very difficult indeed.

It’s not Formula E’s fault that we’re in a global pandemic; the series has tried to help journalists as much as possible, from setting up a well-functioning virtual media centre to managing to get a handful of us back on site at Valencia testing. We aren’t separated from the paddock, like in Formula One and we’re included in the same bubble as the whole Formula E group, were set to be biosphered with them in Santiago if that race had happened.

So this isn’t a complaint about Formula E. It’s not a complaint at all – because what’s the point of shouting at what might as well be a storm overhead? The global pandemic won’t politely get out of the way and travel restrictions won’t change just because I’m being a snowflake. There’s a lot of those, caught in this blizzard.

The problem is, Formula E had a certain appeal to a journalist of being relatively cheap to cover. We race in cities, where you can often use public transport or stay close to the track, we don’t have long events so you can minimise how long you need to be away (I’ve often got away with two nights and once one) and although coverage doesn’t pay as much as F1, your outgoings to do it are far less. It was, as the mission of the championship is, a genuinely sustainable series for balancing the books.

Some events I didn’t make a profit and some, like Santiago – which is just a long, long way from London – I accepted a small loss because if I’m going all that way I’d rather do it in a relatively nice way. Which, by my standards, means eating in restaurants and using the odd taxi but to be fair, I did stay in a guest house that was half demolished last year so don’t assume that means. the Hilton.

My treat-my-self budget for Santiago has, however, been blown out of the water by post-COVID events. Again, this isn’t Formula E’s fault – but the numbers, when I added them up earlier, are really stark.

At Season 6’s Valencia testing I stayed with friends in an Air B&B for fantastically cheap. We ate local food every night and drank €1 beers, the only major expense was taxis.

Flights: £46
Accommodation: £26
Taxis: £141
Food and cheap beers: £128
Total: £341
The damage for a week in Valencia in 2019

In Valencia this year, my Ryanair flights were cancelled long before we were due to arrive. Bubbling protocols took me out of an AirB&B and into a hotel and additional costs like a pre-flight PCR negative test reared their heads. For a week where I mostly sat in my hotel room playing Among Us, the numbers feel pretty grim.

Flights: £73.66
PCR test: £120
Hotels, including overnight in Lisbon due to no direct flights: £377.98
Taxis: £119
Depressing garage sandwiches/a McDonalds in Lisbon airport: £109
Total: £799.64
The new normal

None of this is anyone’s fault. I doubt anyone could do things cheaper than I do. And that in itself presents a problem; even so, the costs have doubled.

I made a loss on Valencia. Coverage was hard to sell due to uncertainty up until the wire on what was happening – and the fact an intense F1 season was wrapping up to dominate motorsport schedules at the same time, with outlets too jammed to be much interested in the fact no one knew who’d won the simulation race. It was just good to be back and I doubt any of us cared – Valencia felt optimistic, like we’d be able to work out these new circumstances and that things were looking up.

The situation has since deteriorated, of course and again, Formula E have to be given credit for making Diriyah continue to go ahead. Going to Riyadh is always a unique challenge for lots of reasons but one that’s interesting enough to justify us doing it, by far and there’s never been any doubt in my mind that I’ll go.

But looking at the numbers, even I have to admit that the pandemic might have killed off that wonderful, sustainable, cheap-to-cover nature of Formula E that let me start working in it.

Flights: £243
Hotels, including a night in Beirut: £72
Ubers: £56.73
Stuff (food, socks because I forgot to pack any, etc): £47
Total: £418
A five-night trip to Riyadh in Season 6
Flights: £520.14
Hotel: £247
Pre-booked, COVID-secure airport transfer: £62
Pre-flight fit-to-fly certification: £170
PCR test pre-re-entry to UK: £132.23 (€150)
Total (3w before event): £1,131
This year’s mounting bill

There are lots of things that are different this year. The need for direct flights to comply with 72h testing before arrival makes them pricier. A 48h quarantine (effectively 60h including test results) before being able to enter the track means an eight-night stay. Equally, that means staying in a hotel with room service rather than the (perfectly fine) no-frills places I’ve stayed in before because we’re not allowed to leave our hotel rooms except to be tested or go to the track, banned from entering communal areas and must minimise contact with staff. We’re not allowed to use Uber, which bothers me already because it’s a very safe way of getting around and had been really handy for me in the past and in theory we’re meant to be booking private drivers. In practice, I can’t really do that and haven’t figured out my workaround yet.

I can’t pretend I am likely to break even on it. I can justify it to myself because I have worked so hard to gain a claw-hold in this that I would have to work really hard not to justify it, against the balance of everything past.

But also there is a point where you can’t lose hundreds of pounds and weeks of time for an event. It scares me to even think this and it’s not something I’ve ever felt happy admitting, always finding some way to make things work somehow, no matter if it meant sleeping in airports for 16 nights of 2019 or sitting in a Monagasque studio eating instant noodles. It’s all part of the big adventure and I don’t shy away from it, the job is making it make sense as a job, somehow.

That was possible when it was about £10k in expenses to cover a season, if you were smart about it – I managed Season 5 for quite a lot less than that. But to extrapolate the increases, if that turns into £25k then it’s not possible. I want to tell myself to shut up and that I’ll just be smarter or sneakier or something but same as there’s no point screaming at the storm, there’s no getting out of it just by being clever.

Maybe it’s a case that independents will have to gnash our teeth for a bit and sit on our hands and come back at that fictional horizon point “when this is all over.” In fact, probably, that is what is going to have to happen. I’m just having a hard time accepting it but there’s only so much depressing reality you can deny.

But this has a worse side: Formula E’s relative cheapness and lack of gruelling, long trips to schedule was part of what made it appealing for coverage full stop. Any publication will struggle to justify a more-than-doubling in costs and the sudden complication of needing to send a staff member not for a weekend but more than a week, especially if they’re then prevented covering other events by a mandatory quarantine on return.

FE is a new, young series and it needs coverage. It’s very worrying if a situation continues where it’s hard, no matter how much you love it and want to, to justify giving it that. Workarounds and remote coverage will fill a gap but Formula E’s paddock was always accessible as well as sustainable and COVID has hit both those things very hard.

* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Inside Electric.

Don’t miss our latest podcast

Written by
Hazel Southwell