The silent revolution in motor sport

James Mercer from Envision Virgin Racing explains why the all-electric Formula E race series is so relevant and how sustainability and sport can co-exist.
James Mercer of Envision Virgin Racing

I’m old enough to remember a time when cigarette advertising was the norm in sport and when, not so long ago, walking into any bar would involve cutting through a haze of smoke.

Bob Dylan once famously sung “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Well, he was wrong. They’ve changed.  

Perceptions of what is and isn’t acceptable change; and the same is true of sport.

In the past few years in particular, sustainability and the climate crisis have come to the forefront of all our attentions; put simply, they have gone mainstream. But staying relevant is no longer just a fad or a marketing buzzword; it’s an essential choice and one that none of us can afford to ignore.   

E sports: sustainable motor racing

I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with an array of wonderful leading sports series, from the Lawn Tennis Association through to the Rugby Football League. But never have I felt that my work and my mission is more relevant than my time now as the Commercial Director at Formula E team Envision Virgin Racing.

The now burgeoning all-electric racing series had many doubters when it was first unveiled back in 2013, but six seasons on it has become the envy of many in the sports world as brands and car manufacturers alike flock to it, looking to align with a sport whose technology is at the very forefront of making this world a better place.

I have no doubt that sport and sustainability can – and should – co-exist. There can be little dispute about the extraordinary levels of passion that sport is able to inspire. People care desperately about the fate of their team, favourite player or squad…so why not the fate of their planet? Indeed, what could be more important?

The environmental movement is no longer regarded as a novelty. It is necessity in everyday life. This has finally started to find its place in the world of sport. Whether it’s the wonderful Forest Green Rovers, the Ocean Race or Beach Volleyball, the significance of our planet has finally hit the terraces, the waves and the pitches.

The race against climate change

And in Envision Virgin Racing I stumbled on something particularly special. The team was started six years ago now with one simple purpose – to address and bring to life the effects of climate change through using the Formula E platform to speak about e-mobility and renewable energy. There was no confusing conflict to this targeted purpose.

I joined Envision Virgin Racing just over a year ago. As a founding team in Formula E, they had enjoyed huge on-track and off-track success. Over those early years, it had thrown itself into the spotlight, creating a platform on which to voice its message to the 410 million TV viewers the championship attracted last season alone.

The Envision Virgin Formula E racing team in action in Mexico

Using its own Race against Climate Change programme, the team has quickly carved out a reputation as one of the greenest in motorsport – or, I would argue, in sport. In fact, you might well say we are a sustainability movement first, a sports team second. 

Linking the power of sport to sustainability makes plenty of sense. Sport contains many of the preconditions for promoting mass behaviour change. People wouldn’t listen to us without the racing and the winning: these are essential to remaining relevant. 

This formula has led to a surge of interest from brands wishing to align. Indeed, the first conversation we always have with any new prospect is not “What do you think about Formula E?” but “How can you support us to amplify our narrative?” After all, why support a brand if you don’t agree with their social and environmental values?

Getting the tone right

But it’s essential to get the tone right in this area. No one wants to be preached to, with sustainability messages shoved down their throats. They want to be able to relate, understand and believe the connection to that messaging, whilst enjoying being engaged through interesting and relevant storytelling.

You also have to be careful to practise what you preach. That’s why we’re about to be one of the first motorsport teams to have its operations certified carbon neutral by the Carbon Trust. This is something of which we are immensely proud.

Of course, there is cynicism. “Where does the energy come from to power the EVs?” and “What about all the CO2 that goes into making them in the first place?” are perhaps the two most common questions I hear. And they’re valid, but easily explained.

The lifetime emissions per kilometre of driving an electric car are about three times lower than for the average conventional car. And even when you factor in the carbon footprint required to produce their batteries, charge them, etc. electric models still emit half as much CO2 as a petrol- or diesel-engine car over the course of their life cycle.

It’s estimated that it takes just two to three years of zero-emission travel for electric cars to compensate for the carbon dioxide output required to produce the batteries that power them.

More than just sustainable racing

But then you come back round to the whole point of Formula E. It’s about innovation and the development of this technology, both mechanically and software related. If you consider how far other motor racing championships have pushed internal combustion engines, look at what Formula E will do given the same amount of time?

In just five years, the cars and their batteries are already almost twice as powerful and last twice as long. It’s incredible to think where this technology could be in another five years and the implications for wider adoption. The possibilities are endless.

And let’s not forget arguably the most important factor. Formula E is good fun. The hardest challenge Formula E faces is changing people’s perceptions, but it does this by creating something that is entertaining and using this as a platform to talk about sustainability. As my son enjoys reminding me, it’s about “moving with the times”. Being sustainably relevant – and staying relevant – is key. And besides, if you’re not relevant then you’re irrelevant and who wants to be that?