Formula E race in Hong Kong could be the start of something huge, says organiser

Formula E race in Hong Kong could be the start of something huge, says organiser - but final approval still has to be given by the FIA

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 10:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 1:07pm

It will be the perfect marriage - electric cars racing at speeds of more than 200km/h in one of the most iconic cities in the world - for Alejandro Agag. So enamoured is the suave Spaniard that when he heard Hong Kong wanted to become part of the inaugural FIA Formula E world championship, he had no hesitation in bumping off another city already pencilled in, and inviting "Asia's World City" to join the 10-race street series.

"Hong Kong was a last-minute inclusion in our [provisional] calendar. They only confirmed they wanted to host a leg a couple of weeks before we announced the 10 cities in late September, but we had no hesitation in accepting them," says Agag, chief executive of Formula E Holdings, the promoters behind the world's first electric motor-racing series.

"It is like when you go to a cinema and someone jumps the queue. Hong Kong is that person, but we welcome it simply because we want to race in one of the most iconic cities in the world," says Agag.

"And in my mind, the three most iconic cities are London, New York and Hong Kong. We have London, and we are likely to add New York in our second year. Getting Hong Kong on board is great and we want it to be a permanent venue, like Monaco, every year."

Rome, Rio de Janeiro and Bangkok had been on the original list, but when Formula E released its provisional calendar for the series starting in Beijing next September, they had been replaced by the glamorous harbour of Monte Carlo, Uruguay's picturesque beach resort of Punte del Este and Hong Kong.

The traffic-clogged streets of the Thai capital had made way for a stretch of road in Central, from IFC Tower to the government's headquarters in Admiralty, and November 8, 2014 will be the day when history is made with the first international motor-racing event on the streets of Hong Kong.

It is not Formula One, but in the eyes of Agag, it will be even more significant for this is "the future" with the governing body of world motor-racing, the International Automobile Federation (FIA), setting their hearts on environmentally friendly races to target the younger generation.

This resulted in the idea to marry electric racing with electronic music and to hold it on the streets of the world's leading capitals. It will be one big party, an hour or more of racing followed by the world's top DJs in action and on the streets of London, Berlin, Hong Kong. And all this without the polluting influences of high-octane fuel or noise. Even tree-hugging environmentalists would find it difficult to pick holes in this proposal.

"The idea was born three years ago with the FIA who wanted clean energy racing. This is not Formula One and will be different, but we are confident it will catch on, especially because it is unique," said Agag. "We love Formula One and we are not competing with them for we believe Formula E is for a completely different market - the youth.

"We are going to bring the show to the people right in their city centres. This is the big difference. We can race in the heart of the city because there is no pollution, not much noise.

"So far, every city in the world we have approached has embraced the idea because of the sustainability.

"Reducing pollution in our cities is a priority around the world and Hong Kong is also committed to having a clean environment. We want to encourage the next generation that when they buy their first car, they opt for an electric car.

"This series will champion the benefits of electric racing. This will be a street race with no environmental issues and, what's more, this is far less costly than putting on a Formula One race," Agag said.

It costs Singapore annually over US$100 million to put on Formula One's showpiece night race around Marina Bay. The city's government bears more than half the cost as it believes the benefits from hosting the race are manifold, from raising the profile of the city to encouraging tourism. In contrast, it will cost US$5 million - most of it borne by the promoters - to bring Formula E to Hong Kong.

But money is not the most pressing issue for organisers, including the Hong Kong Automobile Association, the local partners of the concern. Right now everything is focused on identifying the circuit with Lung Wo Road in Central at the centre of discussions between government, Formula E and FIA officials. It was on this stretch of road that Red Bull exhibited a Formula One car a couple of years ago and that drew a crowd of 40,000.

The initial layout met with opposition from the government as one section of the circuit ran opposite the gates of its offices, which also house Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying; even though the race would be held on a Sunday, the gates had to remain open.

"The big man works on a Sunday and unless he took a helicopter, it would have caused a problem so we had to revisit this issue. It would have been nice if he could have taken a day off that Sunday," laughed Lawrence Yu Kam-kee, HKAA president, when he revealed to the Sunday Morning Post that discussions had hit a snag last week.

That hurdle has since been resolved. Agag arrived in town last Monday and after talks with the government, a revamped circuit was presented, which met the approval of the authorities. But a bigger obstacle has now cropped up with a tunnel - a slight 10- metre covered dip about 500 metres to the right of City Hall where the race will start and finish - creating concern.

With cars hammering down at speeds of around 217km/h, it would be highly dangerous in the tunnel, where the road narrows to seven metres and dips steeply. Organisers believe building a chicane - a sharp double bend - before the tunnel will address this issue. Now this has to be passed by the FIA's technical committee, which will arrive for a second inspection this week.

"I'm 90 per cent confident we will get the FIA green light. This is very important for without it there will be no race," says Agag. "The Hong Kong government has given us a provisional green light. It is now up to the FIA to approve the track. Once that is done, we can start thinking about other things."

The proposed 2.4 kilometre circuit is ideal. Bordering the harbour, it will be a fantastic backdrop for the race. More than 40,000 spectators will be catered for on grandstands, while VIPs and corporates will be wined and dined elsewhere. The race will be broadcast live to more than 90 countries around the world on Fox TV.

"The length of the Hong Kong track will be just perfect. London is around 3.1 kilometres which is a bit too long, as you have to remember that these cars will be powered by electricity, with each driver having two cars and needing to make a pit stop to change into his second car to complete the race, which will be around 35 laps," Agag explained.

"The location of the race, right in Central, will also be perfect. People watching on television can see the fantastic backdrop the harbour presents, the towering buildings and the top-speed action. It will be a thrilling spectacle for the fans."

Ten teams, each comprising two drivers - 40 cars in total - will take part in the inaugural series starting around the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing. Some of the top racing teams have come together to design the car - McLaren, Williams, Renault - which will look like a Formula One beast and was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show a few months ago. It can accelerate from zero to 100km/h under three seconds.

Five of the 10 teams have been confirmed and will include two from the United States, Dragon Racing and Andretti Autosport, both involved in Indy Car racing.

Four-time Formula One champion Alain Prost will headline another team while Drayson Racing from Britain, a pioneer of electric car racing, will be another.

China Racing, which competes in A1 and Super League, and is supported by the Chinese Automobile Association, has also signed up with a team from Japan expected to come on board soon. The rest of the field will be confirmed soon and there is expected to be a long waiting list.

"We have also got a group of top racing drivers confirmed and I wouldn't discount the possibility of a Hong Kong driver taking part, too, especially in the home leg," Agag said.

With Lung Wo Road not being a main artery for traffic in Central, the disruption will be minimal according to organisers. The track will be assembled in the nights before the race (safety barriers being put up, grandstands for the public etc), and the road itself will be closed on the weekend only. But all this is in the future.

First the green light has to be given by the FIA.

December 6 is D-Day. That is when the FIA will officially confirm the 10 cities. Agag will be hoping the FIA will join him, and together in their electric dreams, give Hong Kong a date to look forward to.

"It is a challenge to host a race like this in a place like Hong Kong. Getting the layout right has been demanding but we believe we have got it right now and everyone can look forward to the first electric grand prix in Hong Kong. I'm confident it will be a massive success," Agag added.