Montreal mayor Valérie Plante announced Monday that the city has canceled the season four finale of all-electric racing series Formula E, a doubleheader weekeend event that was scheduled to take place in July 2018. It’s a total about-face from the city’s previous administration which, led by former mayor Denis Coderre, had poured millions of dollars and years’ worth of effort into bringing the event to the city.
Formula E, which is the first global all-electric racing series of its kind, performs nearly all its races on custom-built street circuits, typically assembled in the weeks or days before a race. This requires the closure of roads, city council approvals, and heaps of cooperation from local organizations.
The controversy in Montreal is a tale of two mayors
A side effect of all that necessary coordination, the series has suffered scheduling problems in the past. Moscow was pulled from the schedule in 2016 after logistics disagreements with the Russian government. An upcoming race in São Paulo, Brazil was postponed until 2019 because the city sold the land where the race was supposed to take place, though the series had Punta Del Este, Uruguay, which hosted races in seasons one and two, waiting as a backup. And a long-standing battle with a cadre of irked Londoners forced the series out of Battersea Park, which had hosted the season one and two finales.
The disagreement in Montreal was different, though. Coderre’s desire to bring Formula E to the most populous city in Quebec was so strong that he was courting the series as early as 2014. That year, he flew to the Miami race in season one — the series’s first competition on North American asphalt — to stump for hosting privileges. In the process of bringing the series to Montreal to replace London as the home of its championship races, he put $24 million of the city’s money on the table, something other major cities like New York, Berlin, and Paris didn’t do.
Formula E, having basically lit over $100 million on fire so far in order to survive, apparently (and unsurprisingly) didn’t object. The city and series went forward with the double-header finale this past July. The races were fantastic and flush with drama, with reigning champion Sebastien Buemi suffering an epic race day meltdown, handing the title to the smiling face of the series, Lucas di Grassi.
But turnout was lower than expected, and while Coderre initially said he was “satisfied” with the event, he admitted that some local businesses suffered because of poor planning and execution.
Coderre was up for re-election this fall, though, so Plante made his apparent overextension of the city and its money part of her campaign platform. And it worked. Pressure from Plante and her supporters forced Coderre to release information weeks before the election that showed nearly half (or more) of the event’s tickets had been given away for free.
Plante won, and soon after she stated that the plan was to move the race — which Coderre had agreed to host for two subsequent years — to Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the city’s famous Formula One track.
The prospects of keeping the race in Montreal only got worse in the weeks since, though. Last week, CBC reported that the nonprofit group established to organize the event had used up almost its entire $10 million line of credit. And because of the language of the contract between the nonprofit and Formula E’s organizers, the city is reportedly on the hook for this debt. The 2018 race was reportedly going to cost the city up to $35 million, and it’s also unclear who will need to pay any cancellation fees, or how much they might total.
Plante suggested merely suspending the 2018 race while the two sides figured out what to do, an idea Formula E organizers were not happy with, according to CBC. As of right now, it’s unclear whether the series has a backup in place, as it did with São Paulo. If no replacement can be found, the season four finale would shift to New York City, which is scheduled to host its second pair of Formula E races on July 14th and 15th. (Season four started earlier this month in Hong Kong.)
Montreal shelled out more public money than most other host cities, because most other host cities paid none
A season finale in New York City wouldn’t be such a bad thing. And Formula E has no shortage of major cities in its roster. In just its first three seasons, Formula E logged races in 15 cities across 13 countries and five continents. Even without Montreal, if the current season four schedule holds, it will add to that tally thanks to races in three new cities and countries — Rome, Italy, Zurich, Switzerland, and Santiago, Chile.
Zurich has been viewed as a particular coup for Formula E, since motorsports have been otherwise banned in Switzerland for more than 60 years. Rome is the kind of city that it’s legitimately hard to imagine a major race running through, and yet, it’s happening. New York City was also a major get for Formula E, especially considering Formula One’s failed attempts to race in the Big Apple.
These deals with cities are, in large part, a result of the series’s gregarious and tenacious CEO Alejandro Agag. He has reportedly courted well over 100 cities as he’s grown Formula E into a what looks more like a viable motorsport each year. The cities themselves have also gotten onboard with the idea, since it’s a relatively easy way to loudly promote green technology without (typically) a ton of investment. And Agag’s been able to pull it off, in part, because the cars themselves actually aren’t loud at all. After all, next to physical disruption of city life, noise is often cited as a top reason why locals are usually against racing — in cities, or in general.
On one hand, it’s frankly amazing that Formula E — a series that many diehard motorsport fans eulogized before it even ran one race — has become big enough that a politician can run (and win) on a platform of keeping it away. On the other, the series needs to find a way to accept the eagerness of local governments to host (and spend money on) its product without exploiting those cities. There won’t always be a backup waiting.
The series should take the long-simmering tension and eventual failure in Montreal (as well as in London, and even in Miami) as a harsh reminder of those disruptions that are inherent to hosting a race in the middle of the city. Because if Formula E doesn’t learn from this lesson, those disruptions can cause enough friction to stop the series in its tracks.