Spectacular Cape Town E-Prix gives a glimpse of a more sustainable future

Spectacular Cape Town E-Prix gives a glimpse of a more sustainable future
Sacha Fenestraz, Nissan Formula E Team, Nissan e-4ORCE 04, leads Maximilian Günther, Maserati MSG Racing, Maserati Tipo Folgore, during the Cape Town E-Prix on 25 February 2023. (Photo: Supplied / Formula E / Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

The Mother City’s Atlantic Seaboard was dramatically transformed for the inaugural Cape Town E-Prix, laying a foundation for it to become an iconic motor racing location.

On most Saturday mornings, Granger Bay is a hub of activity with joggers and cyclists weaving between people strolling on their way to the Oranjezicht City Farm Market for delicious treats. 

But, over the past weekend, there was a buzz of a different kind. Eighteen 350KW, 470 horsepower Formula E beasts ripped through the inner-city track, reaching speeds of 250kph on roads that usually have a 60kph speed limit.

It would have been 22 cars but the Mahindra team, which also supplies the Cupra team of South Africa’s Kelvin van der Linde, withdrew all four cars due to rear suspension issues.

Formula E, the fully electric single-seater racing series, made an impressive Cape Town debut that could be a foundation for the crown jewel of motorsport, Formula One, to consider an African and Cape Town Grand Prix more seriously.

But Formula One, while being the pinnacle of motorsport, might not actually fit in with the vision of Cape Town to become a greener, more sustainable city.

Formula E provided a dramatic racing spectacle, on a superb track, in a beautiful city with perfect weather while showcasing the potential and future of electric mobility.

The squeal of tyres fighting for grip, echoed through Mouille Point’s buildings and those residents that embraced the race crammed balconies to catch a glimpse of the action.

Some residents did not want the race to happen due to a few days of inconvenience due to street closures. But, according to Alderman JP Smith, the direct economic benefits for the city were projected at R2-billion. In return, the City of Cape Town only spent about R48-million to make the race happen.

Another source of concern, albeit tenuous, was that a South African subsidiary of engineering company ABB, Formula E’s overall title sponsor, was implicated in state corruption for its role in the manufacture of the white elephant Kusile Power Station.

According to a report in News24 the: “The South African subsidiary pleaded guilty to one count of violating the anti-bribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

“ABB was fined a total of $315-million (roughly R5.8-billion), which includes a R1.56-billion settlement with Eskom announced back in December 2020.

“In the plea deal, ABB acknowledged paying bribes to subcontractors, receiving confidential internal Eskom documentation, and employing a contractor who failed a routine due diligence test.”

The fact that Formula E’s overall title sponsor was implicated in alleged corrupt activities in South Africa’s energy sector was an uncomfortable look, especially at a time of rolling blackouts in the country.

On the positive side, though, were the spectacle of a race through the streets of Mouille and Green Point, the positive economic impact on Cape Town, and a boost for promoting environmental issues and the use of electric cars.

The stunning visuals beamed to hundreds of millions globally, were arguably worth more than a plan to spend R1-billion promoting the country with Tottenham Hotspur.

Scenic views during the Cape Town E-Prix at the Cape Town Street Circuit on Friday, 24 February 2023. (Photo: Supplied/Formula E/Simon Galloway/LAT Images)


It was notable that all food and drink containers in the media and hospitality centres were recyclable. Where plastic is used, it’s not single-use plastic and even the safety car, the Porsche Taycan, is fully electric.

Critics will claim that moving hundreds of people associated with the series to far flung locations to set-up and promote and execute the races comes at a significant carbon cost through flights.

That is of course, true and inevitable. But for the concept of producing a division of racing whose underlying purpose is to promote a greener world, it does need to travel globally.

In 2020, Formula E was certified with a net zero carbon footprint and is a signatory of the UN Climate Neutral Now initiative. It continues to become even more sustainable with more efficient cars and means of transport constantly evolving.

It has cut freight costs and uses green projects to offset its relatively small carbon footprint. There is no public parking on site, which is an attempt to encourage fans to use existing transport links to the race.

Cape Town is a city that is positioning itself at the forefront of green thinking in South Africa, so the Formula E concept was a good fit.

Many fans did try to reach Green Point by car, even though the city’s efficient MyCiti network was running free shuttles from various locations to the track.

It will take some time for South Africans, raised on a lifetime of driving to events, to change habits.

Formula E’s co-founder and co-owner Alberto Longo at the Cape Town E-Prix on Friday, 24 February 2023. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

Alberto Longo, Formula E’s co-founder and co-owner, took a pragmatic view of some of the criticism, especially in a country in the midst of an energy crisis. He argued that the race places minimal additional strain on energy in the cities it visits.

The series uses generators powered by biofuels to run the cars and other machinery directly related to the race, which are supplied by the organisers. Improvements in battery technology have increased the lifespan of the lithium-ion cells used to power the cars while optimising its freight logistics, largely cutting out air travel where possible.  

“We don’t need the electricity grid of any city to operate. We don’t need the actual power from any city in the world,” Longo told Daily Maverick.

“But more importantly, this series is also promoting electromobility, promoting the fact that we are capable of doing all this, while being a net zero emission championship.

“It’s also good for the city and hopefully it will open the eyes of some people, so they will eventually start investing more and more in infrastructure for those cuts not to happen again.” 

From left: Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security Alderman JP Smith, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde and Formula E’s co-founder and co-owner Alberto Longo in the pit at the Cape Town E-Prix on Friday, 24 February 2023. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

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Successful event

Like any new event, there were concerns Cape Town could and would pull it off. The fact that it was also run through a residential and business district made it even more challenging and required months of negotiation between the city and residents to come to a compromise.

Not all residents supported the race but that is the nature of almost any major sporting event. There are always challenges to hosting the Cape Town Cycle Tour or the Two Oceans Marathon, for instance.

The final product looked spectacular both at ground level and via the TV images beamed to the world.

The track was the fastest in the nine-year history of Formula E. Nissan’s Sacha Fenestraz’s pole position lap averaged 154.987kph with a top speed of 250.2kph. The previous fastest average speed was 140kph in Valencia.

The drivers described it as one of the most challenging they had encountered because it was fast and bumpy. But all enjoyed it.

“I think the race and the set-up was actually way better than what we were expecting,” Longo told Daily Maverick.

“You always have the question mark of whether the standards of Formula E can be met in many countries in the world. It’s not about being in South Africa or whatever, but it’s always the same question mark.

“Actually, arriving as early as Monday (four days before the race), I could feel straight away that it was almost done. It was well ahead of schedule.

“The standards of the racetrack of the non-permanent structures that we’re building all around were absolutely stunning.

“Depending on where you go, you have different challenges, different difficulties to get the race going on. Some of them, the world’s offences are some elements which are critical for the race that in some places they do have it, but they don’t have them up to the standards that we need. In this case, we manufactured all of them from scratch.

“That obviously makes it a lot easier. But they only started like two months and a half ago to manufacture them. It’s actually a miracle that they have done all that so quickly and again to that standard.” 

Sacha Fenestraz, Nissan Formula E Team, Nissan e-4ORCE 04, in action during the Cape Town E-Prix race on Saturday, 25 February 2023. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

Nissan Formula E Team’s Sacha Fenestraz leads at the start of the race on 25 February 2023. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

The future

Though there is a five-year contract in place to stage the race, its future will only be confirmed after a full debrief. It’s hard to imagine that there are serious impediments for the Cape Town E-Prix not to go ahead in 2024 and beyond, but Longo took a cautious tone.

“It’s true that we have a long-term contract (with Cape Town), but actually we need to see how everything works to be able to come back, so it’s not a given,” Longo said.

“But what is true is that, every time we return to a city, we try to do it better than the previous year.

“If you look at any place where we have raced over several years, the race of year one has nothing to do with the race of year eight. We are always evolving and growing and making the experience better for the fans at the track, and for the people who watch on TV.”

Even though the world is moving towards electric cars and away from combustion engines, Longo doesn’t see a future where Formula E and Formula One merge.

“We are both doing our thing, doing our path, and we don’t want to be compared to Formula One,” Longo said.

“Obviously we recognise and respect F1 fully. I’m a big lover of F1 myself, having worked in it. But the reality is that we created Formula E with big differentiating factors from Formula One.

“We saw things that we would love to change and probably the most important one is the fact that drivers are less important in that championship because it’s more reliant on engineers and a car than skills of the drivers.

“Somehow, we needed to humanise motorsport again. Our drivers are the stars of our race. If you don’t have a good driver, you don’t win any race in Formula E, it’s as easy as that.

“Cars, don’t get me wrong, are very important as well, and the driver needs the right tools to win, but it comes down to the driver.

“Formula E is a very competitive championship, because we have, I think, the best line-up of drivers in the world. We have a completely different property than what others offer.

“We can all co-exist, and it’s really good that everybody gets big attention, because we will be surfing the same sort of wave.” DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    From 50km I breathed a sigh of relief that the hospital squatters or seagulls or bergies did not stage a protest
    during the race.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Great stuff!! Come again!!

  • Barrie Lewis says:

    It was good to read that Nissan’ Sacha F did so well; as the proud owner of a 9 year old Leaf I can confirm it’s the best car I have ever owned.
    Such a shame this regime is so anti BEVs. By taxing them to death (45% of the list price) they have ensured only 1000 have been sold in SA in the last five years. I will never be able to afford a new Nissan.
    In comparison 1.61 million BEVs were sold in the UK just in 2022; that says it all.

  • nick57 says:

    The winner of the event was undoubtably Cape Town which looked absolutely amazing. Excellent job all round.

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