Driven by Success

7th December 2018

As the Formula E championship reaches its fifth year, it continues to grow in popularity. Lisa Botwright chats to Nicki Shields, the face of the Channel 5 series covering this exciting electric-powered motorsport. Set to return to our screens on 15 December, Nicki will be reporting live from Saudi Arabia for the first race of the new season…

When most people think about motorsport, it’s probably fair to say that Formula 1 is likely to take pole position – but there’s another racing championship that’s speeding up from behind: poised and ready to overtake its rival. According to Formula E (FE) pit lane presenter Nicki Shields, the electric racing series she fronts has the potential to become every bit as popular, possibly even more so, than Formula 1. “Each FE race is on a street circuit, so you get such a thrilling and unpredictable race each time,” Nicki enthuses. “It’s why Monaco [where drivers race through the city centre] is always one of the favourites in the F1 calendar.”

It’s not just the sport that’s fast-paced and exciting; the technology is ever-changing too. When FE started, the cars had to be swapped mid-race; this year, the energy storage capacity of the vehicles has been doubled, which means drivers can complete a whole race in the car they start in.

This emphasis on ethical technology is having a hugely positive impact on the motor industry as a whole; it’s a concept that Nicki is keen to champion, and something the former Escape to the Country host admits was part of the attraction when the presenting job first came up. “While I have always been a bit of a petrol-head, I’ve also had a keen interest in sustainability, so when the opportunity presented itself to be involved in the combination of the two I just couldn’t refuse!”

Back in 2012, Jean Todt, President of the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile: the governing body for global auto racing events), had an idea to demonstrate the potential of sustainable mobility. His colleague and CEO, Alejandro Agag, ran with the idea and created Formula E as global entertainment brand centred around electric motor racing.

“You find with any motorsport that the advances in technology they make are then adapted to the consumer market, so why wouldn’t that be the same with Formula E?” Nicki observes. “There are some really spectacular electric cars available at the moment, and with charging stations becoming more readily available, it’s fantastic to see people taking more responsibility for their impact on the environment.”

Nicki tells me how she tries to reduce her environmental footprint as much as possible. “I own an electric car, I buy ethical beauty and fashion brands as much as I can, I’m continually trying to reduce my plastic waste, and I recently tried to go vegan,” although this last part is something she freely admits is a challenge to someone who’s continually moving around the world. “I do struggle when I’m travelling and therefore can’t commit to the full-time change, but I definitely make more of a conscious decision to go meat-free when I can.”

'Science' (with a degree in Biological and Zoological Sciences) and 'cars' are Nicki’s two biggest passions and these are both areas in which women are under-represented. Does she believe that more women should be encouraged into motorsport? “I’m very lucky to work in an industry, which although can seem very male-dominated, is also extremely inclusive of women. The shop-front of motorsport does tend to be that women take on the glamorous roles, such as grid-girls, which I know was a huge issue earlier this year, but there are some fantastic female drivers, engineers and presenters like myself who are extremely talented and successful. There are also some wonderful schemes out there to encourage more women to be involved in the sport and the industry, and it is definitely something I also encourage. Don’t let the perceptions of others stop you,” she warns, “because you can go on to do such amazing things.” 

The new season kicks off next weekend (15 December) in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia – a brand new FE location. Nicki will be the first woman to be televised in western dress for this opening race in a country often perceived as one of the most conservative in the world (women were only granted the vote in 2011, and until this summer were not allowed to drive). How does she feel about this? “It’s an interesting one,” she muses. “I know that that part of the world has been thought of as quite dated in comparison to the Western World, with their beliefs and subsequent policies, but honestly, for me, it’s a fantastic opportunity to see another beautiful country whilst doing what I love… Saudi Arabia will be a first for me, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

It’s an FE first for the whole of the Middle East, and the race will take place on a track built on the outskirts of the city. “Saudi Arabia is looking to the future,” Prince Abdulaziz told the world’s press when the race was announced, “and Formula E is the motorsport of the future…”

The championship is multi-seasonal (it lasts from December until July) and multi-national, encompassing 13 races over 12 cities (New York hosts two races). Controversy over the London site, though, means that that the UK has sadly been noticeably absent from the FE race circuit for the last few years, although Mayor Sadiq Khan is reportedly “very keen” for the city to be part of FE again. London hosted the inaugural season finale in Grade II* listed Battersea Park, but its five-year deal ended after just the second event because of local criticism.

Moreover, while the parkland route was very scenic, it failed to wow audiences used to the excitement of iconic city centres. The FE are said to be much keener to host a race on the streets of the city, in a circuit that would incorporate the famous London landmarks of Trafalgar Square and The Mall, but that plan has so far failed to come to fruition.

FE is not only forward-thinking in its technology, but it’s the only sport that uses the internet to let fans play an active role in influencing the outcome. Fans vote for their favourite driver via ‘FanBoost’ and the five drivers with the most votes are awarded a burst of power, which they can deploy in a five-second window during the second half of the race. Votes are cast online or via an app, from six days before up to 22 minutes into each race.

“The other great aspect to the racing”, adds Nicki, “is that the cars are all quite similar in performance, which means a lot of the work boils down to the drivers. We’ve had four different overall winners each season so far, and it’s always an incredibly close championship.”

With pure electric and hybrid cars, including the safety and support cars, it’s gratifying to know that by supporting Formula E we’re buying into something sustainable, at least in comparison to Formula 1. Nicki’s definitely sold, and is committed to supporting FE. There’s only one job that would tempt her away, it seems – a move that would involve a much more extreme form of transport… Nicki’s lifelong ambition is to be the first presenter in space.

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