• Norris Column

Formula E Festival set for Vancouver

Will the new circuit deliver on its promises, or will it be a repeat of the ill-fated Montreal venture?

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald July 28, 2021
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In 2017, Montreal held a round of the FIA Formula Electric championship, better known (and marketed) as Formula E, and it turned out to be a one-and-done proposition.

Instead of using a portion of the permanent Grand Prix circuit on Isle Notre-Dame, organizers insisted on carving out a track through city neighbourhoods near the downtown. This movie essentially trapped hundreds— if not thousands— of residents who couldn’t use their cars to come and go during the weekend. Some residents also couldn’t walk out of their front doors during certain hours of the day (unless they bought a ticket to the race, of course).

The city was cash-strapped, but money to promote and present what was called the Montreal ePrix was, apparently, no problem. Streets not scheduled to be repaved for years were paved anyway, and money for 24-7 security was easily available.

Promoters of the doubleheader – a race was held Saturday and another Sunday – were convinced they would have a crowd of 50,000 over the two days. They missed by 5,000 but more than one observer put that down to the popularity of the Formula One Grand Prix of Canada, which attracts more than 100,000 on race day when it’s held in Montreal each June.

After watching a large part of the centre of the city shut down and public money spent as if it was water, the people of Montreal rebelled that autumn by replacing the once-popular mayor Denis Coderre in favour of Valerie Plante, whose first decision in office was to cancel the remaining five years of the Formula E contract.

Formula E reacted by suing the new mayor for $16.5 million; they settled July 12 for $3 million.

That settlement announcement was made just days after press releases were sent out revealing an ePrix will be held in Vancouver next summer over the Canada Day weekend, June 30 to July 2. The promoters, a Montreal-based organization called OSS Group Inc., say they learned from the mistakes made at the first ePrix. They view “green” Vancouver is a better location for a race centred on sustainable development and promise that the event will be a prime summertime event in Vancouver in the years ahead.

According to the organizers, the Formula E festival will be three days of concerts, environmental business conferences and, of course, the race. The fun will be held in and around the downtown Vancouver neighbourhood of False Creek, where a highly successful Indy car race was held in the 1990s and early 2000s.  In the later years, the Indy cars found it harder and harder to race there because development company, Concord Pacific, kept building condos in the middle of the track and race sponsors started to squirrel away money in preparation for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Sponsor Molson decided to pull the plug over the Olympics, in particular – plans had the Olympic Village being built over the south end of the track – but also because some residents of those snazzy new condos started to complain about the noise. Formula E doesn’t have to worry about noise complaints as much since the electric cars only emit a noticeable whine, so you know when they’re coming.

To prepare to seek approval for the event from city council, and learning from the mistakes of Montreal, the ePrix promoters started meeting with False Creek residents more than a year ago. As a result, OSS Group have the residents and city council firmly on their side. Everyone is waiting with anticipation, however, for September when the promoters say they’ll announce the sponsors and explain how they came up with the estimate of $80 million in economic activity that will be generated by the race.

The OSS Group, incidentally, is made up of three veterans of the motorsports industry: Matthew Carter, who is president and CEO, Anne Roy and Phillip Smirnow. All have vast experience in Formula One, IndyCar and Formula E.

Formula E races are short by F1 and IndyCar standards –  the car batteries only last about 30 minutes or so – and so you don’t need the same amount of room.

Carter said OSS Group has a substantial budget and is prepared for any emergency. “We’re not relying on public funds,” he said. “With all of our backgrounds, we have contacts and good relations so far as sponsorship is concerned. Ticket sales and sponsorship will be our main sources of revenue.

“And we have contingency built into the budget. But we can’t think of anything that will come out of the woodwork.”

I teased Carter that he had about 10 months to rest up because hardly anything gets done until the last minute these days.

“But the real work starts now,” he said, adding that a race CEO had been hired and an office would soon be opened near the track.

“We really look forward to making this a marquee event on the Formula E calendar, while showcasing all that Vancouver and British Columbia have to offer.”

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