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Formula E

Formula E on The Apprentice - was it worth it?

by Josh Suttill
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E's probably just had its highest-ever viewing figures in the UK - but it wasn't for a race weekend, instead because of its starring role in a long-standing reality show The Apprentice.

The Apprentice remains a behemoth of linear British TV and is one of the BBC's flagship shows, airing at a primetime weeknight slot and drawing in millions of viewers per episode. What's more, one of The Apprentice's main demographics - young adults - also happens to be one of Formula E's. 

Whether you're a fan of reality TV or not, the show undeniably presented Formula E with a huge opportunity to showcase itself to a far bigger audience than its largely behind-the-paywall 2024 season and even what it would’ve had during its peak viewing popularity.  

But was Formula E able to make the most of the opportunity in the spotlight, was it shown in a good light and will it help move the needle on its arguably stifled audience growth?

The premise

If you've never seen The Apprentice before, it's essentially a business reality show where each week two teams of (usually young, unrepresentatively good-looking and largely incompetent) entrepreneurs are set a task with the goal of making as much profit (or as good a product) as possible.

Once a winning team is declared, at least one of the losing team then has to be 'fired' in an incredibly inefficient way to run a business. 

In this episode, the entrepreneurs were taken to Battersea Park (location of Formula E's first-ever London E-Prix) and tasked with designing an identity for a new Formula E team. The teams were told they had to create a brand, hold a launch event and attract sponsors for their racing squad. 

Two neutral Formula E cars were present when presenter Alan Sugar gave the candidates their task, along with Formula E champion Jake Dennis and Jaguar team boss James Barclay, both in a blink-and-you'd-miss-it non-speaking cameo that would have gone right over the heads of any non-motorsport fan. 

It's a shame neither Dennis nor Barclay were properly used in the episode. For example as advisors for the teams or spokespeople for the teams to write a script for. Considering The Apprentice's biggest draw is candidates failing every week in increasingly humorous ways, involving the highly successful Dennis or Barclay further was probably deemed to be in contradiction to that theme. 

The teams soon set to work, selecting their project managers, both of whom were self-professed motorsport fans, although you were left doubting that by the end of the episode.

The execution

The liveries created by each team were...interesting to say the least. One team, led by dentist Paul, who says he hasn't missed a Formula 1 race for three years, unintentionally created a poor imitation of a Force India livery, with a tree on it. That tree was in reference to Formula E's environmental credentials and the reduced air pollution electric cars promote.

The other team, led by the charismatic music and wellbeing entrepreneur Tre, centred its team around an ocean theme (no relation to Ocean Racing), once again in an attempt to emphasise Formula E's green credentials.

Neither theme was bad at its core but the execution left plenty to be desired. In typical Apprentice style, the logos and accompanying promotional videos were awful and were panned by the experts that the teams then had to sell sponsorship space to.

It was that sponsorship selling that determined the winner and loser of the week. No spoilers here, but safe to say it didn't go particularly well for either team.

Real-life Formula E sponsors Allianz and Tata Communications were laid on for the teams to pitch to.

Seemingly within minutes, £12million of sponsorship space was sold with ease. It's perhaps the most unrealistic part of the episode given how hard sponsorship is to come by in motorsport, especially sold at that price. It does lead to what's technically 'the biggest ever win' in the series' history.

You can understand why it's done this way given the limited runtime, but there's something baffling about hearing the candidates talking about deals worth millions of pounds in the same way they'll be trying to charge an extra couple of quid for some sausages down the market in another week.

Was it successful for Formula E?

This was a worthwhile exercise for Formula E in that it didn't damage its brand. The candidates made a fool of themselves rather than the series itself.

Formula E took full advantage, live-tweeting the episode and even giving the winning team's leader its customary 'race winner' graphic.

That would have at least hoovered up any new fans searching for Formula E and displayed some genuinely engaged and thought-out good PR.

And #FormulaE was trending on X at the same time as #TheApprentice.

The potential reach is huge but it depends on whether any curiosity generated will translate into new fans finding out how to watch Formula E and then waiting another two weeks to see a race.

The episode itself didn't particularly give any reasons for new fans to not watch Formula E but conversely, other than the shape of the Gen3 car and the environmental ethos, it didn't give much reason why you should watch Formula E.

None of Formula E's best traits - the unpredictability, the close racing, its star drivers and manufacturers - were showcased and it all felt too detached from what Formula E really is.

While there will be strict limits on what companies participating in The Apprentice can do within the show given the BBC’s strictly commercial-free rules, the practicalities of motorsport made it extremely hard for FE to give even the slightest sense of itself during its appearance.

The logistics of The Apprentice filming schedule probably prevented this, but we didn't even see a Formula E car moving around a track. It might as well have been a promotion for a mobile app where you can design your own livery for a racing car.

Even as an episode of The Apprentice, it was unremarkable and fairly bog-standard outside of its unusual topic. There was the usual logo spelling faux pas, car crash pitch and tense boardroom shakedown. But none of it was particularly memorable or out of the ordinary. 

None of this is likely the fault of Formula E. It's difficult to see how it could have influenced the make-up of the challenge given The Apprentice is the bigger party and able to set the parameters.

It will have inevitably helped Formula E's name recognition and as such just its presence on such a high-profile platform was a masterstroke of a marketing move for the series.

But overall its starring role still feels unlikely to tip Formula E much closer to a bigger audience given its best features didn't come anywhere near the surface.

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