A decade-long odyssey to get a Formula E race in Japan culminated in last month’s confirmation that Tokyo will host what is seen to be a holy grail race for the championship next March.
Formula E has pulled off races in Paris, Hong Kong, London and New York City, yet Tokyo, one of the most logistically difficult races on earth to organise live sports events in the city, is probably its biggest coup yet.
Championship co-founder Alberto Longo first attended a meeting with the city in 2013, and since then multiple visits to the Japanese capital have taken place. Those have spanned cycles of different administrations in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which has blown hot, cold and hot again on the idea of Formula E coming to its city.
Add in an inherent conservatism over activating large-scale events in the city and the unforeseen compilations, both operationally and commercially, of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which were deferred to 2021) and the sheer fact Formula E has been able to get the deal over the line is an achievement that borders on the colossal.
“Tokyo was actually one of the first cities that we went to in 2013, so we have talked to many different TMG people,” Longo tells The Race.
“Obviously the governor has changed quite a few times since we started talking to them. Some of them had more of an appetite to host a Formula E event, some of them less.
“The reality is that the Tokyo Marathon took nine years to get approved. A marathon has way less impactful logistics than we do in terms of impact to the city and the amount of equipment that we transport and how heavy that equipment is.
“We knew it was going to be more of a long-run strategy to get them and now we have found the governor that is fully supporting it, she really wanted to host a Formula E event.”
That governor is Koike Yuriko, the Governor of Tokyo since 2016 and someone who has enabled several international initiatives to flourish in the city. She founded the Tomin First no Kai party (Tokyoites First) in 2016 and is considered to be a conservative nationalist politician. She is a former Minister for the Environment.
Last year the Governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, who was instrumental in forming the Jakarta E-Prix, met with Koike, to discuss the potential for cooperation in several fields, including for environment-friendly public transportation, something which Tokyo is keen to harness via events such as the Tokyo E-Prix.
At one stage Formula E considered a race in Nissan’s heartland of Yokohama before the Tokyo possibilities became a reality. Longo said that “the agenda has changed” when it came to securing the Tokyo deal, which is expected to be for five years after an appraisal of the initial 2024 race is carried out.
“Their green agenda is basically way bigger than what it was. That helps. Then having the political will is absolutely critical for us. Those factors are the ones that made the difference,” Longo explains.
“It is not only the political factor but also the police factor, which are basically critical as well to get the approval to use the public space in any city of Japan.
“They have not changed so many times so basically we keep on talking to these guys for a long time as well. Now that the governor wants it, politically it has changed, and the police were actually in favour. Then there was Oli McCrudden too!”
That’s a reference to Longo’s colleague and Formula E cities development director Oliver McCrudden, who has been a lynchpin in keeping the Tokyo dream going, even when over the 2020-2021 pandemic period it seemed highly unlikely to ever happen.
The space where the race will take place is in the Tokyo Big Sight area of the city in the Ariake, Minami area.
Drivers and team principals have been positive since the announcement of the event, particularly those most familiar with Japanese racing culture.
Maserati MSG team principal James Rossiter spent most of the 2010s racing in the country in Super GT and Super Formula and predicts a huge response in Tokyo.
“To race in the city, close to all the fans, I think you’re going to see that in motorsport there’s no place like Japan, it’s incredible,” he said.
“The amount of support that you get from the fans, the fan base there, everyone’s passionate, they’ll follow each team, they’ll create their allegiances to each manufacturer, and we’re going to see something truly special.
“I think over the years it’s going to become one of the iconic races of the championship, if not the world of motorsport.”
Sacha Fenestraz lived in Japan for a number of years, taking the domestic F3 championship in 2019 and finishing as runner-up in the 2021 Super Formula campaign. He admitted it’s “thanks to Japan that I’m here, standing right now racing in a world championship” as it was those Japanese racing seasons that put him on the radar for the Nissan FE seat.
“I will be forever grateful to what my past team and manufacturer helped me to achieve right now, so for me racing there, it will be amazing,” he said of the Tokyo event.
“I’ve received so many messages from Japanese fans saying they’re so happy to see us next year there etc, so we’re all very excited. And also at Nissan, our first home race, we can expect a lot of support.”
The precise formulation of the promotion package for the Tokyo E-Prix is not yet known. Several well-known Japanese promotion companies such as Hakuodo and Dentsu are known to have spoken to Formula E, but a self-promotional avenue is believed to also be on the table.
The initiative will be expensive but it is understood to be in and around the figure that was spent on the New York City E-Prix which was colloquially believed to be €20million per season.
It’s clear that Formula E needs big partners for the occasion and the major task is to now find them.
The one key saving grace of the Tokyo E-Prix is that it will not be especially disruptive to the area, which is given over to exhibitions and commercial fairs anyway.
“It is [less disruptive] and obviously, it’s an exhibition centre using partially the streets as well, so it’s not only the event space,” says Longo.
“But I wouldn’t say it is similar to London ExCeL. The similarity is that we’re in an exhibition centre as well, but that’s it.
“The racetrack is completely different and the spaces that we use are completely different.
“Obviously, we’re not going to go inside [the exhibition halls].
“I don’t think it was feasible at all and I think in the time of the year that we’re going to go, the weather is going to be fantastic, we really want to have as many public as possible, so I think we’re going to try and build up as many big grandstands as possible in the venue to have a big attendance.”
Formula E has pulled off a huge coup in being the first ever motorsport series to get a race in Tokyo. Culturally it could trigger a huge explosion in interest for EV motorsport in Japan, which has been curiously reluctant to embrace Formula E.
The by-product of it is that a host of future manufacturers could be attracted to Gen4 and beyond. That is a massive motivation for the entire Formula E industry to pull out all the stops and truly make Tokyo become an all-time street racing classic.