Watching the opening round of the fifth Formula E series in Saudi Arabia at the weekend, and taking on board the accompanying hype, it was difficult not to be reminded of 'The Emperor's New Clothes'. The tale by Hans Christian Andersen centred on two crafty weavers who promised an emperor a new set of clothes, but made none at all, saying the clothes were invisible to anyone who was incompetent or stupid. It was only through the innocent remark of a child that the nonsense of the emperor's nakedness was exposed -- as it were.
A similar impression of delusion appeared to infiltrate enthusiastic media and TV summaries referring to a 'brilliant race'. Then followed news releases from manufacturers speaking of the 'many positives' that came from starting in the back half of the field and staying there for the 45-and-a-bit minutes it took to run this race. An understandable reluctance to bite the hand that feeds them nevertheless failed to remove the spectre of an imaginary emperor parading through the paddock.
The race did little to stir the soul -- starting with a circuit that appeared to be weaving through a building site thanks to the impression of high screens blanking off construction work, much as they do at any unsightly development near you.
A grid of 22 cars looked impressive despite the camera shot, devoid of atmosphere of any kind, giving the appearance of queuing on the bland approach to a multi-story car park. Then the opportunity to raise anticipation through the parade lap fell completely flat because of the near-silent cars needing to crawl at milk float pace in order to save battery power.
Once underway, the first lap had plenty of ducking and weaving; bits of brake locking and moments of wheel-to-wheel excitement. Then the side-by-side stuff filtered into a procession that, rightly or wrongly, you felt was caused by the same narrow track that seems to affect every circuit on the Formula E calendar. (Saying that, the sometimes confusing graphics did show that Oliver Rowland -- and others in the midfield -- had made up several places, but the cameras failed to catch any of them.)
A positive change were the futuristic Gen 2 machines that look the part and, praise be, can run non-stop without having a musical cars shuffle in the garage. This can only get better as battery technology continues to accelerate in a manner that serves the formula's justifiable claim as a cutting edge for the motor industry's future.
But a leader in the sport of motor racing? This jury remains out. Instead of attacking F1's many weaknesses, Formula E appears to be embracing Grand Prix racing's confused and complex structure by having cars removed to the back of the grid for reasons (created by a totally unexpected wet practice session) which remained largely unexplained.
As for F1's dreaded DRS, read 'Attack Mode', the fine details of which the television commentators couldn't quite get their heads round and merely gave the impression that the racing is so poor it needs a blatantly artificial device such as this. And even when Attack Mode was shown by the graphics as being employed, you could see no evidence of it in the manner of DRS and its obvious but diluting effect on racing. On the other hand, Formula E's Fan Boost is much more acceptable, giving spectators and viewers a welcome involvement with their favourite driver.
The finishing ramp looked more impressive than F1's parc fermé but there were overtones of a Grand Prix when Jean-Eric Vergne put on a brave face as he discussed losing victory because of a penalty caused by 'over-using power'; a sure-fire way of speeding the departure of puzzled fans at the end of, possibly, their first visit to a motor race.
Will they return? Depends on what they thought of the emperor's humming race cars. In the fine words of chairman Alejandro Agag, Formula E is 'relevant for the real world'. But is it 'racing'?