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Jeff Dodds: the Formula E boss planning a move into pole position
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Jeff Dodds: the Formula E boss planning a move into pole position

Jeff Dodds has been a fan of Formula One “all my life”, he says. That is probably a good thing because, as chief executive of electric racing series Formula E, he must find the comparison with its fossil-fuelled cousin is constant.

So he takes it head-on. Such is the growth and improvement in technology in Formula E that one day, he says, it is “realistic that a question will be asked about whether both can exist together”. Talking to the Observer in the race company’s west London headquarters, he adds that maybe one day, as Formula E develops, “they won’t [both exist]”.

Formula One fans’ scepticism can be forgiven. The petrol-powered series claims 1.5 billion TV viewers and several hundred thousand spectators at every race (including 480,000 at Silverstone, the home of UK motorsport). Formula E claims 225 million TV viewers, attendances in the tens of thousands, and barely any coverage from traditional western media.

Yet Formula E has technology – and maybe also geography – on its side. The global shift to electric vehicles appears inevitable, and the transition is led by Asia, and particularly China, where more and more fans are embracing electric motorsport. Thousands have flocked to this weekend’s Shanghai ePrix.

Dodds has led the business for the past year. Sitting in Formula E’s offices wearing a race-style tracksuit emblazoned with sponsor logos, he exudes the forceful charm of a man accustomed to pressing race-paddock flesh – and persuading the world that they should want to be there too.

The electric racing series is now in its 10th season, having started in 2014 in Beijing. It was the brainchild of Alejandro Agag, a Spanish businessman, and Frenchman Jean Todt, who was then president of the FIA (Fédération International de l’Automobile), which governs global motorsport.

From the start, Agag and Todt emphasised the low-carbon credentials of the race, even claiming that it was carbon neutral – albeit thanks to controversial offsets.

Dodds says sustainability is “part of our DNA”, but there is plenty of evidence that green credentials don’t matter that much to motorsport fans of any kind. Formula E itself has a Saudi sponsorship deal, and held a race weekend in Riyadh this year.

There were teething problems with Formula E. Teams in the first series had to swap cars mid-race because their batteries could not last the course. But electric cars have come a long way since, with lighter and longer-lasting batteries. A new generation of cars will be able to go from 0-60mph in 1.8 seconds, out-accelerating Formula 1, and have a top speed of 200mph. As the tech improved, the series attracted audiences and investors: media companies Liberty Global (the owner behind F1’s recent boom, driven by the hugely popular Netflix series Drive to Survive) and Warner Bros Discovery bought in in 2015.

Adrien Brody, Jeff Dodds and Georgina Chapman View image in fullscreen

Dodds is tasked with growing Formula E (after a hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic). But his recent jobs – as chief executive of Dutch telecoms company Tele2 and then chief operating officer of Virgin Media O2 – would not appear to make him an obvious choice to lead a motorsport series.

However, go back a bit further and the appointment makes more sense. Dodds was born in Kent to what he calls a “very working-class family” – his mother was a nurse and his father a firefighter. He was “fascinated with cars from a very early age”, and chose jobs in the car industry when he left school, working in sales and marketing for Volvo and later Honda. He says he caught the motorsport bug at the Japanese company, which at the time raced Formula One cars, motorbikes and powerboats. “I think at some point they even raced on lawn mowers.”

A set of Phil Mickelson’s clubs in his office is evidence of a stint at US golf equipment maker Callaway, but he soon moved on to telecoms, eventually leading 17,000 people at Virgin Media O2. Liberty Global had bought Virgin Media in 2013, and when Dodds told chief executive Mike Fries that he wanted to leave telecoms, the American told him to “just hang around the hoop for a bit” – a basketball metaphor.

The Formula E ball has now dropped to Dodds, with Liberty and Warner happy to bear steep losses – €242m across 2021 and 2022, according to its latest UK accounts – in pursuit of growth.

He acknowledges that “not enough people know about us”, but says Formula E now has 385 million fans, while F1 has 800 million by the same survey methodology. “Across Japan, China, Indonesia, we see an incredible growth in fanbase,” he says.

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Making headway in Europe and the US is more of a struggle: German makers Audi and BMW both pulled out in 2021. “Before my time,” Dodds says hurriedly, suggesting it may have been because of questions over the pace of the manufacturers’ transition to electric cars.

Formula E now has 11 teams, including Jaguar and McLaren from the UK, Japan’s Nissan, Germany’s Porsche and Chinese battery maker Envision. A final grid slot is up for sale. Dodds says he would consider German “rejoiners”, and drops the name of Fred Vasseur, Ferrari’s F1 team principal, with a studied casualness that suggests the company is not interested. But he is particularly courting other Chinese manufacturers.

His pitch: eyeballs around the world at a fraction of the cost of Formula One. Buying a Formula One team could cost well north of $1bn, with an annual cost cap of $140m before drivers’ salaries. Formula E’s cost cap is $14m, and a team might cost between $25m and $30m.

Costs are lower because most elements of the racing cars – from chassis to batteries – are identical, and research is focused on the motors and the software that controls them. That upsets some racing purists, who value the battle between constructors, but it avoids Formula One’s “Max Verstappen problem” – the dominance of the Red Bull team. Races are usually held in city centres, which play to the cars’ strengths of impressive acceleration and relatively low noise.

This will change as the series looks for bigger circuits to match the batteries’ longer ranges. Dodds says Formula E could start alternating 40-minute top-speed dashes with longer-range tactical battles.

He and Formula E face a tough job winning over diehard petrolheads. But as the world’s automotive centre of gravity shifts to Asia and electric cars become the global norm, he may find he doesn’t need to.


Age 50
Family Married to Mary. Two sons and two cats.
Education Oakwood Park grammar school, Maidstone, then while working an MBA at Westminster Business School, MSc in international marketing from Robert Gordon University, and honorary doctorate from Bournemouth University.
Pay “I won’t disclose specifics on this one”, but equity in the business is part of it.
Last holiday Easter break in Doha, Qatar with family on way back from Tokyo ePrix.
Best advice he’s been given “Usain Bolt once told me he always got more enjoyment winning the relay races than the individual events … The feeling of winning with a team is so much better than by yourself.”
Words he overuses More of an expression: “How could we test that?”
How he relaxes Gym, golf, shooting, reading.

Source: theguardian.com