Loss of di Grassi will not affect development

Yesterday’s revelation that Lucas di Grassi is relinquishing his role as principal test driver will not affect development of the Formula E racing car.

A spokesperson for FEH, the Formula E promoter, could not comment on the di Grassi story specifically, but did confirm the FIA ruling at the crux of the matter: the development driver will not be permitted to race in the first series, as it would be deemed an unfair advantage – and di Grassi wants to race.

We understand that talks are underway with other drivers who have similar skillsets but who will not participate in the races. Enter The Stig: Ben Collins revealed recently that he has signed up to the development programme. While it has not yet confirmed the claim, that FEH has not refuted it either suggests that Collins will indeed undertake some testing in the car.

Regarding the development programme itself, Current E sources have confirmed that shakedown of the Spark-Renault racing car is well underway, with the test car reportedly having already covered more than 250km. The car has to date been run with a battery around a quarter of the size of that planned for the final iteration, but like the final version, it has been supplied by Williams.

While our sources also confirm that the loss of the debonair Brazilian driver will not hinder the breakneck pace of development (there is a May 2014 deadline to have cars ready for the teams and he has not been the only driver to put the car through its paces during shakedown), it will be a disappointment for FEH, which is losing something of a figurehead in the articulate professional as at home in front of a TV camera as he is behind the wheel.

There’s no word yet on whether the test ruling will affect Takuma Sato, who had planned to undertake some testing this winter. He hasn’t yet stepped into the car – and he may now choose not to, especially if he is interested in a race place. We’ll know more in the New Year.

Malaysia launch reveals connections

Putrajaya was officially confirmed as a Formula E venue today, in an official ceremony attended by the Malaysian Prime Minister. The event is part of Formula E’s PR roadshow, designed to develop maximum press coverage and general interest ahead of next year’s races.

The event itself is not particularly newsworthy – apart from a proposed circuit layout shown to guests. It was revealed that the race itself may be during the day or at night (presumably much depends on wishes of the broadcasters) and that the sport is hoping to lure one or two Malaysian drivers to participate.

More usefully, today’s shindig did uncover a little more about the shadowy inner workings of Formula E promoter, FEH.

The agreement between the city and the sport was countersigned for Formula E by a Malaysian chap called Dato Sri Johann Young, whom the press release reveals to be a founding partner of FEH. Young is quite the business tycoon. His CV includes stints as chief executive at security firm Nexbis, Asia director for telecoms giant Orange World and launch director for Orange in Thailand.

FEH has been a bit bashful about revealing Young’s name as an investor to date, but his role would go some way towards explaining why Formula E, in its quest to sign up the world’s most famous cities and to bring electric motoring to the millions living in packed, smog-clogged metropolises, has ended up in Putrajaya, population 68,000

Put “innovation” on the label

Formula E is shaping up to be quite the spectacle. The settings will be exotic, the inner-city races gladiatorial and brimming with closely fought battles. Glitz and glamour is guaranteed with the likes of DiCaprio, Branson and Prost as backers and Monaco on the calendar.

Perhaps most exciting is the prospect of unbridled engineering innovation, which will arrive in the second season when constructors begin to build their own cars. The grid is packed full of pioneers: two world land speed record holders; two front running IndyCar teams; one global brand with its own spaceships, bank, airline and island; three car manufacturers and an investor in Fisker; a four times F1 world champion. No Meccano mechanics here.

But the series is designed to be a marketing vehicle first and foremost, and like an over enthusiastic used car salesperson, it is in danger of developing a liberal relationship with facts. It is not, as claimed, “the world’s first fully-electric race series” and it is not “zero emissions” (think about the energy and materials expended in the manufacture of the vehicles, the carbon fibre and the batteries; in the logistics; and in the electricity used to charge the cars).

It doesn’t have “one careful lady driver” either (OK, so that hasn’t yet been claimed – but where are the women in this sport?).

These may appear small points but with international media coverage picking up apace, it would pay to be responsible with information from the beginning.

The thing is, Formula E doesn’t need to overstate its case. Much of what it is doing really is new, or at least packaged in a way that feels fresh. The sport has an almost unrivalled opportunity to encourage young people into engineering as well as making consumers think more positively about electric motoring. The fledgling technology is undeveloped enough to be ripe for huge leaps forward, ridding us of the “marginal gains” philosophy of many older, established sports (not just motor racing), heralding the return of attention-arresting ingenuity reminiscent of the halcyon days of racing cars with six wheels or ground-effect fans.

Leave aside the smoke and mirrors, Formula E. Put “innovation” on the label in large letters, and then just do what it says on the tin.

Virgin is to Formula E what Red Bull is to F1

Virgin Formula E racing livery first lookToday’s announcement that the Virgin Group has resurrected its Virgin Racing marque to join Formula E should not be underestimated, despite the lurid purple colour scheme.

Motorsports fans will know that the outfit didn’t fare well in its previous attempt to scale the heights of world-class motor racing, quickly becoming a mere footnote in the history of fickle Formula 1.

Yet the forward-thinking, technological credentials of the brand created by gregarious entrepreneur Richard Branson match the aims of the new racing series perfectly. From a single record shop to radio stations, health clubs to hospital services, trains to airlines to space travel, Branson is not a man who thinks small.

When it comes to marketing, Branson has something of the Midas touch. But he’s also passionate about innovation (look no further than the Mojave base of his Virgin Galactic spacecraft). That combination will prove invaluable to Formula E, which is designed first and foremost to alter perceptions about electric cars rather than attract existing motorsport fans.

But will the racing element prove problematic for a brand with no real motorsports heritage? Just a few years ago, suggesting that a beverages company could topple F1 motor racing royalty such as McLaren and Ferrari – and for four successive seasons – would have guaranteed you a prescription for some very calming pills. But Red Bull has gone on to dominate the sport, crushing its competitors so effectively it’s as if its cars run on the very caffeine-fuelled drinks it sells.

There’s no doubt that Virgin Racing will face stiff competition from slick, well-operated racing teams that know how to win. Lining up alongside IndyCar heavyweights and former F1 teams and legends will be no free ride.

However, the first year of the new series will be a level playing field, with all teams using the same cars, the same technology. There are no entrenched experts, no decades-old dynasties. In that respect, Virgin will have an easier time of it than Red Bull did – and former Virgin F1 driver Lucas di Grassi has so far hogged the driver’s seat as principal development driver for the Formula E Spark-Renault racing car. Whether that poses an advantage or not, it can’t hurt.

Branson puts it this way in his blog: “Having previously been in Formula 1 as sponsors of Brawn and then with our Virgin Racing team, we have taken some of the lessons of F1 into this new challenge. In every sector, industry or business, there is always room for more innovation. It’s up to all of us to challenge ourselves to do it – and have some fun along the way.”

The opportunity for a brand-first business such as Virgin is clear. Formula E truly is virgin territory, and with Branson’s experience, his team could go all the way.

(No more puns. Promise.)

Formula E picks up speed

December, again. The year feels like it’s disappearing faster than Cameron’s commitment to green policies. Formula E is accelerating just as hard, and November proved to be quite a month for revelations:

  1. Car makers Audi and Mahindra Reva joined the sport: Audi through the Audi Sport ABT team, and Mahindra with its racing division. Former Formula 1 outfit Super Aguri signed up too.
  2. Audi promised to support the ABT team with factory drivers if required, and former F1 driver Karun Chandhok said he was in advanced talks to drive for Mahindra.
  3. Another chap who used to be in F1, Takuma Sato, was announced as the second Formula E development driver. Rumours that he will race for former employer Super Aguri are not needed because the link seems so clear. The rumours began anyway.
  4. A media deal with Japanese broadcaster TV Asahi was confirmed, with the suggestion that the race coverage might be free to view in that country.
  5. We discovered that the “Brabham Formula E Racing Team” has been officially registered in the UK, though the team itself doesn’t appear to have yet broken cover.
  6. An interview with former F1 design engineer Chris Vagg uncovered the subtext behind team developments at Formula E and hinted that money and media has a lot to do with the selection process. Business as usual for the upper echelons of motor racing, then.
  7. Shakedown began of the Spark-Renault customer car that will be used by all teams in season one. The car was running at 25% power with a quarter-sized battery on a small track in France. All went well. Technical analysis by Chris Vagg explained why the real story of how well sorted the car is won’t be known until it’s tested properly. Pictures and video footage from the event appeared remarkably slick for a first day, despite us listening hard for swear words. Nope, not one.
  8. We published a graphic pinpointing the inner workings of the racing car.
  9. A report from professional services firm EY (formerly Ernst & Young) claimed that Formula E would lead to gazillions more electric cars being sold in the new few years. The credibility of the report was slightly undermined by its absence (Formula E promoter FEH simply sent round edited highlights), connections between the report’s author and the FEH head, and claims that an EY report into the financial state of F1 contributed to an “extremely careless” investment from British and US banks.
  10. A blog by tech giant Qualcomm, which is also a Formula E founding partner, took some of the shine off all the fluffy Miss World-style marketing about a greener future and world peace for all by saying it hopes the series will help it sell lots more products. Ah, the moral values of the free market economy remain unscathed.
  11. Top Gear called Formula E “a genuine agent for social change”. Hell began a new line in fetchingly proportioned ice sculptures and winter wear.

Much more is to come before the year is out. Eight of 10 teams have been announced; the ninth is due this week and the last shortly thereafter. We’ve been promised more news on drivers and the FIA has yet to officially approve the circuits and the calendar. Don’t go anywhere – it’s going to be an exciting December.

Cranking up the rumour mill

If there’s one thing that Formula E has excelled at in its short life to date, it is attracting the maximum amount of media attention with which to spark intense debate. Promoter FEH has proved adept at introducing major names and brands to the sport while keeping proceedings very closely under wraps. As interest grows, so does speculation over little details: F1 has a new rival in the Chinese whispers game.

Team number eight will be revealed a little later this week. Who could it be? As ever, details have been jealously guarded. We think that it’s unlikely to be any of the teams publicly linked to the sport already – Bluebird, Vastha Racing and Team Rosberg.

A recent Top Gear article has contributed to the rumours, stating that “both a major car manufacturer and a Hollywood superstar” are in discussions with FEH. Names that might fit the bill and that have been linked to the sport this year include Indian car maker Mahindra Reva, US electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla and an American thespian with a green conscience – Leonardo di Caprio. 

Nissan is pushing ahead at breakneck speed with its hybrid racing vehicle the ZEOD; the car maker works closely with Renault, which is overseeing the technical integration of the Spark-Renault Formula E racing car. Does that suggest a Formula E entry? Honda is also working on alternative technologies for 2015 F1 engines which could put it in the mix too.

At the moment, though, this is the ultimate guessing game: welcome to the world of suspense that is Formula E.


Formula E continues world conquest with second Asia-based team

Today’s announcement that ex-F1 team Super Aguri will be fielding a Formula E team confirms ambitious plans for world domination by series promoter FEH. The Tokyo team becomes the second based in Asia, following China Racing, while the inaugural calendar has three races in that part of the world: the season-opener in Beijing, followed by Putrajaya, in Malaysia, and Hong Kong.

The trend seems to confirm our recent musings that Formula E has the US and the Far East at the top of its target list. The US also has two race dates and two teams. Europe, the traditional home of big brother F1, offers only three dates on the first-year calendar and, so far, two teams.

Super Aguri competed in Formula 1 from 2006 to 2008, led by former F1 driver Aguri Suzuki and with technical facilities in the UK. It was very closely linked to Honda, which throws up the intriguing possibility that the major manufacturer may be eyeing up a constructor’s position in the 2014-15 season (the company is returning to F1 in 2015 too, attracted by smaller internal combustion engines bolstered by advanced energy recovery systems that would play well into the development of a Formula E powertrain).

It’s not just the racing kudos. Formula E is designed to draw an explicit link from race car to road car. That is already happening, albeit in reverse: the electric motors for the first-year spec car are adapted from McLaren’s P1 supercar, and the Michelin all-weather treaded tyres on Oz 18” wheels look like they’re straight from Halfords. With a large EV range to sell worldwide, that’s why Renault is involved.

Current E was concerned that Formula E might be emulating its older siblings a little too closely in shutting out diversity of entrants by confining personnel to mostly Brits and Europeans. This move reveals a different intent altogether. In fact, by bringing together entrants from China, Japan, the US, UK and France, it’s more like a United Nations on the race track. Next stop, world peace (and quiet…).

We’re not entirely won over by the acronym being bandied about however – the Super Aguri Formula E team becomes SAFE. Twee?