With most estimates predicting that global oil stocks will be completely depleted before the end of the century and the increasingly negative public opinion towards polluting vehicles, motorsport is facing a considerable image problem. Conscious that in time even the pinnacle of automotive engineering, Formula 1, could come to be seen as outdated as bull fighting, the International Automobile Federation (FIA) has been investing in new technologies.
Formula E, now in its second season, is one solution to this problem. Founded around a concept of sustainability, the cars of this new series are powered by electric motors, not petrol engines, and there are tight rules on consumption, such as teams only using one set of wheels per race (in typical F1 race, each car is allocated 20 sets of wheels). Although nothing will replace Formula 1, as Jean-Eric Vergne, the ex-F1 driver now racing for Formula E team DS Virgin Racing tells me, Formula E is pushing greener, electric alternatives to the fore while also providing a competitive proving ground for experimental new technology, much of which is still in its infancy.
“We are seeing more and more electric cars on the street, and we will see more and more in the years to come,” Vergne says as we sit in the surprisingly quiet pits ahead of the final two races of the season at London’s Battersea Park. “It is great to think that the technologies we are using now in the race will be what everyone uses in the next 5 to 10 years.”
The cars may be more complex to drive and their batteries only last for half the race, meaning the drivers have to swap cars after thirty minutes, but the championship is also still evolving. This year, for example, constructors have been able to design their own drivetrain and the cars will continue improve in the coming seasons. With races in city centres and not traditional track centres, from Beijing to Mexico City to Berlin, and the initiatives like Fanboost – where voting on social media awards an extra 30kw for 5 seconds to the most popular driver – Formula E is already successfully engaging a younger, climate-aware audience.
Grabbing some time with Vergne before his test lap of the circuit where, later that weekend, he would finish third, we discussed the surprisingly physical demands of professional racing, the benefits and innovations of Formula E and his meteoric rise from karting at the age of 4 to racing alongside some of the greatest names in motorsport.
How did you start racing and when did you begin to think of it as a career?
I was too young to remember but I definitely had a steering wheel in my hands before I was walking. I never thought of it as a career though until I was 16, when I joined the Red Bull Junior Team. I still thought of it as work but I always knew I could stop at any time – it’s very difficult to make it as a professional in this sport, to find sponsors and someone to pay for your season until you get recognised. Luckily for me, though, it came quite quickly
In 2012, you moved from Formula Renault 3.5 to Formula 1. How much of a step up was this?
It was a decent step certainly, especially in the performance of the car where everything is improved – the downforce, the speed, the brakes, the wheels – but also with the team. I went from a team of 30 people working for me to almost 500. At the end of the day, you still need to do a quick lap, but your surroundings are very different – more people, more teams, more fans.
And more danger?
No, there is always danger. Motorsport is a sport of risk and compared to other sports I don’t think the risk is as high. Unfortunately sometimes bad things happen but it’s just part of the job.
What was your motivation for moving to Formula E?
It’s a new championship with a real potential, there’s a very high level with the drivers, many of whom have raced F1, and there’s good teams and constructors getting involved. It’s obviously a different kind of car to what you drive in Formula 1 but we’re not driving on the same kind of tracks – these are smaller, tighter circuits, so it’s very different and very challenging.
How else do the Formula E cars vary from Formula 1?
You can’t really compare the two. In my car now, we have two motors, so we have a lot of power, but also a lot of weight, and different weight. The downforce both cars can produce is about the same but its heavier and more difficult to drive. When you brake you never know what’s going to happen!
As a racing driver, you are put under considerable g-force. How physically fit do you have to be?
You have to be extremely fit, it’s very tough. The more downforce, the stronger you need your neck, arms and back to be. I do a lot of cardio, a lot of neck training, a lot of core stability yet you don’t want to build too much muscle as you don’t want to get too heavy. It’s difficult to find a balance.
People don’t realise but all the drivers are athletes and extremely fit sportsmen. Driving cars requires such a specific physiology that if you pick someone at the top of their game, like Usain Bolt, and put him in a Formula 1 car, I don’t believe he’ll be able to drive the car for more than five laps without his neck aching.
Words: George Upton