As Sam Branson squeezes into Jaime Alguersuari’s race suit at TeamSport’s go-kart track near Tower Bridge, he grabs his crotch and pats the Formula E driver on the shoulder. “There’s not enough room in here for me”, he says before stepping into his electric kart. In retaliation, Alguersuari shunts Branson into the tyre barrier on the start line and speeds past. But that’s where the drama ended.
By all accounts, the Virgin heir pulled out the race of his life – keeping within a second of the Spaniard and his Virgin Racing teammate, Sam Bird for the whole ten laps. Without the noise of straining engines, however, the event was about as exciting to watch as three grown boys playing with Scalextric models.
After only one race, Formula E has already come under similar criticism. As anyone who has ever watched a horror movie on mute will be able to tell you, sound matters. Silent cars lack drama and spectacle and attempts to appease fans with live music and ‘Fan Boost’, have been dismissed as gimmicky.
It may be acoustically challenged but it would be hard to argue that Formula E isn’t the future of motorsport. The potential for advancements in electric motoring have prompted some of the biggest manufacturers in the world, including Audi, Renault and McLaren, to throw their full weight behind the Championship, and they’re not alone. Celebrities, including Leonardo Di Caprio who co-owns the Venturi team, are lining up to pitch their hats into the eco-friendly racing ring.
In addition to high rolling endorsements, street circuits with free entrance will undoubtedly attract thousands of new fans, and the driver line up won’t disappoint. Thirteen of the 20 have previously raced in Formula One and the grid sees names Senna, Prost and Piquet together once more.
It would seem, then, that noise isn’t all that matters. Like us, however, you’ll probably need more convincing, so we caught up with the Virgin drivers after their kart race to ask why we should learn to love silent racing.
GQ: Formula E appears to have gone from concept to a fully-fledged championship in no time at all. When did you first hear about it?
Sam Bird: It’s been on the cards for some time. It became apparent to me when I was in GP2 in 2013, that it was picking up momentum. I started to speak with Virgin and was asked to come in for a meeting.
How was the first race?
Jaime Alguersuari: For me, it was not good. We pitted in the garage one lap earlier than we should have so I could never make it to the end of the race with the battery. Before starting the race we had no idea how to preserve energy, so we ran into problems and we had an issue with the brakes in qualifying too. It was a difficult weekend, but we learned a lot so hopefully we can recover.
SB: We had a few issues, but I got a podium, which was encouraging. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but it makes me very excited for the rest of the year.
Why should we be excited about Formula E?
JA: Street circuits mean that we are racing in the centre of roads that people use everyday, which is very cool for drivers, but it also makes it very easy to make a mistake, which adds more excitement for fans.
SB: There are so many plusses. All the stages, from practice to the race itself happen in one day and there is a party atmosphere trackside. Also, the driver line up is world class.
Formula One is the past
You’re sharing the grid with Senna, Piquet and Prost. What is it that has attracted so many big names to Formula E?
JA: I think Formula E truly has the potential to become the future of motorsport. Formula One is the past. What is encouraging is that we are dealing with new technology that we still don’t know much about. It’s very exciting, in terms of development for engineers, drivers and everyone who is involved in the process. The challenge of how far we can push this new technology has been set and we are all enjoying it. Even if the cars are still pretty slow at the moment, we know that there is so much room for improvement over the next few years.
Is it important that people stop comparing Formula E to Formula One?
SB: You can’t compare them, they’re completely different, and it wouldn’t be fair on either championship. Formula E is trying to do something totally different to F1. When the battery technology does improve, because of our championship, and it transcends into road cars, it will be cool to think that we have been at the very pinnacle of new technology and the future of the automotive industry.
Research and development is clearly the biggest driving force behind this championship. Is this something that fans can really get behind?
SB: At the moment it’s just about drivers racing each other, but it is just getting started. When the race to develop becomes more furious as the Championship progresses, the racing will get better too, improving the entire experience for the fans.
Explain Fan Boost.
SB: Fan Boost is our equivalent of push-to-pass or KERS. Fans decide which three drivers will get a five-second power boost from 150kw to 180kw by voting for their favourite. It’s a good way of fans interacting with their favourite driver and making them feel like they’ve had a direct influence on the race.
It sounds like a popularity contest and it has come under a lot of criticism for being too gimmicky. Would you agree?
SB: Right now, it’s not powerful enough, but give it time and it’s going to be a great feature that will get more of the general public involved. The tickets will be free and fans will be able to stand around the track, watching these cars go past at over 100mph. When they use fan boost to vote for their favourite drivers, they’ll become more invested in the race.
How are the cars to drive?
JA: Very different to what we’ve learned in the past. You have to deal with efficiency of the battery, so this means you need to recover all the energy that you use in the braking phase. There is no choice other than to drive consistently but very conservatively, without aggression, to save power. Braking gently to carry a lot of speed into the corners, accelerating very late and short shifting keeps energy as high as possible.
What changes do you want to see over the next five years?
JA: Manufacturer involvement. I want to win a championship with the best drivers, the best engineers and the best technology. As drivers, we want to make sure that we are involved in a championship with such a standard.