Jaguar Land Rover is one of the first companies to follow Tesla at the top level of the incipient electric car market. As the company created its first EV, the I-Pace SUV, looked for ways to promote this new approach in a futuristic technology. An answer? Pull the company's idle sports program down from the rack, dust it off and enter the all-electric Formula E racing series.
That decision had a bad start. Panasonic Jaguar Racing came home dead last in the manufacturer's championship in the third season of Formula E, which ended last summer. The renewed effort of the company lost to big names like Audi and Renault, but also to the team backed by the incipient startup of EV Faraday Future. Formula E is not the most famous car sport in the world, but it is undoubtedly the first fully electric series. And since Jaguar is one of the first companies in the series that now tries to sell an EV, finishing the last one is a bad image.
Piquet Jr. won the first driver's title of Formula E
In the off-season, Jaguar Racing cut ties with one of its drivers and replaced it with season one champion, Nelson Piquet Jr. The son of a three-time F1 champion, Piquet Jr., is a rider of all trades in the world of racing. , having competed in everything from F1 to several levels of NASCAR. He has been in Formula E since its inception, and is considered one of its most knowledgeable drivers, especially when it comes to understanding the delicate balance that the fast driving series demands without running out of battery.
The movement has worked so far; Piquet Jr. finished in the top five in three of the first six races of the season, and Jaguar was third in the search for the team's trophy when he unveiled the I-Pace earlier this year.
Since then, the team has dropped to fourth place, although Piquet Jr.'s teammate Mitch Evans is strong, and there is still one half of the racing season left. Even so, many eyes are already focused on December. Season five begins then, and with it comes a completely redesigned race car. This new car will be faster, it will last twice as long (which means there will be no more mid-race car exchanges, the current solution to the limitations of the Formula E battery), and it is simply shocking to the eye .
In March, Piquet Jr. and the Jaguar Racing team had their first opportunity to test Jaguar's season five car, called I-Type 3, at the Monteblanco Circuit in southern Spain. There, Piquet Jr. selected about 450 kilometers (or approximately 100 laps) of driving during the two days of testing. It's a good start, but when I met him last month on the 15th floor of the Mondrian Hotel in Manhattan, he tells me that they only got 30 percent of what the team thinks he is capable of doing. Because of that, he says, there's still a lot to learn about the car and how the series will change or not.
"There's a shit that can go wrong, because it's the first time that all the components [those] are together."
"All the electrical equipment, all the sensors that talk to each other, all the pumps that are going to work together, we have more than 200 sensors in the car that read all kinds of different information about temperatures, pressures, everything you can imagine And to do all this work, it only takes a while, "says Piquet Jr. Then he expresses it more directly:" there is shit that can go wrong, because it is the first time that all the components [those] are together " .
Despite that, Piquet Jr. says that the Jaguar Racing team passed the first test without "big dramas". It's good news, but it's not exactly the most exciting work week. "For the driver, it's a bit, it's not boring, but it does not happen a lot, you know, he's going out physically on the track for a lap, look, two laps, look again," he explains. "When it starts to be interesting for the driver, it's when the car really is [ready]."
However, that will not happen until later this year. Overall, Piquet Jr. had less to say about the differences of the new car than Felix Rosenqvist, one of his counterparts at Mahindra Racing, with whom I also spoke recently last month after the first big group test. Of course, Piquet Jr. admits that the car will be faster and that the aerodynamics and tires will be different. The gaps between the teams can be a little more noticeable, since it is likely that those with more resources are more advanced and, therefore, faster. But beyond that, he is not yet ready to make many judgments. This first test was more, "This is the first time the car is sitting on the floor, let's see what it does when it rolls," he says.
In another contrast, Piquet Jr. says he is not even really impressed by how wild the car looks. "I've driven so many cars in my life, what does the car look like? I do not really care. I care more about how it works, or how the competition will be when we're all together," he says bluntly. "I've driven the ugliest cars in the world, like NASCAR, and the most beautiful cars in the world, like F1 or Formula E. It's about competition, about how much fun it is to drive and compete with each other. important part, that's what I expect. "
When I ask him if the new car reminds him of one of the many cars he drives, he finally laughs. "It's similar to Formula E, the old Formula E car."
"I've driven the ugliest cars in the world."
Piquet Jr. was euphoric when he won his first Formula E race at Long Beach in 2015 (the same place where his father won his first F1 Grand Prix). And he was crying when he took the championship of season one in a surprise of an ending. But it can often seem uncoupled, and the time he spent in other motor sports has made it easy for some to believe he would leave the ship.
The pressure to leave was there from the beginning, according to Piquet Jr. "When I left as [Red Bull Global] Rallycross for this, and other series for this, people said that Formula E will not last, you better be careful , you're leaving something safe here for this & # 39; "he says. "I received many of these comments from different promoters or different teams, and yes, everything could fail, but if it took off, it would be bigger than everything else, so I decided to put my foot here, and stay here, and it seems to be working." .
What Jaguar Racing has in Piquet Jr. is more than a contender. They have someone who dreams and is excited to make the team better. It may seem distant – I keep a vivid picture of him standing still against a fence, his head wrapped in noise-canceling headphones, in the midst of pre-race celebrations before one of the races in Brooklyn last summer – that everything falls when he catches him talking about the details of his work.
One of the things that occupies much of his time as a driver in the series is also something he is passionate about: working with the team in the automotive software. As an example, Piquet Jr. described part of the work done in the advanced software that makes the car use the battery in the most efficient way possible.
"In Formula E, it's not about speed, it's about efficiency, we're always trying to drive in the most efficient way, but there are many different factors: the temperature of the battery, or the apex of the corners, which sometimes they change during the race, "he explains.
If something changes – the buildup of rubber, the temperature of the track – to make a slower or faster curve over the course of a race, even for as little as possible, that could move the optimal location where the driver should lift the Accelerator when entering, says. That in turn could theoretically change the optimal lift points for each other turn, too.
Add all that and it could be the difference between having enough battery to try to pass the guy to the front at the end of the race. "There are all these little things with nothing, but at the end of the day you need everything small to be ahead [the other teams]. Then you must try everything," says Piquet Jr.
The trick is to notice these details and transmit them back to the team. Even with all the sensors in these cars, it is still up to the drivers to translate these things to the engineers since they are not the only ones on the race track. Engineers can then work that information into their modeling, and the software that is placed in the car to manage the battery can account for these things next time.
"We try to be as close as possible to [the engineers] and try to talk to them as much as we can, make them understand, because it is very difficult for a man who designs the code, for him to be in the driver's place, to imagine what we are thinking , what we are needing, what is going through our minds, "says Piquet Jr." We have to try to explain the best we can, and make him feel what we are going through during the race. "
In a way, it's not that different from what racing drivers have done since the beginning of the race: tell the crew what feels good, what does not, and make a change. But as Piquet Jr. says, trying to be efficient while fast also adds a layer of complexity. And it presents a flowering of variables. The result is that the best drivers in Formula E are those who are deeply familiar with how cars work, as they notice these subtleties and are equipped to translate them.
In other words, to win in Formula E, you must talk Formula E. And Piquet Jr. is demonstrably fluent.
The best drivers in Formula E are those who are deeply familiar with the way cars work
"Developing software is complicated because it's endless, the sky is the limit with the software, you know, there's no way to stop it," says Piquet Jr., who is now on a roll. "The more you work on it, the more you explain to software designers or developers, the more you make them understand what you want, what you think there could be, and there is not always a right way to go. you do things that do not work, and you crawl back and try a different direction, but it's a continuous development that never stops. "
Piquet Jr. and Panasonic Jaguar Racing have, for now, their eyes on the fourth season, which continues on April 14 with a race through the streets of Rome, Italy. Season five and all its possibilities are back on the horizon. It is still far enough away so that no one knows exactly how much change it will bring; We could see new race formats, or new ideas for pit stops, or pilots could have creative ways to use the additional power of the car.
As for what Piquet Jr. wants, the answer is not surprising. "We need to have more races," he says. Want 15 rounds per season, at least an increase of at least three for the current schedule. This comes from a man who just came out of a test for next season, and after our conversation he went to Brazil to participate in a stock car race before the next round of Formula E. It's a rare kind of devotion, and It has to be music to Jaguar's ears.