Nelson Piquet Jr. Keeps Faith In EV Racing, Despite Rough Season
He won the first-ever Formula E series in 2014-2015. He’s been racing since 2002 in a wide variety of series. And he thinks all-electric racing is just the thing to get young people into the sport. His name is Nelson Piquet Jr., and he recently spoke to InsideEVs about electric racing, Formula E’s Fanboost, and what it’s like to speed through city streets.
Piquet Jr. is currently in 9th place in the Formula E 2016-2017 season, the third so far. He’s not exactly happy about his position, but he’s confident that things will turn around. Here are some highlights from our conversation, if you’re a TL;DR kind of person:
- There are big things ahead for Formula E, given the number of new teams and locations.
- Fanboost is great, but only worth it when you’re at the top.
- Technological challenges around the world mean the FE fan experience still needs work.
- Even with all of the cool zero-emission stuff happening at a FE event, Piquet Jr. is there to win. That’s it.
Here’s our Q&A, lightly edited for clarity:
IEVs: You’ve been Formula E racing for quite a while, so you have a good perspective on its potential future and I’ve watched it as a reporter for a long time. I know there are a lot of teams that are turning away from other series to join this one and it had some new entries last year, as well. Where do you see Formula E in the next couple of years?
NPJ: We’re all hoping for it to grow. We’re all hoping to have more races, to have better venues. We’re all hoping for the best. I mean, it’s my career. I depend on it, so I’m hoping that it keeps growing. I’m a bit surprised this year it hasn’t, that we don’t have more venues than we did the first season, which is, we could say, a little bit worrying, but having all of these manufacturers involved, I’d be surprised if it doesn’t grow quicker. Maybe it’s taking a little bit longer than I expected, or even Formula E expected, but I have no doubt that it’s gonna grow. We have enough manufacturers involved, enough important people, teams, drivers, sponsors, for it to go forward.
IEVs: I think that’s a very similar idea to what lot of people say about electric vehicles in general. They’ve been on the market for seven, eight years now. They’re not as big or as popular as some of their fans would have hoped. But they’re growing and you can see the potential right around the corner. Do you think there’s a connection between the cars people buy, or want to buy, that are electrified and the racing, or do you see that as Formula E really appeals to people who like racing whether or not they drive an electric car, the race is the race is the race?
NPJ: Once Formula E’s big enough and once you have a bigger percentage of electric cars on the street, I’m sure that that’s gonna be the case. The thing is Formula E is not big enough yet, and electric cars are not big enough in the streets. I think that in five year’s time there’s gonna be a whole other story.
IEVs: How are you feeling so far about how you as a driver and your team are doing this year?
NPJ: Doing well. The second year was really tough for us. Honestly we have to change a lot of things for the third season, and we’re now facing the right direction and thinking through the loss. Helps us have a lot of room for improvement to win a championship again, but definitely we’re in the right direction.
IEVs: We’re in the phase of Formula E where teams can start tweaking their cars. As a driver, is it more fun in the early years where all the cars were the same, or do you like having a team that can give you a technological advantage or something different that other teams don’t have?
NPJ: From a driver’s point of view, when the car is the same, that’s a little bit better. But, no successful championship works that way. In every successful championship, manufacturers need to have their own technology and their own bits on the cars, otherwise there’s no point of the manufacturers being involved in the series.
IEVs: How closely do you work with your engineering teams? Is that something where they want your input, or do they just give you the car and say, “Tell us what you think”?
NPJ: It’s not really that simple. We have dozens of engineers and everybody working on different parts of the car. That’s why we hire engineers. Drivers are meant to drive and then you hire your technical people to do their own specialty. Obviously, we’re going to feed back things we’re feeling in the car, but apart from saying it’s not driving well or this or that, there’s nothing much else the driver can do.
IEVs: Okay, so it’s not a closed loop. You just take what they give you and tell them what you think, but then that’s kind of where that communication ends?
NPJ: You have people studying year round and developing new parts and new bits and you try to make the car more efficient. That’s how it works everywhere in motorsports. And, obviously when you put it on the track, there is the feedback from the driver. How does it feel? Does it feel good? It’s not like they were developing parts for the car 24/7 because you have until the first race to develop your bits from the last race of one season to the first race of the other season. And then once the season starts, you’re not allowed to develop anything anymore. You start working on the next year. It’s not like back in the ’80s where you hear a noise and the driver would say, “Yeah, the gearbox is doing this” or it’s the clutch or it’s the engine. Nowadays, you have many engineers involved around the cars, you have sensors around everywhere, it’s different way of working.
IEVs: Can you give me an example of things you’ve specifically been focusing on this year, you and the team, in tweaking the car as the season goes on?
NPJ: The only bit that the driver can influence the most is the development of software for the car. It’s something that’s there’s no stopping, because it’s not a hardware change. So that’s something we can evolve, as much as we can. There’s no limit to it, so the harder we work, the more we can get it working better.
IEVs: I know you’ve done a lot of non-electric vehicle racing as well. Is the software something that’s a little more specific to electric vehicles racing? Or are those sorts of advances also happening in gas-powered cars?
NPJ: That depends on what the regulation says. Some series have fixed software, and some a more open software. When you have open software, obviously you can tweak it and with Formula E using electric cars, there’s even more to work on when you have an open software. I’m sure F1 has some, but because it’s a combustion engine, there’s less to do on the software side and more to do on aero and engine development.
IEVs: What about other differences, not just with software, but in general, between Formula E races and the races that use fossil fuels, just on a broad scale, whether that be from the fans or the engine noise or the experience from the driver’s seat.
NPJ: First of all, we race on street circuits, so that already is a little bit different because we are naturally in the city centers that we race, which attracts people. But, yeah, the cars are very quiet, so obviously we are looking to attract a different demographic than the hard core race fans because the ones that are hard core race fans, they miss, a little bit, the sounds and those kind of things. We’re just different. We bring technology, we bring future into racing and it’s something that the younger generation is going to get. Maybe some of the older generation will understand, but most of the real race fans, it’s just different for them. We are going to attract new kids, maybe electronic, computer guys, people that are more into technology. I think it’s just a different kind of vibe of people that we’re going to attract in this sport.
IEVs: That makes a lot of sense to me. I was at the race in Long Beach and my friends who live in LA came and the husband, he’s big into racing. He’d been to many races. His wife wasn’t so much, but she came to Formula E, and they had their baby in a stroller, the baby was literally next to the track, behind the barrier obviously, but just right there, sleeping in his stroller. That’s something that could obviously not have happened at one of the races the dad goes to on his own.
NPJ: For sure. I think Formula E is not where it wants to be in terms of being able to deliver on the technology side of broadcasting. Being able to follow cars from a 360-degree camera, for instance, which is something that developers, I think, hoped to do, but we get to so many different countries that are not always developed 100% in terms of Internet or telecoms. That’s something that I’m sure Formula E is going to try to do differently from the other series, is trying to get the kids to watch it, and having the kids be able to play on their iPads or their iPhones and being able to go from car to car and see onboard cameras and different kinds of things. I know Formula E is trying to do it differently, it’s just a struggle a little bit right now because some of the countries we go to are pretty complicated to get these things done.
IEVs: What do you see as Formula E’s mission? On one side we have racers who are going to compete to be first, and on the other we want to promote electric cars, electric mobility, zero emissions, and an exciting future. Obviously the whole series is about both of those things. But from your perspective, do you approach it as just a race or do you approach it as this is a race plus all of this other stuff?
NPJ: You can’t have one without the other. We’re there to race, we’re there to win the race. But, the series itself, they’re there to promote what you said: new technology, and fewer emissions, and a cleaner world. But, in our case, we’re a race team, our only focus is to win races, nothing else.
IEVs: So from your perspective, it’s very similar to any other race series that you have participated in because you’re just there to do the best driving you can do.
NPJ: In terms of driver and team, definitely. It’s like any other team. We’re there to win races and beat everybody, no doubt.
IEVs: What are your feelings about Fanboost? Do you see it as an unfair advantage, or do you see it as a great thing to get the fans involved?
NPJ: I think it’s interesting because the fans are involved, but I just don’t think we have found the right algorithm yet to make it work properly. They’ve been tweaking it, going left and right a little bit here and there, but they haven’t found yet, in my opinion, the right formula to make it work as efficiently as it can. You get the fans more involved. I think we’re still missing a little bit of tweaking around to find the best solution.
IEVs: Is there anything that you do, or your team does, to really generate a lot of votes before a race, or do you just kinda let those chips fall where they may?
NPJ: We did that a little bit in the beginning of the first year when we were fighting for the championship. Because we’re not fighting now, we’re not wasting our time. Obviously, if we were up there and we needed to do everything possible to get an extra edge, yeah, we’d probably do more of an effort, but at the moment we’re totally focused on other things in the car that need our attention.
For more from Piquet Jr., you can follow him on Twitter or head to your local Formula E race.
Editor’s Note: Our parent company, Motorsport Network, owns a share in Formula E Holdings Limited, the commercial rights holder of the FIA Formula E Championship. This fact does not influence our independent editorial coverage of Formula E.