Spark it up!

You know what? I’ve had a change of heart. In fact I’m now of the opinion that the advent of the now ABB-backed FIA Formula E championship (for electric cars) could well be the best thing that has happened to motorsport on the global stage since Bernie Ecclestone turning F1 from an amateur sport to a professional business.

Before my recent (as recent as last week in fact) Road to Damascus moment I was probably typical of most ‘petrolheads’ in that I couldn’t get my head around a car – and racing series built around it – that didn’t involve the internal combustion of petrol and air via spark and the explosive mix of noise, smell and general chattery mechanical awesomeness that comes with it.

Sorry, that’s not quite right. I obviously didn’t have a problem with electric motors when I built and raced slot cars as a kid. And I remember, when – again as a kid – I found out that the first vehicle Ferdinand Porsche designed and built (the Lohner-Porsche between 1998 and 1900) was effectively a petrol/electric hybrid with hub-mounted electric motors.

That one really got me thinking, because at the time (I must have been 10 or 11) I was fixated with making my trolley go faster and there had been a story in the Otago Daily Times about a kid being disqualified from what then was the biggest ‘trolley race’ (aka Soapbox Derby) in the world when post-event scrutineering revealed that his old man had (somehow) managed to incorporate electric motors into the wheels of the winning ‘Soapbox.’

‘Mmmmmm,” I remember thinking at the time…. “I wonder how that works………….”

Fast forward 40+ years and – in fact – I still don’t really have a problem with the use of electric motors in cars, motorcycles, lawn mowers, whatever. Bar range anxiety, the only real issue I have is with all the PR bullshit produced by a few coined up early adapters trying to foist their idea of a cleaner, greener and – lucrative no doubt to them – world onto the rest of us.

As I keep saying to anyone who (foolishly) says something inane like ‘but electric cars are better for the environment’ within ear shot of where I am sitting/standing/pretending to sleep.

“Sure I’ll buy and run one of your stinking electric vehicles when; 1) It can do a better job than an equivalent petrol or diesel-fuelled vehicle at greater convenience and less cost, and 2) there are electric utes, 4x4s, trucks etc (as well as the conventional cars which are all you can buy atm) and all the necessary infrastructure to support them.

In other words, not any time soon!

A global electric race series though? Particularly one focused, as the ABB-backed Formula E one is, on taking the racing to the people on converted street circuits, and one as contemporary in the way it ‘sells’ itself digitally (using the full gamut of social media channels and ‘influencers’) as existing categories appear stuck in their ‘analogue’ old media ways?

Yep, I’ll look at that.

Typically, of course, and as so often happens in situations like this, it wasn’t the actual ABB Formula E ‘single-seater’ car which prompted me to look at ‘the whole electric racing series thingie’ in a new light. No. It was luxury car maker Jaguar’s decision to create and run the eTrophy one-make support series for its new, fully-electric I-Pace SUV.

Or at least it was that decision AS WELL AS the fact that there would be a Kiwi – Simon Evans – in one when the inaugural series kicks off in Saudi Arabia in a month’s time.

Of course, Simon’s younger ‘bro, Mitch, has been part of the ‘main game’ (as one of two works drivers for the Panasonic-backed Jaguar squad) for the past two seasons and returns for a third one in 2018/19. So you could say I am a bit of a ‘Johnny-come-lately’ when it comes to ‘Liking’ the series.

In my defence all I will say is that I haven’t yet had the chance to talk to Mitch about the series, the car and what life is like as one of the world’ first ‘digital’ GP drivers.

What I did get the opportunity to do – at Supercar ace Scotty McLaughlin’s inaugural charity Grand Prix event at Hampton Downs last week – was congratulate Simon on ‘getting the I-Pace gig’ then bombarding the bugger – who I have known and reported on since he got his start in karts at seven or eight – with questions about the test day at Rockingham in the UK he had just returned from.

“But it’s an SUV so what does it actually drive and handle like?” was what I asked him first, and he was quick with his reply.

“Yeahhh,” he agreed, (about the SUV bit) “but to drive it is more like a GT3 car…..”

So far Simon is one of only six drivers and four teams confirmed for the opening round but Jaguar says that it has built 20 cars and envisages 10 teams running two each.

US Indycar squad Rahal Letterman Racing was the first to put its hand up, announcing it will run Bryan Sellers and Katherine Legge. Jaguar Brazil, a German team and an as-yet unnamed Asia-Pacific squad are the other teams confirmed for the series.

Though I have absolutely no proof to back up my thoughts on the subject, I’ve got a good feeling about the new, expanded two-category (single-seater main/’tin-top’ support) ABB Formula E/Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy series.

For instance, if a driver of the skill level/track record/support of Mitch Evans can’t make it to Formula 1 via the GP3/GP2 support class route I think us Kiwis really should abandon the Formula 1 dream.

Sure Brendon Hartley finally got there this year but with a team that has made it as obvious as the nose on Alain Prost’s face that they would have preferred someone else………….

Yet this is a guy who Mercedes-Benz insiders rate as one of the best they have ever worked with, and the powers that be at Porsche would have back like a shot, if he doesn’t get (or indeed want) another season at the so-called pinnacle of the ‘old’ sport.

Which neatly brings me back to Formula E and the ‘GT3-like’ Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy.

Like the ‘great-idea-but-ultimately-ill-fated’ A1GP series the ABB Formula E one has chosen to forge its own path, running a more ‘new-world’ friendly calendar between December one year and July the next at a mix of largely downtown street race venues.

Again, these are a mix of the old world – including European capitals like Paris, Berlin and Rome, and North and South Americas mega cities like New York, Mexico City and Santiago – and the new.

So new, in fact that I had to Google two, the venue for the opening round, Ad Diriyah (Saudi Arabia) and that of the sixth, the resort city of Sanya on the southern shores of the huge Chinese Island (who knew?) of Hainan.

If you’ve read this far you’ve probably realised that I’m heading somewhere with this column, so let me cut right to the chase. Living and working here we tend naturally to see the negative in the place. If the weather is not too cold it’s too hot. And if there’s nothing else for us to worry about the TV radio and what newspapers are left will whip us into a lather of stress and arguably needless worry about ‘the next house price/ sharemarket/tulip bulb crash.’

Looked at from afar, however, New Zealand is a veritable paradise with a benign climate, stable democratically-elected government, world-renown ability to produce racing drivers of rare ability and humility, and – this is the best bit for anyone involved in the Formula E scene – a virtually limitless supply of crisp, clean environmentally-friendly hydro-electrically and/or wind farm-generated electricity.

Is it any wonder them that powers with abilities and contacts far greater than mine are, apparently, working so hard on bringing the ABB Formula E series here.

Just imagine, for instance the Auckland summer of 2020/21.

With all the infrastructure in place for the 2021 Americas Cup defence in March 2021 in the Viaduct/Wynyard Quarter part of downtown Auckland, what better way to draw the eyes of the world to both Auckland and the event than the opening round of the 2020/21 ABB Formula E/Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy Championship series in late November or early December 2020?

Go on, close your eyes and picture yourself at the meeting. And imagine the buzz (sorry!) as top Kiwis (and by that stage category veterans) Mitch Evans in his Jaguar and the likes of Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber battle it out in Porsche’s no-doubt revolutionary single seaters in the main ABB Formula E game, while brothers like Simon Evans and William Bamber fly the Kiwi flag as high in the one-make Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy support class.

Emirates Team NZ boss Grant Dalton is as much into his motorcycles as he is his cars and yachts….so, as long as someone can come up with a quick and efficient way to cover the Armco and/or concrete walls with air fences, he might even be able to come up with a third tier of support classes races for electric motorcycles….which Kiwi IoM TT winner Bruce Anstey would – I imagine – be up for.

That’s not all either. If the inaugural Auckland event was a success you could cycle between it and another every other year.

Seeing as how it was the actual birthplace of our sport over 100 years ago now, Christchurch would be the obvious choice for a second NZ venue, with a temporary street course plotted out either through what for years was known simply as ‘the Red Zone’ or around Hagley Park.

You could also make a case, I would imagine, for a rare event on a purpose-built circuit, in this case at a gala high-summer (read Feb) meeting at Highlands Motorsport Park……just down the road from where much of New Zealand’s clean, green electricity is generated, the Mackenzie Country and the mighty Waitaki River.

It’d be a PR person’s dream!

Finally, people who have been to rounds say that the lack of any intake and exhaust noise is the only downer in terms of fan experience. But If the recent ITM SuperSprint meeting is anything to go by put a couple of Kiwis battling for line honours up front and the noise of the crowd would go a long way to make up for much of that.

Reckon I’m onto something? Or think I’m sparking up the wrong tree? Either way we would love your feedback.

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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