Audi Formula E boss Allan McNish: I never thought we'd see full electric racing
The Scotsman talks the opening round of the season – and what the future holds for F1 and battery-powered race cars
Alex Goy is a freelance motoring journalist who writes for the likes of Motor1, Carfection, CNET and DriveTribe.
No matter where you race, and what series you're racing in, each circuit has its own quirks. Some have off camber corners, steep hills, lumps and bumps where you don’t expect them – all kinds of things can make a track stand out.
According to Allan McNish, Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler’s team principal, this year’s Formula E season opener in Saudi Arabia was tricky for a rather unexpected reason. “The biggest thing for us is it's a lot colder than expected, in one way. Last year, it rained like you wouldn't believe. It was a bit more like racing at Knock Hill than it was racing here…
"The biggest thing we're finding is the sand that's around everywhere. It's embedded into the tarmac, and so on Thursday when we did a shakedown we were 11 seconds off whatever the expected time for that was, because when we were driving around, it was just driving on top of the sand, which was zero grip.”
Unsurprisingly, zero grip is a bad thing when it comes to setting competitive times…
“In fact, Lucas [Di Grassi], as soon as he did his out lap, he said this is the lowest grip that he's ever driven in. Worse than our Le Mans sports car in the wet on slick tires. He said it was just incredible. Since then, the track has cleaned up. Just naturally with cars going over it, it cleans it up. But it's getting quicker and quicker every session.”
To help handling, the racers need tyres – but to keep the racing as equal as possible each team gets a limited amount of the same rubber. Come rain, shine, or… sand, the same shoes go on each corner of each competitor.
McNish continued: “Everyone's got exactly the same tyre. Those tyres are produced in one batch before the season starts. They're distributed as we go through the season. They're the same tire for even Riyadh. They're the same tire if it's wet, if it's dry, if it's 40 degrees Celsius, it's freezing cold on the ground.”
Another advantage of being permitted to use only two sets of tyres per race is logistics – you don’t have to lug tonnes of rubber around the world just in case it rains. Smart stuff.
In the end, Di Grassi mastered the sandy surface to take second place in the second on the two double-header races in Diriyah.
Will F1 ever go electric?
McNish is fully committed to Formula E, and the EV life (his company car is an e-Tron), but does he think the likes of F1 and Le Mans will run entirely on battery power in the years to come? Well… maybe.
“I don't think motor sport or the internal combustion engine is going to disappear, that's for sure. You know, there's still other championships, and it's still got its place. In five years time, there's still going to be internal combustion engines, but there is definitely a swing, there is no question.”
So it may happen, but perhaps not immediately. Thing is, McNish couldn’t have predicted an electric race series back in the day either. “If I take my crystal ball back to 2005, we had only ever raced with the petrol engine racing car since God was a boy, and in 2006, we went to Sebring with the turbo diesel for the first time and won.
"That was the first time an international race, in 2006, had been won by anything apart from an internal combustion petrol engine car. And then from there, 2012, we won Le Mans with a hybrid. Admittedly, it wasn't producing a heck of a lot of hybrid boost, but it was already a hybrid.
McNish celebrates with Audi driver Lucas Di Grassi after his win in the Zurich E-Prix in 2018
"By the end of 2015, we were nearly 50 per cent power from the engine and 50 per cent on the hybrid, and then one year later, went on to a full battery electric vehicle. So in 2005, would I ever have believed that I, 11 years later, was going to be involved in anything that was a full battery electric racing vehicle? No way.
"So what I'm saying is that rate of change is so quick at the moment, I'm not going to predict another 11 years down the line.”
What does the future hold for the sport? Who knows. Perhaps it’ll one day surpass Formula One as motorsport’s pinnacle. Maybe, sooner rather than later, we’ll be listening to the whine of EVs hurtling down the Mulsanne Straight. For now though, FE is looking forward. And cursing sandy tracks.
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