Whenever you make your debut in any sport, there’s always an extra bit of pressure that surrounds you. You try to give your absolute best during your very first outing. Things might work out for you or they might go downhill.
But if you have an experienced hand to guide you, the entire process becomes easier. That’s exactly what the Porsche Formula E (FE) team did when it appointed former Formula One (F1) driver Mark Webber as its brand ambassador for its inaugural season in the championship.
Australian great Webber, who won nine F1 Grands Prix with Red Bull and the FIA World Endurance Championship with Porsche, was happy with his team’s debut and spoke on several issues during the Diriyah ePrix.
What are Porsche’s expectations for this season?
We have a challenging task ahead. The attractive part of the championship is that if you have a tremendous budget that can help you, but you still have to be crafty, clever and have the right drivers, get everything together and get the results. Andre (Lotterer), in particular, is very motivated because he comes from the championship-winning team (DS Techeetah). He is, of course, helping the team in its journey to be patient and expect results later on. And Neel (Jani) is working well with him. That’s how drivers go about in motorsport and we will enjoy the journey with them.
Do you think it was a risk for Porsche to drop the successful Le Mans LMP1 programme to concentrate on FE?
I think the timing was very good for us. We were winning amid a lot of competition at Le Mans and we got a feeling that some of the manufacturers might be leaving. And the credibility of our success had to be judged. For us to continue in Le Mans wasn’t probably the best thing to do. We’ve proven ourselves. We showcased our hybrid technology and we had to go into the next toughest phase of electric racing, which is FE. We’re up against very experienced drivers. You can practise all you want, but every race is like an away match. In other categories, you can spend a lot of time on the track before the race, but in FE you need to be knowledgeable first to gain success because everything happens quickly — the practice, the qualification and the race. It’s a challenge, but I think Porsche has taken the right decision.
How do you think the public is responding to FE after five seasons?
It’s certainly getting more interesting. The teams and manufacturers are doing a great job with promotions. FE in itself must continue finding ways to showcase its product in a good way. That means through different TV and digital channels. The genre of people watching FE is slightly younger, you could say. Most of the races from last season were very good battles. And the race timing — 45 minutes — is like an appetizer and you don’t get bored. The characters of drivers are important because people have a resonance with them. And in FE, fans can easily communicate with the racers. The standard of driving is extremely hard and this is one of the toughest championships across the world. Margins are tight and the public would love it.
What are your thoughts on innovative regulations like Fan Boost and Attack Mode? Do you think these are necessary so that the championship doesn’t stagnate? Or are these risks?
When DRS (drag reduction system) was introduced in F1, a lot of people did make an outcry about that being artificial. But I like the Attack Mode here. I’ve spoken to some of the drivers. They have different opinions on it. You could go out and lose a lead or make up places with extra power. It’s a risk and could get frustrating for the racers if they don’t achieve their goals. But Attack Mode is like a gold mine in the race where the engineers and drivers need to work out when to use it, whether it’s during offence or defence. The driver can’t make any rash decisions when the boost is on. For me, Fan Boost is slightly repelling. I have nothing against the fans and fan engagement is important. But, say, a guy like Felipe Massa who has a huge following will always have an extra advantage over most others. However, I think it’ll evolve in due course.
(In Attack Mode, drivers are entitled to additional power by driving through a specified area on the circuit. However, it can’t be activated during safety car periods. Fan Boost is awarded to drivers based on the results of a poll that begins six days before the ePrix and ends after the opening 15 minutes of the main race. The five drivers with the most votes get an additional boost, which they can use during the second half of the race.)
There were nine different race winners in FE last season. What makes electric racing championship this competitive?
In FE, the competitiveness is mainly due to how the qualification works. The higher you are in the championship table, the earlier you go in during qualifying. So you are going to see the favourites on top of the standings being part of the first qualification group when the track is at its slowest. The track will be dusty early on and as the next group comes in, the track becomes faster. You might have situations where the top four guys in the standings can all start outside the top 10. This makes the race challenging.
How will the competitiveness of FE impact a mostly one-sided F1?
Of course in F1, only one or two teams are dominating right now. But still it’s big and the Brazil GP on the contrary was an entertainer. You never knew who was going to end up on the podium till the very end. However, the best drivers are always in the best equipment. We can talk about Lewis (Hamilton). He has made the whole scenario work for him and he’s a great driver. All the greats in sports have had a longer phase on top. It happens with tennis. You see Roger (Federer) and Rafa (Nadal). And that’s the case with F1. I don’t think FE’s results will necessarily impact F1. There might be a chance.
We’ve seen F1 drivers coming to FE. But can there be a transition the other way round?
I think (Alexander) Albon was close to doing that. He signed up for DAMS and almost raced in FE. But Toro Rosso came in and took him to F1 and now he is with Red Bull. We’ve seen a few guys coming to FE from F1, but we haven’t seen the other way round yet. Someone who is extremely extraordinary in the junior category could make it. FE has a chance to select the best junior guys. Ultimately, the driver goes through F2, F3 and he would want to land in F1. Now, with FE coming in as a parallel category which is highly regarded, the drivers have another choice. They are also paid reasonably well and they are getting recognition. Let’s see if we can get a guy capable of punching out the other way round in the next two years.
Should FE move to more flowing race tracks like F1 from street circuits sometime in the future?
I think it’d be nice at some point. Whenever you talk to the drivers about the opportunity to drive these cars in more flowing circuits, they enjoy it. I think by nature the street circuits also bring in an element of drama they also like. It’s because racing drivers like that element of risk. You don’t want to always ride on predictable circuits. Having one or two F1-like conventional tracks in the calendar in the future could interest the drivers, the teams and also the spectators because they’ll be watching the cars in a more natural environment.
Dominic Richard L. was in Riyadh on an invitation from Porsche.
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