The inaugural round of the FIA Formula E Championship gets underway this weekend, with a 20-driver field competing for outright honours in the world’s first all-electric racing championship.
The championship has managed to attract a number of high-profile manufacturers, technology providers and drivers, and there’s no better example than in the new Venturi GP team, which has the experienced duo of Nick Heidfeld and Stéphane Sarrazin in its line-up.
The pair were rivals in the International Formula 3000 championship in the late 1990s and today race in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
The team was founded by Venturi Automobiles, a leading player in electric sports car production and current holder of the world land speed record for an electric vehicle. The racing team is co-chaired by none other than Oscar-nominated actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
While Heidfeld’s lengthy 183 Grand Prix career – the second longest in history without a race win – is well-documented with stints at Prost, Sauber, Jordan, Williams, BMW Sauber and Renault, Sarrazin’s was considerably briefer.
The Frenchman made his sole Grand Prix appearance at the 1999 Brazilian Grand Prix for the Minardi team as a stand-in for the injured Luca Badoer. He showed impressive speed until he had an enormous accident mid-race. It was a travesty that he never graced the F1 grid again, although he continued as a test driver for Prost and Toyota before moving into rallying and endurance racing, enjoying successful stints in both disciplines.
We spoke exclusively with both Nick and Stéphane from the Beijing paddock ahead of this weekend’s kick-off race.
Can you tell us more about how the opportunity to join the Formula E Championship with Venturi GP came about?
Nick Heidfeld: To be honest, I wasn’t interested in the Formula E Championship when the idea was first being floated. As I came to learn more about, it started to become a little bit more interesting, and I received a number of approaches from the teams competing in this year’s championship. My decision to go with Venturi came about because one of Venturi’s senior engineers was the same person I worked closely with when I drove for the Williams F1 Team.
Stéphane Sarrazin: My relationship with the project began last December when [Venturi boss] Gildo Pastor first approached me and pitched the idea of an all-electric championship. I was immediately fascinated by the challenge and wanted to be a part of it. I was immediately excited.
The Formula E Championship will be revolutionary given its powertrain, technical regulations and racing format. What are you personally most looking forward to once the series gets underway?
SS: I’m excited about a number of things. I am returning to single-seater racing after a long time away. It’s an all-electric championship without a combustion engine. The first time I tested it, I was immediately impressed: by the car, the power, the grip, the engine.
NH: It’s difficult to know exactly what to expect and look forward to because it’s a brand new championship. I’m looking forward to getting back to single-seater racing and tackling brand new circuits. The technology that’s being showcased is also outstanding, and it will have a major benefit to the car industry in the coming years. One aspect over which I am sceptical is the FanBoost concept: while it does only give a brief power boost, to have it decided as a popularity contest does make it a gimmick.
How is the Formula E Championship best placed to attract a new audience of motorsport fans and convert existing motorsport fans to an all-electric championship?
SS: The FIA Formula E Championship will open new doors to a new audience. It’s all-new technology that will drive the future of the car industry. Look at how many manufacturers are making hybrid cars, while a few are even starting with electric car designs. People are starting to learn about electric cars, and when they can see that transformed into a racing car, I’m sure it will be exciting for many of them. The races will be exciting to watch, and to be part of the championship’s inaugural season is fantastic for me.
The championship is unique as well in the sense that it races only on temporary street circuits. How do these circuits differ in racing technique compared to purposebuilt circuits?
NH: Racing on the city streets brings a novelty and accessibility to new fans. They’ll be able to get right up and close with the action, and having the entire event on one day will give them plenty of action to take in.
SS: That the championship will take place entirely on street circuits makes it more of a challenge. There will be a lot of action, some overtaking and maybe the odd crash or two! That’s what the spectators are looking for: a close competition between highly experienced drivers in equally-matched cars on brand new circuits. Racing these cars will be a challenge and there will be a lot of thought involved, particularly when it comes to managing the power consumption and harvesting more energy to be stored and used. It will be very tactical; no one has any real experience with this, so you will see variations in speed as each car cycles through these different stages.
You’ve just come back from your first track walk around the Beijing Olympic Green circuit. What are your impressions of the layout?
SS: The track is really good, it’s very nice. There are some good corners and it’s a quality layout. It’s got some heavy braking zones and some chicanes that will keep things interesting for the race. Even though it’s a street circuit, the layout is very conducive to overtaking. I think you will see lots of passing during the race.
Has anything surprised you or exceeded your expectations in your first on-track running in the Formula E car at Donington?
SS: The weirdest thing for me is driving an open-wheel, open cockpit car at high speed and there’s very little noise. I wouldn’t call it surprising, but it’s something very different to get used to. I have been away from single-seater racing for a long time, but I did not find the transition back difficult at all. It has similar grip to other cars, there’s plenty of power and it’s fun to drive.
NH: I can’t say I came into the Formula E Championship with any specific expectations. It’s a brand new championship with never-before-tried technology, so it was really difficult to know what to expect. The pre-season testing has gone well overall and the cars are good to drive. Of course, there have been some teething issues, but it’s been very positive.
For both of you, your past experience in disciplines like Formula 1, touring cars and rallying – as well as your current duties in the World Endurance Championship – give you a versatility behind the wheel that many of today’s racing drivers do not get to enjoy. Should your peers in Formula 1 be given the opportunity to dovetail into other forms of racing?
NH: I was never afforded the opportunity to race in other championships during my time in Formula 1 – I doubt any team would want to take the risk, to be honest – and my post-F1 career has allowed me to race in categories like the V8 Supercars Championship and Porsche Supercup. You try to adapt quickly when you get in these cars for the first time, but it’s still a learning experience. I’m glad to be able to split my energy between endurance racing and to return to single-seaters.
SS: For sure! Personally, I love racing anything. I’m very fit, I’m motivated to win and I love driving and winning. I’m really lucky at the moment because I’m driving two amazing cars [the Venturi Formula E and Toyota’s LMP1 endurance racer], but I’ve also sampled other amazing cars in other series, such as rallying.
You were rivals in your Formula 3 and Formula 3000 days. How is your relationship today as teammates and what are your collective aims for the Formula E championship?
NH: I first raced against Stéphane when he joined the same team I was racing for at the Zandvoort Formula 3 Masters, and we raced against each other again in the International Formula 3000 championship.
SS: Our relationship is very different compared to many years ago. As teammates, we have to work together, although obviously each of us wants to be faster than the other. We both come from a endurance racing, where you’re sharing the garage with four or six other drivers and you’re all collectively working to support the team. We’re working well together to drive things forward, but of course we each want to beat each other.
Both being ex-Grand Prix drivers, are you ‘Team Lewis’ or ‘Team Nico’?
NH: If you asked me at the start of the season, I would definitely have said Lewis Hamilton was the champion-elect. He’s the quicker and more spectacular racer of the two. Nico, however, has been more consistent and he has rarely been affected by pressure when it’s been applied. Mercedes has easily the best car in the field and it’s allowed the two drivers to dominate, but the racing this year has been fantastic.
SS: A lot was made out of their recent get-together at Belgium, but we all understand that is a normal risk when you’re battling with your teammate. Next time out at Monza was fantastic: it was a straight, clean fight and it was very exciting to watch.
Images via FIA Formula E Championship and Venturi GP