Jaguar was dead last in electric racing — until it found an EV whisperer

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Jaguar was dead last in electric racing — until it found an EV whisperer

Jaguar Land Rover is one of the first companies to follow Tesla into the premium tier of the nascent electric car market. As the company created its first EV, the I-Pace SUV, it went looking for ways to promote this new focus on a futuristic technology. One answer? Pull the company’s dormant motorsports program down from the shelf, dust it off, and enter the fully-electric racing series Formula E.

That decision got off to a bad start. Panasonic Jaguar Racing came home dead last in the manufacturer’s championship in the third season of Formula E, which ended last summer. The company’s renewed racing effort lost out to big names like Audi and Renault, but also to the team backed by flailing EV startup Faraday Future. Formula E isn’t the most famous motorsport in the world, but it’s certainly the premiere all-electric series. And since Jaguar’s one of the first companies in the series now trying to sell an EV, finishing last is a bad look.

So in the offseason Jaguar Racing cut ties with one of its drivers and replaced him with season one champion Nelson Piquet Jr. The son of a three-time F1 champion, Piquet Jr. is a jack-of-all-trades in the racing world, having competed in everything from F1 to various levels of NASCAR. He’s been in Formula E since its beginning, and is regarded as one of its more knowledgeable drivers — especially when it comes to understanding the delicate balance the series demands of driving fast without running out of battery.

The move has worked so far; Piquet Jr. finished inside the top 5 in three of the first six races of the season, and Jaguar was third in the hunt for the team trophy when it unveiled the I-Pace earlier this year.

The team has since slipped to fourth place, though Piquet Jr.’s teammate Mitch Evans is coming on strong, and there’s still a half-season of racing left. Still, many eyes are already focused on December. Season five starts then, and with it comes a totally redesigned racecar. This new car will be faster, last twice as long (meaning no more mid-race car swaps, the current workaround for Formula E’s battery limitations), and is simply striking to behold.

In March, Piquet Jr. and the Jaguar Racing team got their first chance to put Jaguar’s season five car, called the I-Type 3, to the test at the Monteblanco Circuit in the South of Spain. There, Piquet Jr. clicked off about 450 kilometers (or roughly 100 laps) of driving across two days of testing. It’s a good start, but when I meet him late last month on the 15th floor of the Mondrian hotel in Manhattan, he tells me they only got the car up to about 30 percent of what the team thinks it’s capable of. Because of that, he says, there’s still a lot to learn about the car and how it will — or won’t — change the series. (122) add

“All the electrical stuff, all the sensors speaking to each other, all the pumps that are going to be working together — we have over 200 sensors on the car reading all kinds of different information about temperatures, pressures, everything you could imagine. And to make all of this work it just takes a while,” Piquet Jr. says. He then puts it more bluntly: “there’s a shitload that can go wrong, because it’s the first time that all [those] components are together.”

Despite that, Piquet Jr. says the Jaguar Racing team got through the first test with “no major dramas.” That’s good news, but it doesn’t exactly make for the most exciting work week. “For the driver it’s a little bit, not boring, but not much goes on, you know? It’s more physically going out on the track for one lap, have a look, two laps, have another look,” he explains. “When it starts getting interesting for the driver is when the car is really [ready].”

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That won’t happen until later this year, though. Overall, Piquet Jr. had less to say about the differences of the new car than Felix Rosenqvist, one of his counterparts at Mahindra Racing, who I also recently spoke to last month after the first big group test. Sure, Piquet Jr. admits the car will be faster, and the aerodynamics and tires will be different. The gaps between teams might be a bit more noticeable, since the ones with the most resources are likely to be ahead in development and therefore faster out of the gate. But beyond that, he’s not ready to make too many judgements just yet. This first test was more, “This is the first time the car is sitting on the floor. Let’s see what it does when it rolls,” he says. (134) add

In another contrast, Piquet Jr. says he’s not even really that struck by how wild the car looks. “I’ve driven so many cars in my life, that how the car the looks? I don’t really care. I care more about how it performs, or how the competition is going to be when we’re all together,” he states matter-of-factly. “I’ve driven the ugliest cars in the world, like NASCAR, and the prettiest cars in the world, like F1 or Formula E. It’s all about the competition, how fun it is to drive and competing against each other. That’s that’s the important part. That’s what I look forward to.” (107) add

When I ask him whether the new car reminds him of any of those many cars he’s driven, he finally cracks a laugh. “It’s similar to Formula E, to the old Formula E car.”

Piquet Jr. was elated when he won his first Formula E race in Long Beach in 2015 (the same venue his father won his first F1 Grand Prix). And he was in tears when he took the season one championship in a shocker of a finale. But he can often come across as disengaged, and his time spent in other motorsports have made it easy for some to believe he would jump ship.

The pressure to leave was there from the beginning, according to Piquet Jr. “When I dropped like [Red Bull Global] Rallycross for this, and other series for this, people were like ‘Formula E’s not going to last, you’d better be careful, you’re dropping a sure thing over here for this,’” he says. “I had a lot of these kind of comments from different promoters or different teams. And yeah, everything, it could fail. But if it took off it would be bigger than everything else. So I decided to put my foot down over here, and stay here, and it seems to be working out.” (105) add

What Jaguar Racing has in Piquet Jr. is more than just a contender. They have someone who sounds devoted to, and excited about, making the team better. He might seem aloof — I maintain a vivid picture of him standing still against a fence, head wrapped in noise-canceling headphones, amid the pre-race celebrations before one of the races in Brooklyn last summer — that all falls away when you get him talking about the details of his job.

One of the things that takes up a lot of his time as a driver in the series is also something he’s clearly passionate about: working with the team on the car’s software. As an example, Piquet Jr. described some of the work that goes into the advanced software that makes the car use the battery in the most efficient way possible.

“In Formula E, it’s not about speed, it’s all about efficiency. We’re always trying to drive the most efficient way, but there’s so many different factors: the temperature of the battery, or the apex of the corners, which sometimes change during the race,” he explains.

If something changes — rubber buildup, track temperature — to make a corner slower or faster over the course of a race, even by just the smallest amount, that could move the optimal location where the driver should lift off the throttle on entry, he says. That in turn could theoretically change the optimal lift points for every other turn, too.

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Add all that up and it might be the difference between having enough battery power to try and pass the guy in front at the end of the race. “There’s all these little tiny nothing things, but at the end of the day you need every little thing to be ahead of [the other teams]. So you need to try everything,” Piquet Jr. says.

The trick is noticing these details and relaying them back to the team. Even with all the sensors on these cars, it’s still up to the drivers to translate these things to the engineers since they’re not the one out on the race track. The engineers can then work that information into their modeling, and the software that gets put into the car to manage the battery can account for these things the next time out.

“We try to be as close as we can to [the engineers], and try to speak to them as much as we can, make them understand. Because it’s very difficult for a guy that designs code, for him to be in the place of the driver, imagining what we’re thinking, what we’re needing, what’s going through our minds,” Piquet Jr. says. “We have to try to explain the best we can, and make him feel what we’re going through during the race.”

In some ways, it’s not all that different from what racecar drivers have done since the beginning of racing: tell the crew what feels right, what doesn’t, and make a change. But as Piquet Jr. says, trying to be efficient while also being fast adds a layer of complexity. And it introduces a bloom of variables. The result is the best drivers in Formula E are the ones who are deeply familiar with the way the cars work, since they notice these subtleties and are equipped to translate them.

In other words, to win in Formula E, you have to speak Formula E. And Piquet Jr. is demonstrably fluent.

“Developing software is a complicated thing because it’s endless. The sky’s the limit with software, you know? There’s no stopping it. No limit,” says Piquet Jr., now on a roll, going full car whisperer. “The more you work on it, the more you explain to the designers or the developers of the software, the more you make them understand what it is you want, what it is you think there could be. And there’s not always a right way to go. Sometimes you do stuff that doesn’t work, and you track back and try a different direction. But it’s an ongoing development that never stops.” (105) add

Piquet Jr. and Panasonic Jaguar Racing have, for now, set their sights back on season four, which continues on April 14th with a race through the streets of Rome, Italy. Season five and all its possibilities are back on the horizon. It’s still far enough away that no one knows exactly how much change it will bring; we could see new race formats, or new pit stop ideas, or the drivers might be given creative ways to use the car’s extra power.

As for what Piquet Jr. wants, the answer is no surprise. “We need to have more races,” he says. He wants 15 rounds per season, minimum — an increase of at least three to the current schedule. This coming from a man who had just left a test for next season, and after our conversation went to Brazil to squeeze in a stock car race before the next round of Formula E. It’s a rare kind of devotion, and it’s got to be music to Jaguar’s ears.

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