Drones, drivers and 200mph

At the launch of Andretti’s partnership with Amlin, team owner Michael Andretti talks to Current E editor Ross Ringham about technology, testing and title ambitions.

The view from Floor 45 of the Leadenhall building (commonly known as the “Cheesegrater”) over London on a cloudy Thursday morning is phenomenal. Tower Bridge and the Tower of London are clearly visible many, many metres below the floor we’re standing on. They look like tiny plastic toys through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that encircle us. The new home of insurance giant Amlin is not a place to be if you don’t like heights.

Michael Andretti might have ambitions lofty enough to match the views, having landed Amlin as the Andretti Formula E team’s headline sponsor from season two onwards, but he’s also particularly down to earth. Mild mannered, softly spoken and dressed in a dark suit, the team owner looks at home sat at Amlin’s gleaming boardroom table, almost as if he’s an insurance man himself rather than a former racing driver from a family of racing drivers. Until you look into his eyes. There, you can still see a sense of rushing towards the horizon, a feeling of energy and excitement just behind the calm exterior.

A new powertrain from a new technology division is responsible for much of that excitement. “We believe our powertrain is a lot more efficient,” Andretti says. He’s a man who doesn’t use more words than he needs to, but one who makes every word count. “The efficiency is a lot better. We’re really excited about it.”

Andretti’s season two powertrain comes with a gearbox courtesy of Hewland and a motor developed in conjunction with Houston Mechatronics, a company that has its roots in space: “They helped develop the motors for lunar vehicles and worked with NASA.”

Developed with almost obsessive attention to detail, Andretti’s new powertrain offers the company much more than just a shot at the electric racing title.

“We’ve designed a new motor and inverter but there’s a lot more here than just a racing motor,” he says. “Racing pushes the development quicker but we feel the technology we’re developing here will be usable in a lot of other things – like drones.”

The skies aren’t the short-term objective however. First, the team needs to get its new powertrain working. “We have a whole new back end,” says Andretti. “We’ve had some minor teething problems with the motors talking to the ECU but hopefully we’ll get some good miles at Donington Park. “

Once the gremlins are sorted, Andretti is confident that the new generation of powertrains will put this year’s offering in the shade. That could spell bad news for Team Aguri, the only team to stick with the existing powertrain in season two: “They may look like heroes the first few races because other teams may have problems – but once those things are figured out, they’re going to be left in the dust.”

Andretti has three powertrains built already, with the goal of having six ready in time for the start of the season in October. At Donington Park, we can only expect to see two cars running however: one per driver.

Season one was a mixed bag for the American team. There were glimpses of brilliance (a podium in the first race; a pole position and very nearly a win in the third on Jean-Eric Vergne’s debut; that exhilarating fight to the finish in Miami for Speed) but battery temperature issues dogged the team and a carousel of drivers hampered continuity.

“We learned a ton of things,” Andretti admits. “There’s a lot of things we knew we were going to have to fix that we didn’t want to do in-season. Some of that is people issues, some of it is the way we do things. That’s why we decided to experiment in the first year, to figure out how to make ourselves better for next year. We have a new set up and some new people, especially in engineering. We’re going to have a really strong line up. Hopefully we won’t have the same overheating issues with the powertrain being more efficient. We’ll be a very different team next year.”

The team will also take a different approach to the revolving list of drivers, settling instead on two permanent fixtures. “We always wanted to have one car that was the mainstay,” Andretti explains. “That was supposed to be Franck but then JEV came in for the rest of the year. The other car, we were going to bring in other drivers to get some experience, evaluate them. From that standpoint it went to plan. We have a different philosophy for next year. We want to go for the championship and we need stability in the team with the drivers.”

Swiss driver Simona de Silvestro, who drove for the team in London, has been signed for the second season. While Vergne has been reported to be the team’s other driver, Andretti simply says: “We don’t have JEV yet. We’re not ready to announce our second driver.”

American driver Scott Speed, who had such blistering performance in Miami, could be in contention for the seat. “Scott did a very good job,” Andretti says. “We really like him. He does a great job in global rallycross. We’ll just have to look at the schedules for next year and see how many conflicts there would be.”

The Amlin sponsorship deal is big news. It brings an influx of cash, which will help the team secure the stability it needs. The deal brings more than just greenbacks, however. Amlin proved particularly adept at social media marketing in season one (a critical factor in Formula E’s Fanboost feature) when the company was the title sponsor of the Aguri team.

Little is known about the breakdown of that relationship, but Andretti is keen to point out there was no underhanded dealing going on. “They approached us,” he explains. “We said we’re interested but didn’t want to get in the way. We don’t steal sponsors. But the more we talked, the more excited we got because of the way they activate. You know they’re really behind it and they’re trying to make it work. If they’re doing that, they’re going to get results. A lot of companies don’t understand that. They think if they put their name on the car, everything is going to happen. These guys get it.”

The American team boss has been impressed at the development of the series so far and is convinced that great things lie ahead. “They get a Grade A for what has been done,” he says. “The quality of the drivers and teams gives the series real credibility. And you have to remember: these cars are babies. Five years from now, they could be doing 200mph and going twice as far. The technology is there if the rules open up.”

For now, however, Andretti is looking only as far ahead as next week. “I hope the motor works properly. If it’s reliable, which it should be, we should be strong. After that, the main challenge for the season is the same challenge that we have every day: we go out there and try to beat our competitors. Hopefully we’ll win races, a lot of races. The championship is the goal. It’s going to be tough but I think we’re up to the challenge.”

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